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Tom’s words

Escapades in etymology

By Tom Chatfield   August 2008

We could count before we could write. Tallies, scratched on to rocks and bones, date back more than 40,000 years, while later accounting systems may have evolved into the first true writing. But are numbers a language, a natural phenomenon or both?

Universality is part of numbers’ power. Yet there are countless variations in the ways cultures talk about them, from the trivial to the extreme. In the west, we express big numbers in groups of three decimal places: a thousand, a million, a billion. In Hindi, whose system derives from Sanskrit, numbers over a thousand are grouped by two…

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