Forty two. Bayalees. Same number, but yet so different

A number is a number, whatever language you may use.

Or so I used to think.

I was reading Malcolm Galdwell’s Outliers, where he discusses why the Chinese are better at maths.

In an idle moment, I started wondering about numbers in Indian languages. Forty two. Naapati erendu (in tamil). Bayalees (in Hindi). Betalees (in Gujarati).

And then the difference struck me. For those who know Hindi and English, try figuring out what’s the difference between forty two and bayalees.

Figured it out?

Forty two in English is written tens first and units last. Bayalees is the other way round. But Tamil gets the English order again – naapati (forty) erendu (two). Strange.

Why is it odd, you may ask. When we move to 142, English retains the order – hundreds is written first, tens second and units digit last. But its a mangled mess in Hindi and Gujarati. 142 in Hindi is ek sau bayalees – hundreds, units and then the tens digit. 142 in Tamil is nooti naapati erendu – same case as in English.

Hindi is a derivative of sanskrit, one of the most organized languages in terms of grammar and alphabet. Why this esoteric leap when it comes to numbers? Did the anient indian not know how to count beyond 100 when they designed names for numbers? Surely someone would have seen the flaw then….

And how does Tamil retain the number structure of English?considering the amount of influence Sanskrit has had on Tamil (linguistically minimal, but many of the prayers recited are in Sanskrit) there must have been some cross pollination in numbers. What do you think?


2 thoughts on “Forty two. Bayalees. Same number, but yet so different”

  1. How about 11-20. English appears to be units-ten, no? Like fourteen, fifteen, sixteen etc. But tamil remains ten-units. Like padhi naalu, padhinanju, padhinaaru.

    Kannada remains perfect for all numbers it seems. hundreds-tens-units.

    BTW have also heard “four and twenty” etc being used in some English classics.

    Ok those were just random observations. I’ve no clue about Sanskrit. But are the Sanskrit numbers’ names unstructured, I mean are we sure about that? Or is it an assumption based on Hindi?

    1. Hi Priya,

      Thanks for the comments. I know that English used four and twenty in classics. But that seems to be more of a means of referring to numbers than to do with actual mathematics.

      The 10-19 range in English is mighty confusing as well, and does not follow logic. I don’t see the reason why you need to learn *20* different numbers to start with when ten would do very well indeed. And strangely, this system is followed in Hindi as well – gyarah and barah have nothing to do with one and two. Tamil has the same anomaly – padhinonu is fine, but panandu is is not padhi erendu 😀

      Was just fascinated to see how the numbering structure grew, and how much of a constraint it is to logic (much like a lot of English grammar).

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