Sunday, August 3, 2008

Arabic Numbers

Maybe this is a question more for my dad than my blog in general, but here goes. Why was I taught when I was little that the numbers we most commonly use in the United States are called Arabic numbers?

Our numbers look not much at all like Arabic numbers and yet, I grew up calling them Arabic numbers.

Yesterday, Amber and I did, what we thought, was an extremely easy addition assignment of 8+8 just so we could demonstrate how to use some note cards as manipulatives to report answers. When we asked the teachers to hold up their answers, some held up 16, because, well that’s the right answer and, they wrote it in numbers that are commonly used in English. Many others held up what looked like 17 because they used Arabic numbers and the Arabic 6 looks like a 7. So these teachers had the numbers right, but as Amber looked around she started commenting that “some of you have the right answer of 16, but for those groups that have 17…” and I stopped her before the translation to say, “No, wait! Those are Arabic numbers Amber.” It only took her a second to recognize immediately what I meant.

Whew! Potential misunderstanding averted and yet the story is not quite over.

As I was talking about the incident to my interpreter Hallid today, explaining that the numbers I grew up calling Arabic sure don’t look Arabic at all, he told me that they also call the numbers we commonly use Arabic numbers and they call their numbers “Indian numbers.”


There is either a fascinating numeric-linguistic explanation for this or he is just pulling my leg. I’m not ruling either one out yet.

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