x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A numbers game

Observing life Rosemary Behan is learning Arabic, and it is the numbers that are really confusing her.

I've always been confused by the description of the numerals zero, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine as "Arabic". The term refers, of course, to the general mathematical system which involved the invention of the zero and the development of a decimal method based around these 10 numbers. I'm British so I grew up using the Latin characters as opposed to the eastern Arabic ones, which I can't reproduce here for lack of a font. This system was originally conceived by ancient Hindus and introduced to Europe via the Middle East in, fittingly, the tenth century.

As anyone who has tried learning Arabic will know, eastern Arabic numerals are quite different to Latin ones. For me, a westerner learning Arabic, getting a grasp of Arabic numerals is particularly elusive. Just as you've got your head around reading from right to left, you are told to read from left to right again. Yet the difficulty is caused more by perceived similarities than difference. Like so many Orientalists before me, I fall constantly into the trap of false recognition, of trying to find in the Arabic symbols a pattern which reflects the Latin characters, or vice-versa.

Alas, the numbers are a minefield, with resemblances that confuse and trip. The eastern Arabic number one looks like my number one and the nine looks just like my nine, but the two is like a backwards seven and the four a back-to-front three (ie, an E). The five is a zero and the six a seven; the zero is a dot. The three looks like my three, but it's horizontal and has a vertical tail. Even when I can identify all the symbols and say the numbers individually, long sequences still throw me. So ingrained are the Latin characters in my mind that a car number plate or phone number shown as 07770 reads just like that, not 56665.

Then there are the sheer number of syllables involving the numbers higher than 10. They seem to go on for ever. The word for 18, for example, thamaniashar, consists of about five syllables. The word eighteen seems so simple in contrast. Yet it's the visual confusion which is most problematic. As well as Latin characters, I'm seeing echoes of Roman ones. The Arabic seven looks like a Roman five and the eight looks like an upside down version. Although it lacks the benefit of decimalisation, there was a lot to be said for the Roman system. I think I could just about cope with the complexities of representing one, two and three as I, II and III.