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If Arabs read right-to-left, do they see "700" as "007"?

by Alex Yumashev · Updated Sep 10 2019

This post has nothing to do with tech nor startups. Today, while adding proper "right-to-left" support to our app UI (for Hebrew and Arabic languages) I got a little carried away and found myself discovering a lot about Aramaic languages and ancient numeric systems.

You know how it goes. One moment you search GitHub for a Grunt/Gulp-based "right-to-left" CSS processor, the next you're reading Wikipedia articles about ancient alphabets and numbers.

I love my ADHD.

Now, back to our question.

If Jews and Arabs read right-to-left, how come their numbers look the same? Wouldn't "700" look "007" to them?

No. It wouldn't. Because they read numbers from singles - to tens - to hundreds - etc. Biblical Hebrew literally reads the line "969 years" as "nine years and sixty years and nine hundred years".

It is actually us - Europeans - who read the numbers BACKWARDS! We adopted the Arabic numbers from the Arabs, but because we read from left to right - we kept reading the numbers our way - the wrong way. We go backwards - "X thousand, Y hundred, Z-nty"

"Wait, that can't be true!"

It is. In fact, some Europeans still pronounce numbers in an "Arabic" manner. For example, "twenty five" in German is "f├╝nfundzwanzig". Take a closer look, it's "f├╝nf und zwanzig", which is "five and twenty".

And the biggest advantage of Arabic numbers compared to Roman or Hebrew is they are a "positioned numeric system" - it provides a way to perform "per-digit" arithmetic operations. Remember that "column addition" we all learned in primary school? We do it from "right-to-left" don't we? Not just us - computers too.

"But wait, Arabic Numbers are actually Indian aren't they?"

My thoughts exactly. Glad you asked. This is where is gets even more interesting.

The Arabs did pass the numeric system to us - Europeans - and we mistakenly called it "arabic". But the Arabs had actually adopted their numbers from the Indians. And here's the crazy part: the Indians wrote "left to right", just like us. Does that break our theory? Quite contrary.

Ancient Indians wrote everything from left to right, including the numbers. They actually wrote "2019" as "9102" in Sanskrit. So when the Arabs adopted the numbers from Indians - they changed the order to fit their "right-to-left" writing, making it "2019" - the number we all are familiar with today.

Nerdy huh... Ok, where's that CSS compiler I was looking for...