Major numeral systems


The question as to which came first, the numerals or the letters, was answered convincingly a century ago with the conclusion that the “use of visible signs to represent numbers and aid reckoning is not only older than writing, but older than the development of numerical language on the denary (decimal) system.”[1]


Two additional conclusions may be considered:


   1- A quinary system is older than a decimal system if proven to be a subsystem of the decimal system;

    2- A numeral alphabets preceded language alphabets, and indeed some numeral symbols may have been used to construct language scripts with or without prior knowledge of their original function. The consensus of researchers and historians of numbers is that among primitive tribes hands and fingers have been employed for the most common purposes of calculation since ancient times, as well as among the more cultivated nations to the present day.


The “hawa’i” calculus is known as the “calculus of the hand” and the numeral pictograms are known as the “hawa’i numerals”. Every concept related to this branch of calculation is given a distinctly Arabic name, and Jahiliah poetry and tradition attest to its ancient Arabian roots. Yet, we cannot exclude the possibility that unspecified elements of this calculus were known to the old South Arabians and others. One of the reasons is that both the South Arabian and Palmyrene numeral systems, like the Arabic system, appear to have been quinary at one point in their development, a characteristic shared by the three systems to the exclusion of all other numeric systems for which we have records of usage in the Middle East. In describing the numeral system as ‘Arabic’, we are not claiming it on behalf of Northern Arabs whose language is Arabic, but simply describing a universal system known by this name and, in the process, aiming to avoid confusion.


From the above passage, we may conclude that the simplicity of this finger and hand-based calculus made it possible for a relatively large number of ordinary people to use it. The numeral shapes are permanently present on their fingers and hands. There was no need to inscribe them lest they are forgotten. They are there on every hand. Not every letter can resemble a numeral shape. But creating literary alphabets came much later than creating a numeral alphabet, and it would be natural to think of the available numeral pictograms as one of the sources for the alphabets created at a later stage.  The people of the Maldives use the ten eastern Arabic numerals as letters in their unique alphabet.  Should we dismiss other nations from having done so in the past?


In The Story of the Alphabet, Otto F. Ege told us that our transition from barbarism to civilisation could be attributed to the alphabet. Those great prehistoric discoveries and inventions such as the making of fire, the use of tools, the wheel and the axle, and even our modern marvelous applications of steam and electricity pale into insignificance when compared to the power of the alphabet. “Simpler as it now appears after the accustomed use of ages, it can be accounted not only the most difficult, but also the most fruitful of all the achievements of the human intellect.”[2]


Very few are aware that there are seven thousand living languages in the world today, and it would be unrealistic to believe that only a few existed in the cradle of civilisation. Indeed, a certain unknown and crude alphabet may have predated all recorded languages. Ego’s brilliant summary of the story of civilisation through its alphabet suggests four stages in the development of scripts. The first involves “picture writing” by means of a picture or character suggesting a ‘thing’ or an ‘incident’. The next is a picture or character “symbolising” the ‘thing’ or ‘idea’. The third is to provide a picture or character representing the sound of the ‘thing’ or ‘idea’, and the fourth stage is the compilation of signs suggesting the various sounds of the alphabet.


If we imagine the Arabic numerals as the alphabet of a language, we will find that the first stage, ‘picture writing’ by means of a picture or character suggesting the ‘thing’ or an ‘incident’, was the last stage. Moreover, even this elementary first stage was not in fact completed because the ‘pictures’ of the numerals do not suggest the ‘thing’, but are themselves the ‘thing’. There was no need to go through the remaining three stages to make the numerical alphabet more expressive or idealised. If we were to imagine an alphabet or part of an alphabet built on these numeric ‘pictures’, only the last stage would be necessary, i.e., assigning sounds to the ‘things’. If we were to imagine an initial alphabet of ten shapes based on the ‘things’, adding more sounds as the need arises is a simple matter of ‘modifying’ the ‘things’ by means of reversing, flipping, rotating, shortening, lengthening, etc., to produce endless letterforms.


It is commonly believed that early written symbols were based on pictograms (also known as pictographs) and ideograms. These are the “picture writing” and “ideographic or symbolic writing” Ego identified. A pictogram, as everybody knows, is a symbol that portrays or represents an object or a concept by illustration. Because the original ‘things’ are larger than can be reproduced on stones and other surfaces, they are usually drawn smaller so that we have miniature pictures of the original ‘things’. The study of scripts led some experts to believe that pictograms appeared before ideograms, and they were used around 5000 BC by ancient cultures in different parts of the world including the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and certain parts of the Mediterranean.


The inscription (below, Fig. 19) on the sarcophagus of Esmunazar, king of Sidon (475-461) BC at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, contains four easily identifiable shapes that resemble Arabic numeral, 9, 3, 5, 8 (9, 3, 5, 8), which represent 40% of our numeric alphabet.





Numeral “3”, (above, Fiq, 20), appears to have three variations produced by reversing the numeral left to right ( ), flipping it vertically and cropping the top part. Numeral (9)  appears to have two variations produced by curving the tail, and by adding an extension to the circular line at the point it crosses the arched back. Thus, the four original shapes were modified to provide five additional forms for a total of nine characters. The original Canaanite alphabet is said to have comprised 16 characters.


Character shapes vary from one inscription to another and they evolve over time so some of the more recent shapes may appear very different from earlier ones. Keeping this in mind, a survey of various inscriptions and texts undertaken by Karl Faulmann (Das Buch der Schrift) from the texts available to him yielded a surprising number of shapes that look similar not just to eastern-style Arabic numerals but also to their western counterparts. If we add character-mining work undertaken by other researchers, we can identify many of the eastern and western-style Arabic numerals. Indeed, some Phoenician ascriptions may look like an arithmetic exercise.


The early Aramaic alphabet reflects its strong Canaanite roots. Extensive Aramaic inscriptions were found dating from the 10th century BC.


The 8th century BC silver ingot bearing the name of King Bar-Rakib son of Panammu II, the king of Sam'al (modern Zenjirli in Turkey). British Museum.



The orthography of the language in that early period was based on Canaanite and the unity between the scripts of the two languages is clear on comparison. Also clear in the inscription, read from right to left, the distinct shapes of the Arabic numerals 2  (2), the reversed Arabic numeral 2  which is similar to the Arabic letter د (d), numeral 9 (9) and its variants, and the reversed Arabic  3 ().


It is up to the reader to decide if the presence of all these numeral-shaped characters is circumstantial or whether many of the characters are representations of the pictograms of Arabic numerals or their modified shapes. Resolving the different varieties of letterforms to their primary forms appears to lead us to some of the pictograms of finger and hand formations. If we believe what we have been told by writers like Bowring, Gilchrist and others, it is possible that most characters in the early Phoenician and Aramaic alphabets could be derived from the ancient Arabian numeral pictograms.


Arab and Egyptian


Ancient Egyptian shares with ancient Arabian “triconsonantal roots, phemic-phonetic elements (such as the diversity of guttural sounds), feminine nouns and second-person verbal forms ending in –t, gemination (doubling) of the middle radical… similarities of the pronominal suffixes and the independent personal pronouns, performative elements (such as the S-causative and the N-reflexive), and many similarities in etymology.” [1] To all this must be added one of the main characteristics of languages related to the ancient mother tongue, i.e. the right-to-left writing and reading of Hieratic and Demotic and the ability to write and read hieroglyphic writing and numerals from right to left or horizontally.


Many of the clues to the origin of our numeral system are found in ancient Arabian, and the original meaning of the number “one” in some of the descendent languages of that great mother tongue is “finger”. How old the mother tongue of the ancient Arabians is, again we cannot say. What is commonly known and professed by experts, however, is that early written symbols were based on pictograms that appeared around 5000 BC in different parts of the world including the Arabian peninsula, Egypt and certain parts of the Mediterranean. Our numerals are often described as “symbols”, “glyphs”, “forms”, “ideograms”, and several other terms. However, they are not any of these. Except for the zero which doubles as an ideogram, every numeral in our system is a pictogram, one of the oldest forms of miniature drawings known to have been used by our ancestors several thousand years ago. The system we often describe as “modern” may turn out to be the oldest numeration system in history.


This may explain the familiar features of the Demotic alphabet as far as the eastern shape-numerals of many of the letters on the stone are concerned. The Demotic alphabet has more than 40 shapes with  variant forms for several letters, some of which are western-style numeral look-alikes. Additional letterforms would have been needed, and these would have been made available either by Arabians or by people in contact with them via Arabic numeral pictograms that were used as phonograms.


Like the Canaanites who knew themselves by no other name, “Demotic” to the Egyptians was an alien name of the popular language they identified as “sekh shat” (writing for documents). Most of these documents were concerned with trade and business in addition to the other fields for which languages are normally used. Literature, science, religion, etc., are all important topics that seek expression, but in the Middle East, the creation of literary and numeric scripts seems to go hand in hand with the creation of wealth derived mainly from trade. This was the case with the Phoenicians, South Arabians, Nabataeans, Palmyrenes, and Arabs. It is for these reasons that we thought it appropriate to include in this book a chapter about trade. Indeed, the Arabic numeric system is the creation of the marketplace in the same way that the system was taken to Europe by traders, not by scholars and scientists.


The last two comments in this chapter are as follows: If the Arabic numerals are ancient Arabian or Proto-Semitic as claimed, can we still call them “Arabic”? The answer is not difficult. Of all other dialects, Arabic is the most loyal daughter to a great mother tongue that we can only identify by matching its features on the faces of its daughters. Compared to Canaanite, Aramaic, Arabic, etc., very few Arabic numeral shapes are used in ancient Southern Arabian. This may suggest that the Arabic numerals were used mostly in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula where they were picked up and reused by Nabataeans and later by Arabs, whether via older Phoenician and Aramaic scripts, or by going straight for the pictographic source available on the fingers and hands of tribal Arabs.


The numeral pictograms are a marvel on their own, but the Arabic numeric system is primarily a cipher and positional system, and the concept of safr is as Arabic as you can get. The fact that Arabs described locusts empty of eggs as safr is not a reflection of their knowledge of biology, but of their want for sustenance, because they used to supplement their meagre diet with locusts. We presume they valued the eggs because without them, locusts were mere exoskeletons unworthy of a meal. Locusts are still collected but sold mostly as animal fodder, or so it is said.


To explain the source of the Arabic numeral forms in the Demotic script of the Rosetta stone, we found it necessary to refer to distinguished writers such as Breasted and Sir Alan to remind us of the extent of Semitic influence on Egypt throughout its long history. The presence of the ancient Arabian numeral pictograms and several manipulated variants in large quantity cannot be attributed to chance. We are forced, therefore, to conclude that these numeral shapes were essential constituents of the complex Demotic alphabet, upon which much light needs to be shone before we can understand how it came into existence, why and how the Arabic numeric language came to be incorporated into the alphabet, and at what stage and from which source.




If the Canaanites used some of the ancient Arabian numeral pictograms in their earliest alphabet or indeed at a later stage of its evolvement, we can assume that these pictograms predate the Canaanite alphabet. If we add to this the fact that numeral signs were invented before literary alphabet, then the numeral shapes predate any known alphabet.


The tribal system in Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East was not simply a concentration of individuals but a matrix of culture and knowledge. As such numeral shapes always existed in this matrix for innovative individuals to pick and chose to create their first alphabets which consisted of 16 letters and maybe less. It is, therefore, possible that with 10 numeral shapes available and easily identifiable by a large number of people, they are very likely to be sufficient to create any alphabet if the shapes are manipulated to provide easy identifiable letters.




 The epitaph of king Imru'l Qais (Fig.27). Several letters have the appearance of numeral shapes (Fig. 28) corresponding to the western numerals shown below.


Almost all classical Arabic references don’t differentiate between a letter and a numeral. In recent times the word ‘raqam’ is used almost exclusively to mean a ‘numeral’ or ‘number’. However, look up ‘raqam’ in Lisan al-Arab and you’ll find that ‘a raqamised book’ is ‘a written book.’ Furthermore, raqam is also described as inscription and design ‘the origin of which is writing.’ It seems, at an elementary level at least, that Arabs did not find it important to differentiate between letter and number as if they had the same origin. Moreover, several writers referred to numerals as ‘drawings’. We do actually ‘draw’ our letters and numbers but as explained in Origin of the Arabic Numerals, our numerals are pictograms (miniature drawings) of actual hand and finger numeral formations.


The subject of ‘numeral-alphas’ is an open subject that will be discussed further.

[1] 1911 Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica – Numeral

2] Otto F. Ege, The Story of the Alphabet, (1921), p. 3.


Contact us | View site map