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History of our numbers

History of Our Numbers

The history of our numbers is a very old story. It is not known with certainty how long ago humans began to use them, but what we can assure is that from the beginning man needed words to express quantities. Counting how many people were in a cave, expressing how far away the river was or taking some measurement… there was the same need to communicate using numbers as there is today.

People who have studied different languages ​​have found that everyone has some idea of ​​numbers even if it is just the words one and two in their vocabulary. In one tribe in Bolivia, there are no specific words to designate numbers except the word “solo” used to represent one. In languages ​​where only a few numbers are used, there is little or no need to express large quantities.

As there are no written records of when the language developed, it is impossible to know when the use of numbers began. We only know that from very early on numbers were needed to count. The variety of things used to count is endless: from sticks, pebbles, shells, fruits and knots on a rope, to the universal system of counting with the fingers. Another tribe, the Malays, used stones to represent quantities when the count exceeded what could be expressed with the fingers.

The Sumerians and Babylonians

The Sumerians and Babylonians

People spoke for many years before writing began. Likewise, many years passed before there were signs for numbers. The first documents on written numbers were made about 5000 years ago in the Asian valley of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. About 2,000 years later, the Sumerians, who lived in the same area, developed a numerical writing system known as cuneiform. Its use spread and was adapted by Babylonian merchants who used it for their commercial records. Using a stick with a triangle-shaped tip, the Babylonians made impressions on clay tablets that were then fired for preservation.

Egyptian numbers

Egyptian numbers

The ancient Egyptians lived in Africa, near the Nile River, and were also merchants and sellers who needed to keep records of their transactions. As they became very prosperous, they needed to write large numbers which caused the development of a system that extended into the millions. As for the symbols used, the Egyptians chose things from their environment to symbolize base ten number categories. While in our numerical system we read numbers from left to right, the symbols alternated from left to right on one line and from right to left on the next in the same way they plowed their fields.

Chinese numbers

Chinese numbers

The oldest known numbers were used by the Chinese and were later adapted by the Japanese. The system contains symbols for the numbers 1 to 9 and for tens, hundreds and thousands. The Chinese wrote vertically and read from top to bottom. In a number, the first symbol indicated the amount of the second symbol and the third symbol the amount of the fourth and so on.

Greek numbers

Greek numbers

Soon the Greeks developed a system using the first letters of the names of numbers as symbols. For example, 10 was called deka and in the Greek alphabet d is written with a Greek letter called delta, thus, 10 was symbolized by that letter.

There is an exception with the 5 symbol because it comes from an old name it had.
Another number system that was used in ancient Greece was alphabetical numbering. This system is based on giving values ​​to the letters of the alphabet. There are 24 letters in the classical Greek alphabet and these were used along with three older letters that have fallen into disuse.

Roman numerals

Roman numerals

The Romans used a similar system that is still used today for book chapters, centuries, etc. Some symbols meant the first letter of words to designate the number such as “C” which comes from the word hundred and means 100, and “M” which comes from the word thousand and symbolizes 1000. Others may have been derived from hand signs. For example, the “V” for 5 may have represented one hand with the thumb and index finger separated and the “X” for 10 may have symbolized two hands with the thumbs crossed like an x. The “D” for 500, may have evolved from half the form used for 1000 before “M” was used. The Roman method was used throughout Europe for accounting until the 18th century since it was simple for addition and subtraction problems.

There is an exception with the 5 symbol because it comes from an old name it had.
Another number system that was used in ancient Greece was alphabetical numbering. This system is based on giving values ​​to the letters of the alphabet. There are 24 letters in the classical Greek alphabet and these were used along with three older letters that have fallen into disuse.

Hindu numbers

Hindu numbers

The origins of our current system were started 1200 years ago by the Hindus. The Arabs, on their trading voyages through India, came across a book on arithmetic written by a Hindu and translated the system for their own use. The book eventually reached Europe and was translated into Latin. As it was written by hand and in its representation this system was more difficult to use than the Roman one, the system was not adopted quickly and therefore underwent considerable changes with the different handwritten copies that were made. Finally, in 1415, the printing press was invented, making it less easy to change symbols. With the increase in scientific work, it became a necessity for calculation than previously with accounting. A second contribution of the Hindu system is the introduction of zero.

Since the book that introduced these numbers to Europe came from Arabia, they are called Arabic numerals.

The symbol that has been constant through all time as it is today is the one used to designate the “1”. Although horizontal or vertical, all ancient peoples such as the Greeks and Romans had a symbol similar to ours. The symbols “2” and “3” also look like ours and may have resulted from quickly writing two or three bars that end up being connected.

Evolution of our numbers

Evolution of our numbers

Can you tell them the story of our numbers? Do you find it interesting that they know other numbers?

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