Every post in the blog is an original piece of work by the blogger. Do not use the pictures, posts on the blog without the consent of the blogger.

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by CopyscapeCreative Commons License
Aaditya and Me by Aditya Joshi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cognition of Numbers in Languages

Disclaimer: I do not claim that this is an original idea. This pattern perhaps must have been explored at some point in time in the past. As far as I am concerned, this is a self-made observation.

Note: I hold the Creative commons copyright for this blogpost.

I know at least thirty people (All of them Indians) who have this problem. (I am counting myself in this thirty.) The problem is being able to read numerals. Someone who did his / her schooling in the English medium finds it difficult to read the numbers in Hindi/Marathi and vice-versa. Here I explore why...

This is a subtle yet important difference in cognition of numbers in English and in Indian languages (Hindi / Marathi particularly). The difference may look very small but it is where lies the root of the problem I mentioned. I am sticking to two-digit numbers only since that is where the confusion generally lies.

Read this number in Hindi:

I would be happy if you read it as 'Ekyaasi' (Why happy? Because that is what it is supposed to read as. :-) )

Now read this in English ofcourse:

This is read as 'Eighty-one'.

Here's the difference, when you read 'Ekyaasi', your brain involuntarily reads 'Ek' (one - which is in the units place) first and then 'assi' (eight - in the tens place).

On the contrary, when you read 'Eighty-one', your brain identifies the 'eight' (of eighty - tens place) first and then one (units place).

So, if you are used to reading numbers in English, you will read the number intuitively from left-to-right (81 is 8 and 1 i.e. Eighty one). If you are used to reading numbers in Hindi, you will read it from right-to-left (81 is 1 and 8 i.e. ek-assi i.e. ekyaasi)

This left-to-right or right-to-left habit somewhere gets 'hard-wired' in our brain that we find it difficult to use an inverted technique to read numbers. Small habits can cause tiny problems, can't they?!


  1. Yes.. even I noticed this problem. Surprisingly, even in German you read the units place followed by tens place, just like in Hindi. Thus, 81 is read as einundachtzig (ein - one, und - and achtzig - eighty). Also in the course on Indian astronomy at IITB sir mentions that numbers are read in Sanskrit from the least significant digit to the most significant one, no matter how long they are.

  2. Very true. This question has intrigued me too often while thinking of inter-personal interactions.
    According to me, the concept mentioned by you forms the basis of what we call 'Accents'.

  3. As mentioned by Ashish already, samskrta reads the numerals starting from units place.
    So 11 is ekaa-dasha and 1947 is sapta-chatur-nava-eka.

    Is it because all the arithmatic is done starting from unit's place ??

    Also, you find many shlokas etc, where numbers are represented by an arithmatic expression containing a 'round figure' (10,100,1000, etc)
    for ex., aryabhatta uses chaturaadhikam-shatam-ashta-gunam ((4+100)*8) to give the number 832 in his sutra to calculate the value of PI. (value by this sutra is 3.1416, and aryabhatta was noble enough to mention in the sutra that this is only an approximate value).

    Moreover, all the 9-ending 2-digit numbers in samskrta are given in the 'one-less-than-' form.
    e.g. 19 = ekonavimshati = eka-una-vimshati = one less than twenty,
    49 = ekonapanchavimshati = eka-una-panchavimshati = one-less-than-fifty

    Same is followed in Marathi/Hindi/etc ekonavis/unnis, ekonapannas/unachhas, etc.

    Acchhaa, how do you tell the time if it's 4.45 in your watch ?
    paune-paanch, right ?
    In samskrta, it's paadona-pancha.
    This concept of 4 quarters (paada) and expressing fractions with them is also common for many Indian-languages.
    so 5.15 is sa-paada-pancha or savaa-paanch and 5.30 is saardha-pancha or saade-paanch

  4. wow this is interesting! :)
    well i m no expert but from wot i know, even in kannada the numbers are read from left-to-right i.e.
    81: yembatvandu (yembattu-eighty; vandu/ondhu-one)
    and though 9: ombhatthu is still read as one less than 10: hattu, the same is not followed for all the 9-ending 2-digit numbers.
    19: hatthombatthu (hatthu: ten and ombhatthu: nine)
    49: nalvatthombatthu (nalvatthu: forty and ombhatthu: nine)

  5. would like to add to what keepsaker says. Even malayalam, an indian language, is said to have roots in sanskrit. but it does not obey this "one-less-than" format for numbers. giving similar examples as above..

    81: embattuonnu (enbattu-eighty plus onnu-one)
    19: pattombatthu (patthu: ten plus ombatthu: nine)
    49: nalpattombatthu (nalpatthu: forty plus ombatthu:nine)

    BTW, 40: nalpatthu (nal: four MULTIPLIED patthu: ten)