Etruscan Origins of Roman Numerals
Date: 12/07/2003 at 19:27:27 From: Matthew Subject: Roman Numeral Origin I have been teaching my second graders Roman Numerals. When we got to L for fifty, they wanted to know what the L stood for. Is there some Latin word that means 'fifty' that begins with L? And while you're at it, how about V, X, L, C, and D?
Date: 12/08/2003 at 08:54:45 From: Doctor Peterson Subject: Re: Roman Numeral Origin Hi, Matthew. The origin of the symbols is not quite clear; it is believed that they come from earlier Etruscan numerals, and that even the "obvious" C and M don't really come from centum and mille (though they may be influenced by the words), but from other symbols. Here is one page (a link listed in our FAQ on the topic) that touches on the question: Roman Numerals: History and Use http://www.wilkiecollins.demon.co.uk/roman/intro.htm The history of Roman numerals is not well documented and written accounts are contradictory. It is likely that counting began on the fingers and that is why we count in tens. A single stroke I represents one finger, five or a handful could possibly be represented by V and the X may have been used because if you stretch out two handfuls of fingers and place them close the two little fingers cross in an X. Alternatively, an X is like two Vs, one upside down. Although the Latin for 100 is centum and for 1000 is mille, scholars generally do not think that C is 100 and M is 1000 because they are the initial letters of centum and mille. The use of D could be a representation of a C with a vertical line through it representing half. My own views is that M arose out of the use of () symbols to multiply by 1000. This theory is supported by the use of ( I ) for 1000 and I ) for 500. These could easily become corrupted or abbreviated into M or D which they resemble. This page shows how C, L, M, and D developed (see the picture there): The Latin Alphabet http://www.du.edu/~etuttle/classics/latalph.htm Some of the old letters dropped from the Greek alphabet were retained as numbers. The same thing happened in Latin with a few of the Etruscan letters that did not correspond to Latin sounds, as shown at the left. The number symbols evolved into the normal letters C, L, M and D in the course of time, though the symbol for 1000 was adapted for expressing larger powers of 10 by adding more forward and backward C's. It is said that the L came from the Etruscan chi, but it could just as well have been half of the C symbol, as the D comes from half of the M. All these number symbols represented abacus counter columns, together with the I, V and X, so that I, C and M need be repeated no more than four times, V, L, and D no more than twice, in specifying a number. The representation of large numbers and of fractions in Roman numerals or Greek numerals is a complicated subject. Roman numerals were used for business, Greek numerals for science. These pages show the Etruscan alphabet and numerals, which I can't copy here: Etruscan Language http://www.mysteriousetruscans.com/language.html Etruscan Alphabet http://www.omniglot.com/writing/etruscan.htm If you have any further questions, feel free to write back. - Doctor Peterson, The Math Forum http://mathforum.org/dr.math/
Search the Dr. Math Library:
Ask Dr. MathTM
© 1994-2015 The Math Forum