How Did the Present-day Numerals Derive Their Form?




BT.V. Antony Raj


Numbers (Source:

Numbers (Source:


A number in mathematics is an object used to count and measure. 1, 2, 3, and so forth are examples of natural numbers. In common usage, the term number may refer to a symbol, a word, or a mathematical abstraction.

The English names for the cardinal numbers were derived ultimately from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language, the supposed proto-language that existed anywhere between 4000 and 8000 years ago. PIE was the first proposed proto-language to be widely accepted by linguists. With time, the pronunciation shifted and changed.


Numeral Modern English Old English Proto-Germanic Proto-Indo-Germanic
1 one an ainaz oi-no
(originally meaning one, unique)originally meaning one, unique)
2 two twa twai duwo
3 three þ reoreoreoreo
(þ  here is the orthography for “th” as in “thing”)
thrijiz tris-
4 four feower petwor Kwetwer
5 five fif fimfe Penkwe-
6 six siex sekhs seks
7 seven seofon Sebum septm
8 eight eahta or æhta akhto Okto(u)-
9 nine nigen (the /g/ here is pronounced lije the y in “young”. Petwor- newn
10 ten ten tekhan dekm


A numeral is a notational symbol that represents a number. We use the Hindu-Arabic numerals 0 to 9 every day. But how did these Hindu-Arabic numerals derive their form? It is a puzzle to me.

Some folk etymologies have argued that the original forms of these symbols indicated their value through the number of angles they contained, but no evidence exists of any such origin.

Recently I came across a statement that elaborated on the folk etymologies. It said:

“Numbers were named after the number of angles they represented, and each angle represented a quantity. For example, the number one has one angle, number two has two angles and so on. They have to be written with straight lines (not curved).”

I found the following image on Facebook.


Numerals and angles
Numerals and angles


Many have copied and propagated this image – the concept of angles associated with numbers. One can find them on Facebook and on many websites, explaining that this is how the numerals obtained their values.

But this claim seems to be spurious like many other urban legends. For example, 0 (zero) would have four angles if it is written with straight lines like the other numerals. So, here lies the fallacy.

So, I am still in a quandary.

Are there any authentic, rational explanation for how the present form of the Hindu-Arabic numerals we use today was derived?





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