Culture: Oddities with Numbers from around the world



Traveling around the world, one often comes face-to-face with cultural differences in things that one may take for granted in one’s own culture. We grow up with certain ways of thinking which we tend to take as obvious universal truths, rather than obvious cultural constructs. Numbers and numerical systems are one such domain, which I am going to explore in this post.

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Indian numerals: Which number is this: 1,00,00,000? (no, it’s not a typo!)

When I ran my company in India, I had to adapt into thinking in Lakhs of Rupees for salaries and other financial transactions. So what is a Lakh?

A Lakh (written as 1,00,000) in the Indian Numbering System (which is based on the Vedic Numbering System) corresponds to the number 100,000. What is more intriguing is that after 99,999 a Lakh is used as a basis instead of Thousands. So, one says 1 Lakh 50 Thousand Rupees, written as 1,50,000. There is no “million”, instead this number is represented as 10 Lakhs, written as 10,00,000.

The next number that has its own unit and “name” is ten million (10,000,000), which in the Indian Numbering System is called 1 Crore, written as 1,00,00,000. So, one would say that the population of India is 128,00,00,000 (1,280,000,000 in our system) or One Hundred and Twenty Eight Crores.

This numbering system is also used in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

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Greek, Latin and Chinese: Myriads

A Myriad corresponds to the number 10,000 and it has been used as a unit in Greek (Myriad is a Greek word), Latin and Chinese. The use is similar to the one of Lakhs.

The Korean (Sino-Korean) and Japanese (Sino-Japanese) numeral systems follow the Chinese Numeral system and the large numbers are grouped in Myriads (10,000) rather than Thousands.

In modern Greek, Myriads are no longer used, instead we use Thousands, Millions and Billions. But the Myriads have “survived” in the names of these groupings, e.g.
Million = εκατομμύριο= Ekato-Myriads = Hundred Myriads

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French: Quatre-Vingts

The French language has one strange oddity regarding numbers: 80 = quatre-vingts = 4×20
The numbers 80 to 99 also use the Quatre-Vingts compound.

The origin of this oddity is Celtic and it is a representation in the Vigesimal system (base 20).

Notice 1

Some French-speaking places use a more “normal” or “expected” notation
80: huitante or octante
90: nonante

Notice 2: Surprisingly many countries/civilisations use 20 as a base!

In the Americas, the Inuit (Eskimo), Maya and Aztec number systems are Vigesimal.

Vigesimal systems also exist in Africa, e.g. in Yoruba and Asia.

In a number of European languages, Vigesimal is used as a basis for at least part of the numeral system. Wikipedia offers an extensive list.

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Wikipedia: Chinese Numerals
Wikipedia: Indian Numbering System
Wikipedia: Quatre-Vingts
Wikipedia: Myriad
Wikipedia: Vedic Numbering System
Wikipedia: Vigesimal
Wikipedia: Yoruba Numerals

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