Monday, December 17, 2007

Numerology of Many Lands


This is a bad picture (sorry) of the part of our whiteboard at work where we post the numerals in all the languages we're working in. Numerals are really useful when you're working with newspapers: dates and pages can be ascertained and strange collocations corrected. When we work off of microfilm we come across problems caused by microfilming newspapers Western-style (left-to-right) when they were produced in another sequence (right-to-left, top-to-bottom).

Right under the familiar numbers there are the Chinese numbers up to twelve. As it happens, there is a second kind of number used for fancy. Holidays and other occasions requiring gussying up get a more elaborate number. Those are the second line. My student helper is having trouble remembering them, so as we come across them he writes them up. We're missing three to nine.

Beneath that I wrote the Hebrew numbers just so I could feel useful. Of course I had to write them left to right, to avoid confusion, although if the microfilm issue teaches us anything it's that there can always be unforeseen results of compromises that attempt to simplify language diversity.

Then we have the Arabic numerals. You know, I always thought our numbers were Arabic numerals. I mentioned this to the Arabic-reading staff person who I asked to help me, and she seemed bewildered by this idea. Since they bear no resemblance to each other, she can't imagine why we would call our numbers "Arabic." (But I did find this explanation for how they evolved from actual Arabic).

What makes our work a little more confusing is that the language of the newspapers we're digitizing is not Arabic but Urdu, a South Asian language written in the Arabic alphabet. There are apparently some numbers which are not written quite the same in Urdu, or not always, or perhaps they used to be different but now are standardized, or something of that nature. Googling up "Urdu numbers" did not give us the characters we were finding on the newspapers. Consultation with the unicode character set was more helpful: there are two Arabic number sequences, one called "Arabic" and the other called "Arabic-Indic". Even then, that number two is pretty strange. The only thing I can imagine, after checking my sources, is that it's a holdover from using the letter ba' (the second letter of the alphabet) for the number two. This was apparently an earlier numbering system, much like the Hebrew one. In Arabic the ba' points the opposite way the bet does in Hebrew, and could conceivably have led to that c-shaped number two. The stray characters below the line of Arabic numerals are the variations we've found for those numbers. Could it be that Urdu, too, has different numbers for special occasions?

As I contemplated this plethora of numbering systems, I found myself thinking about Passover. I could not figure this out as we are barely out of Hannukah and it is still a good while to go before the season of our liberation. Then I caught myself humming "Ekhad Mi Yodea," no doubt some sort of subconscious result of staring at the Hebrew numbers. Then I started thinking about "Green Grow the Rushes, O," which might itself be related to a Medieval Hebrew song. This led, naturally enough, to trying to remember the verses of "Red Fly the Banners, O" which I learned at the knees of my Communist grandparents. Of the web versions I could find, this one seems closest to what I recall (up to twelve: we were too polite to sing the anti-Trotskyist verses). However, for two we sang "two, two, the opposites, interpentrating, o" as they have here.

And that brought me back to the ba' and the bet, contraposed, both meaning "two." Opposites, interpenetrating.

9 comments:

the chocolate lady מרת שאקאלאד said...

How surpassingly cool this board is!

I took three years of college Chinese, and I never learned the fancy numbers that I recall. Oh wait, did I? (groping for the memory)I don't think so.

ps.

I had magosteens! also rosa apples, yellow dragon fruit, and a white pomegranate. Am licking my sticky fingers with delight. Funny to be encountering all this tropical lushness under forty centimetres of snow.

FJ said...

It seems as if the "fancy" numbers are the financial versions of the numbers. The regular numbers are very simple and can easily be altered to look like a larger number. I don't know which function came first, financial or fancy.

Of course we could just look up the numbers on the internet and write up on the board, but it is way more fun to come across them serendipitously.

Winnifred said...

I found dragon fruit disappointingly nothing much, but in a nasty kind of way. They're so flamboyant I thought they'd have an equally vivid taste, but it's bland with undertones of why am I eating this anyway. Really not much good, but fun to photograph.

LEJ said...

I believe what we got from Arabic numbers was the concept of Zero, not how the numbers look. And also each number being a discrete sign, not tied to each oterh they way Roman numerals are.

javier hernandez-miyares said...

fascinating post. as lej wrote, it is the concept of zero and place value which was revolutionary. the mayans developed a number system using zero and place value around 300 a.d., but the concept apparently was invented by the babylonians in 300 b.c.and the hindus began to use it in the fifth century. then the arabs adopted it and that's why i failed math.

ayesha said...

Really interesting! It seems like between the two sets on the bottom you have most of the Urdu numbers on the board... except for the 4 and 9.

FJ said...

Ayesha, are you saying there are variants for the 4 and 9 as well? We have not found them. Can you point me to them on the web perhaps?

ayesha said...

sure thing, you can scroll down to see the numbers here: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/urdu.htm

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