Today, most of us think of numbers as simply something we use to measure things or count money, and we associate them with the symbols 0123456789. The mathematical concepts that these symbols stand for, however, have an oddly universal quality.
You might be surprised to learn that the evolution of numbers from other written characters was very different. The Roman numerals, which were in use before our current system, were made up of “letters” combined to form numbers, so “VI” stands for six and “IX” for nine. Roman numerals were based on a system used by earlier Italians and Dalmatians that involved notching “tally sticks,” where the number of notches indicated the number, such as “III” meaning “three,” and even though they used roughly the same Latin characters as we do today, they evolved from that system. The important thing to remember is that they weren’t numerals in the modern sense.1
There are approximately 6,500 languages spoken worldwide, but there is only one language of math. Although some cultures use different symbols to represent numbers, the mathematical “ideas” those symbols stand for are universally known. There are logical rules that seem to be unique to this language. You cannot arbitrarily jump to 18 once you have counted to 16. The series needs 17, so that’s a necessity. Once you understand what 3 and + mean, you will be able to comprehend that 3+2=5.1
This necessity has led many philosophers and mathematicians to the conclusion that numbers are discovered rather than created. We are aware that numbers can be odd or even, but we are less aware of other properties, such as whether they are prime or compound, triangular, square, or circular, deficient, abundant, or perfect, familial, nuptial, friendly, narcissistic, or even transcendent.
Math and numbers are timeless and universal. The original mathematical textbook, Euclid’s Elements, which consists of 13 books and was written more than 2,000 years ago, is still relevant today. According to Augustine, one of the most influential Christian thinkers for over 1,000 years, “It is not in any man’s power to determine at his pleasure that three times three are not nine… Numbers have fixed laws…which the acuteness of men’s minds brings to light.”1
How About Numbers in Other Languages?
If numerals are the most universal of all characters, then Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and other languages should use the same numerals as well. You can be relieved that the numerals are widely understood in the Arabic-speaking world because numerate Arabs were among the first to popularize their use. However, you should exercise caution because older forms of the characters do still exist and are used in some areas of the pan-Arab world, though they are typically still related to the same family.2
You’ll be happy to know that Russian uses the same characters as all other European languages, including Greek. The older Chinese numeral system is still used by the Japanese, but Arabic characters are more commonly used.In essence, it is a complete set. Nothing wins universality by such a wide margin in another area of language.2 Numbers seem to be eternal constants in a world where everything is temporary, constantly changing, and subject to human interpretation. They are among Plato’s ideas of “eternal forms” that exist in a world that actually exists but we can only glimpse. The astrophysicist Carl Sagan predicted in the 20th century that aliens would use prime numbers to communicate with us. Since the dawn of human thought, we have used numbers as a symbolic language for thinking about the divine, the invisible, and the unknown.1
Therefore, it is safe to say that math is a universal language. The organization and symbols used to create equations are the same throughout the world. There is no simpler or more basic way to describe the universe than by using the fundamental concepts of equality and inequality. These concepts then lead to the idea of quantification, which in turn leads to the idea of value and numbers, and once we have numbers, the rest of math seems to spring up all around us.3 You can read more about the fascinating connection between math and the universe here. Also, you can read more such engaging articles on math at BYJU’S FutureSchool Blog.
- The Universal Language – Numbers and Meaning. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://numberphilosophy.com/the-universal-language/
- Numbers: The Most Universal Language Of Search. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://searchengineland.com/numbersthe-most-universal-language-of-search-51180
- Why Math is the “Language of the Universe:” (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://futurism.com/why-math-is-the-language-of-the-universe-2