Every language in the world has its own quirks and funny little ways of expressing itself. Read more about how numbers are expressed in different languages around the world. We don't all count the same way ...

English-speakers are very used to the decimal numbering system. After all, we have ten fingers so no wonder we base our counting on groups of ten! But if you are familiar with the phrase "four score and seven years ago" then you would know that there are other ways of counting. A score is an old way of saying twenty, and remnants of this way of counting are still seen in French today. In French, the numbers from 70 to 99 are counted in units of twenty. Eighty is considered to be "four-twenties" (quatre-vingts) and ninety is "four-twenties-ten" (quatre-vingt-dix). However, in Switzerland you may hear huitante for 80 and nonante for 90, and in Belgium, septante and nonante are used for 70 and 90. Danish also counts by units of twenty from 50 to 99. For example, the Danish word for 60 is tres (short for tresindstyve) which means 3 times 20, and 80 is firs (short for firsindstyve) which means 4 times 20. Many other languages around the world also still use this vigesimal system (counting by twenty). In Welsh you can either count by twenties (preferred in Northern Wales) or by tens (preferred in Southern Wales). So 70 can be expressed as either deg ar thrigain (ten on three twenty) or saith deg (seven ten). |

Languages as diverse as Yoruba in West Africa, Georgian in the Caucasus, Basque in Europe, Nahuatl in Central America and the Ainu language in Japan still count by twenties.

Some languages count by fives as well as tens. This is called a biquinary system. In Khmer, six is constructed as 5 plus 1 (pram muəy), seven is 5 plus 2 (pram pii/pram peul) etc. Wolof from West Africa also counts like this. Roman numerals are written in a biquinary way, and Chinese and Japanese abacuses work based on a quinary system as well.

A truly quinary system, that is solely counting by fives, is found in the Australian Aboriginal Yolngu language of Gumatj. In this language, ten is expressed as marrma rulu (two five).

For true complexity, look no further than the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian sexagesimal (base 60) numeral system that counts by sixty. It originated with the ancient Sumerians in the 3rd millennium BC, it was passed down to the ancient Babylonians, and it is still used in scientific contexts, think of 60 minutes in an hour, sixty seconds to a minute. The traditional Chinese calendar is based on a cycle that counts by sixty.

Written numerals that are so familiar to us are known as Arabic numerals or Hindu-Arabic numerals. They were invented by two Indian mathematicians in the 5th century. Hindi numbers can be seen above. This system includes a value for zero which revolutionised mathematics. Up till then, systems similar to Roman numerals were in place but were very cumbersome to use. Compare the numbers 76 to LXXVI or 4969 to MMMMCMLXIX.

The numbers you can see above are numerals written in Arabic. Unlike Arabic letters and words, they are written from left to right. The dot is the zero. The circle is five. Other cultures use different ways of writing their numbers. Thai numbers can be seen directly below. Find out more about how numbers are written in non-Latin scripts around the world ...