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1, 2, 3, ... as Varied as Arabic, Roman, ... Yoruban?

Date: 10/08/2011 at 19:57:04
From: Kasey
Subject: Yoruba numerals

I need to find representations of the numerals used in the countries of
Yoruba and Kenya.

I know the number system is base 5, and I can find the word for each
number. But I need to see what each numeral physically looks like (1, 2,
3, 4, ...); and so far, my research has not turned up any leads.

Thank you, 

Date: 10/08/2011 at 23:08:11
From: Doctor Peterson
Subject: Re: Yoruba numerals

Hi, Kasey.

I don't know much about Yoruba personally, but I think I know the answer
to your question: their numerals probably look just like ours.

Here's what's going on: Languages are essentially spoken entities rather
than written ones. Most languages of the world do not have an indigenous
writing system at all; if they have one, it is one that was brought in
from elsewhere and adapted.

From what I've just read (e.g., on Wikipedia), it seems that Yoruba was
written in Arabic script from the 1600's, and in Roman script since the
1800's. Neither was invented by the Yoruba people on their own. (By the
way, Yoruba isn't a country, as I'm sure you knew, but rather a people in
Nigeria. And their numbers are a complex variation on base 20, not base
5.) So it would not surprise me if they have no written system of numbers
based on their own language. That probably explains why you (and I) can't
find any such thing.

When you read about Yoruba "numerals," you are reading about the SOUNDS
they vocalize for numbers, not the SYMBOLS they write, which is what we
think of when we say "numeral." But to a linguist, writing is an extra --
it is not an inherent part of the language -- and written numerals are
entirely outside the language.

Furthermore, there is not necessarily any direct connection between how
you say a number and how it is written. Reading about the vigesimal aspect
of their way of naming numbers reminds me of similar aspects in Latin and
French. In Latin, 18 is "duodeviginti," which means roughly "two from
twenty." In French, 90 is "quatre-vingt-dix" -- "four twenties ten." But
neither WRITES numbers in a vigesimal system. 

Notwithstanding the old-fashioned "score" (a rare instance of base twenty
in our numbers), even in English we pronounce some numbers in ways that
differ from how we write them:

   NUMBER: 12
     WORD: "twelve"
   ORIGIN: "two-left, i.e., in addition to ten"

   NUMBER: 13
     WORD: "thirteen"
   ORIGIN: "three-ten" [rather than "ten-three," 
                         as our writing would imply]
And so on.

So written numerals have no necessary connection to the spoken (or
written) language.

Now, if you happen to find Yoruba numerals somewhere that are not just
ordinary Arabic numerals (in either sense!), and that reflect their
vigesimal system, please let me know; but I won't be expecting it.

- Doctor Peterson, The Math Forum 
Associated Topics:
Middle School About Math
Middle School Number Sense/About Numbers

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