Colin Joseph Dudley

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Why are our numerals the particular shapes that they are?

Here are our modern numerals: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9. We may be sure that they began as simple groups of marks, or even sticks: | || ||| |||| ||||| |||||| ||||||| |||||||| ||||||||| .

But one needs to count each one, and mistakes are very easy to make. But one day, someone, and one feels that is was one particular very smart person, had a bright idea. "Instead of arranging the marks or sticks in linear groups, arrange them in varying SHAPES":

numbers 1

No need to count. Simply recognise the shape. The 2 and 3 are set horizontal in order to avoid confusion with two or three ones. The four is quite different, a cross shape, and the five is an S shape. The six is one mark added to the five, and the seven is one mark added to the six. But to avoid confusing it with the six and seven is reversed. The eight is quite new but easily recognised, and the nine is one mark added to the eight.


But in years of use, particularly in handwritten work, two thinks happened. One was that any bits of the shapes that were unnecessary for recognition were omitted,

numbers 2


(So now we know why Europeans cross their sevens). The other change was that in writing quickly some of the marks joined up,

numbers 3

and corners became rounded off

numbers 4

All this would also have a bearing on why in old books the numerals differ in height:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Roman Numerals

But what about Roman numerals, which were universal in the Roman Empire, and remain in use today in many clock and watch faces, and in other instances such as chapter numbers and volume numbers in books, year numbers on films and videos?

The story would appear to be even older than that of the Arabic numerals. It begins with HAND SIGNS:

hand signs

As with the Arabic numeral, with the passing of time only the bits that were essental for recognition were maintained. The inessential bits were discarded:

Hand signs roman numerals





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