A digit by any other name can be just as geeky

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2011/05/13 16:02 +02:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2011/05/13/10164195.aspx


Yesterday when I blogged It will take putting NADS out in front to make a difference, there were some unexpected consequences.

I happened to post a link to the Digit Shapes MSDN topic, and I got back an earful about issues with the topic.

Like the fact that it perhaps plays fast and loose with terminology.

Perhaps blaming an MSDN help topic for the problems here is a bit much though -- since the problems pre-date MSDN, Microsoft, computers, and even calculators by quite a piece!

When we look at the "ASCII digits" 0123456789 we are talking about a digit system that arose in India sometime between 500 B.C.E. and 500 C.E. It went from there to various Arabic mathematicians. Because of that they are usually referred to as Arabic or sometimes even Western Arabic or even Arabic-Indic or digits.

There is a choice bit of irony in ever thinking of these as Arabic-Indic digits (as some people do, based on where they came from), since meanwhile the folks who spoke Arabic and who were mathematicians were usually using the Eastern Arabic digits ٠١٢٣٤٥٦٧٨٩, often thought of as Hindi digits or Indian digits, though within Unicode known by their names as the Arabic-Indic digits.

Confused yet? :-)

Meanwhile through India there were other digit systems used that were none of these ones like the Devanagari digits ०१२३४५६७८९, where you can see some of the shapes of the European digits likely came from.

So in the Western world we use Arabic digits while in the Arab world they use Hindidigits while in India (arguably the birthplace of Hinduism) they use the Devanagari and other digits.

The names of many of these various digits obviously tend to be based on their source rather than where they sit now, while the source location kind of moved on elsewhere with their own numbers -- making the names feel almost like anachronisms, of a sort. Well, maybe not anachronisms in the conventional sense but certainly items [mis]named in a way that is akin to an anachronism (a chronological inconsistency) -- maybe a geographical inconsistency?

Probably it would be easier to simply include the digits the way I do above while putting the various names in quotes so as not to claim any one of them is right since they are all riddled with inconsistencies anyway.

Now there were other issues pointed out of a more technical nature than technicalities with the names of the digits, but I'll get into those problems another day....


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