Number Writing: All the Ways Humans Did It

I just used the fascinating Up-Goer Five Text Editor, named after this XKCD cartoon, to write an abstract of my book, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History, using only the ‘ten hundred’ most common words in the English language.  It was a bit of a challenge since I couldn’t use ‘history’, ‘numeral’, ‘system’, or ‘math’, but it seems to be pretty sensible and complete:

Number Writing: All the Ways Humans Did It

There are a lot of different ways to write numbers, but you can put them all into five types. Let’s look at about a hundred different ways that humans have written numbers. Some people think that over time, bad ways of writing numbers die and good ways live, so that the way we have now is the best one. But when we look at all the different ways together, we see that lots of ways that are now dead actually were used for hundreds of years. Were people just stupid back then, to use such a bad way of writing numbers? No, that is a stupid idea. The only way to know if a way of writing numbers is good is to see whether it is good for the things it was actually used for, not what people today think they were used for. It does matter how the human mind works, so there are lots of ways of writing numbers that you can imagine, but that no one has ever actually used. This is why there are only the five types, and this tells us a lot about the way that the mind works. And it’s true that some ways let you write big numbers with only a few signs, and others let you write bigger and bigger numbers. But that doesn’t matter as much as people think. As it turns out, most number writing was used to write down answers, but not to use numbers to figure out the answers. Only in the last five hundred years, when numbers were really important for big states that like money, did our way of writing numbers beat the others. One of the best ways to know if a way of writing numbers is going to live is whether lots of important people use it already.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

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