Vietnam, and counting through cultures

Last night I got an excellent opportunity to sample some vietnamese cuisine with Hoà (no, not chemistry - hoá, fire - hoả, danger - hiểm, or flower - hoa), but the other Fugacity modeler in U.M.'s green research group (oh, and her name does actually mean peace - hoà).

Besides the good eats, we watched a vietnamese film that is meant for American consumption, Three Seasons. It was excellently done both in cinematography as well as script. The movie follows the lives of 4 characters living in Saigon and how their lives play out through "three seasons", dry, rainy, and spring. I highly recommend it. It will make you feel (1) sad about the situation in urban vietnam, as well as many other countries that have struggling citizens, and (2) make you realize life isn't really about the nice clothes you have, your car, or where you live.

Since these was a mix of cultures = {american, hindi, vietnamese, taiwanese, phillipino, lived in/speak{europe, south america, japanese, china}} an odd topic of counting came up.

First, I learned a really cool new way to count more than 10 on your fingers. It *seems* simple, but wasn't apparent to me before. One can use their finger "segments" as individual numbers (rather than the whole finger = 1). using your thumb as the 'marker', this gives you 3 numbers for each 4 fingers (plus two on your thumb), for a total of 14 on one hand. Not too shabby!

Second, the construction of the names of higher-order numbers varies greatly between cultures:

  • English: 1-12 are unique, 13-19 add a 'teen', 20+ prepend a tens prefix, then the unique
  • Hindi & Urdu: 1-100 are unique (info)
  • Japanese: 1-10 are unique and beyone you speak the first digit, then the "magnitude", etc. (e.g. 45 = four-ten-five) Also, there are different names for numbers if you are in personal vs. business speak, or for cardinal counting (like roman numerals)

I wonder what effect one's numbering system has on their concept of numbers and math.

About this article

written on
posted in Travel Back to Top

About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.