The Story Behind The Birth Of Numbers​

Updated: April 10, 2021 by Elie in Stories

numbers numerals invention story zero
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Numbers are the very first thing that people tend to acquire when learning a language. However, many studies point out that numerals were among the last invented words of every independent and original language.

Before delving into learning numbers in French and how to count, this article provides more background about numeral systems for French learners and all curious minds.

In this article, we’ll cover the following questions:

Did numbers exist before we invented them?

Numerals either did not exist at all or must have existed in a rude and imperfect state.

Numerals were developed only after the development of indispensable words of a language.

What does this mean?

Well, this implies that many anumeric cultures (numberless), existed in the past, and some still exist until these days as the Munduruku and Pirahã cultures in Amazonia.

Instead of using words for precise quantities, many hunter-gatherers living in Amazonia rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some”.

Are numbers invented or discovered?

Humans invented numbers. Learning numbers is much like learning letters, it must be handed to children as a cognitive tool by parents, peers, and school teachers.

It is common that first, we struggle to grasp some concepts but consistency enables mastery and therefore we presume that perceiving the existence of numbers is a process that seems normal like a natural part of growing up but it is not.

What is the origin of zero?

Zero’s path to greatness was a rocky one.

There is an intriguing story behind the origin of the number zero.

Below is a brief summary of the birth of number zero extracted from “We couldn’t live without ‘zero’ – but we once had to“.

First, in India, its origin, where ‘nirvana’, the state of nothingness, was a great reason to invent a symbol for nothing. Moving then to South Asia, before zero crossed into the Middle East where it was championed by Arabic scholars. Finally reaching Europe where, in the beginning, it was banned in Florence in 1299.

In fact, the number zero was seen as a dangerous precedent that encourages fraud and a gateway to negative numbers (legitimizing the concept of debt and money lending).

Incredibly it wasn’t until the 15th Century that zero was finally accepted.

This allowed a series of inventions, starting with the basis of Cartesian co-ordinates by the French philosopher Descartes in the 17th Century.

If you’re curious about philosophy and mathematics, chances are you’ll like reading Zero — Invented or Discovered?

Are mathematical concepts “hardwired” into human brains?

In Numbers and the Making, the book author states that “Mathematical concepts are not wired into the human condition. They are learned, acquired through cultural and linguistic transmission. And if they are learned rather than inherited genetically, then it follows that they are not a component of the human mental hardware but are very much a part of our mental software—the feature of an app we ourselves have developed.

This is good news for life-long language learners!

How numbers reshaped our world?

Indeed, it is the invention of numbers that reshaped the human experience as we are living it today.

We use numbers to describe how pretty much anything changes.

We cannot imagine a world without dates and time.

Numbers are essential to remember to an anniversary, to memorize a phone number, or to think how many times a medication should be taken.

Our days are ruled by hours, and minutes.

Numbers are important when:

  • We say our age, when we tell time, and when we communicate our travel plans, etc.
  • We celebrate every New Year, numerous anniversaries, various festivals, and different birthdays.
  • We use numbers not only to communicate but to think, to memorize, and manipulate quantities.
  • We think about prices and numbers when buying anything.
  • We calculate our spendings, estimate our savings, and measure our professional success by looking at performance numbers and promotions.
  • We use numbers to manipulate quantities when we are following a recipe while cooking and when exercising at a gym.

Without the concept of number, none of these things would be possible. The truth is that almost no one could imagine a world without numbers.

numbers used in contexts of birthdays sales money dates
Numbers are omnipresent in our daily life

Numeral System

Numeral systems evolved differently across various languages and cultures.

The invention of numbers probably started with this ephemeral realization that there are five fingers on one hand.

This is why most of the world’s languages use base 10, base 20, or base 5 number systems.

For instance, English is a base-10 or decimal language, as evidenced by words like 14 (“four” + “10”) and 41 (“four” x “10” + “one”).

Why is the French number system different?

French numeral system is a partial vigesimal system.

French numbers use a base 20 pattern for numbers 69-99.

Elsewhere, the base 10 pattern is used.

For instance, 79 in French is soixante dix-neuf (60 + 10 + 9).

And this is one of the things that makes counting in French hard in particular when reaching numbers between 70-99.

There is no place for approximation!

As it is important to start with the basics, check out the many Master Your French guides to learn French.

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