Your Letters Are Numbered


Since I wrote a post about the development of the alphabet, I thought I’d also do one on numerals. For some cultures, they’re actually the same thing. Both Hebrew and Greek letters each had a numerical value, starting with the aleph or alpha being one, then after reaching ten going by multiples of ten, then one hundred. Tav, the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet, has the value of 400. The Greeks were able to get up to 900 by including a few letters that became obsolete in the actual language. As such, words could have values by adding up the letters, a process that took on mystical purposes in the Jewish system of Gematria. This is most likely the meaning of the Number of the Beast in Revelation, and it’s been mentioned that Nero’s name has the value of either 666 or 616, depending on how you transliterate it.


Anyone who has studied Roman numerals (which I think is everybody, at least if their elementary school was anything like mine) knows that the Romans also used letters for numbers, but here it wasn’t a case of the letters having numerical values. Rather, this system appears to come from the numerals used in Attica, some of which stood for whatever the word for the number was. That is to say five was pi for pente (obviously it hadn’t come to stand for the the circumference divided by the diameter of a circle at that point), ten delta for deka, one hundred eta for hekaton, and so on. The Romans used a bit of this themselves, with the numeral for one hundred being C for centum, and 1000 M for mille. On the other hand, the Latin word for fifty is quinquaginta, yet the Roman numeral is an L rather than a Q. It’s been speculated that the lower numerals are based on a tally system, hence a straight line represents one, and every fifth one has an extra mark added to it, making it look like a V. The X, meaning ten, is two V’s combined. That still leaves fifty and 500, but an L does sort of look like half a C and a D half an M, if you stretch things a bit. Apparently both additive and subtractive forms were used to represent some numbers, which is why you’ll usually see IV for four, but sometimes IIII as well.

I suppose the Romans never had a reason to write numbers over 5000; the method of putting a bar over a number to multiply it by 1000 didn’t come into being until the Middle Ages. That does make me wonder, though, because I know the Romans had censuses, which obviously would have meant working with much bigger numbers. The system of nine unique characters to represent the digits one through nine didn’t enter into Europe until much later, although it had been used in India for centuries. It then spread through Persia and the Middle East, and was called Arabic notation by the Europeans. The concept of zero as a number, as well as that of negative numbers, also came from India, albeit some time later.

Earlier systems just left a space or used a null symbol when they needed to indicate that a place was vacant. In the early thirteenth century, the mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci popularized the Hindu-Arabic system, including the zero, in Europe.

Of course, our culture here in the United States is very Eurocentric, but a good deal of European knowledge actually originated in Asia.

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