This question was sitting on my to do list for sometime. So, as I was reading a book on history of science, I came across of a paragraph where the author attempted to give a historical development about "how we got the symbols that we use today for the numbers 1 to 9?"

He started with 1 saying that humans would represent 1 with a stick on the ground which eventually has been drawn, let's say, in the sand, and reached us in the form we know it.

Next, 2 was represented with two horizontal sticks (ex: =) and, by drawing it, the fast hand connected the right end of the upper stick with the beginning of the left end of the lower stick, giving as the 2 that we know.

Something with 3...3 parallel sticks...fast hand drawing transformed it into our 3. And that's where the author stopped the story!

Does anyone know the rest of the story for the rest of the symbols, if there is one?

PS: Feel free to change the title of the post if you think that is not suggestive enough!

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This "origin theory" is completely made up, even Wikipedia gives a more accurate account. The original Indian symbols looked different, and their adaptations by Arabs produced multiple variations, none of them related to stick shapes or some other pictorial ideas. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Dec 1, 2020 at 1:29
  • $\begingroup$ A good book may help, see K.Menninger, Number Words and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Numbers $\endgroup$ Dec 1, 2020 at 10:54

1 Answer 1


It's easy to see that 1, 2 & 3 represent these numbers. In fact, this is so obvious a way to represent numbers that both Egyptian hieratic - from which our system of representing numbers came from - and Chinese xiaoxie numerals use the same symbols.

However, the eye doesn't easily distinguish higher numbers of parallel strokes and hence it made sense to change how we represent the higher numbers because of counting the strokes, which takes time, we merely recognise the symbol. In the Egyptian hieratic they do this at five and higher, whilst in Chinese xiaoxie, it's at four and higher; it's likely that these came out through trial and error and also tradition, once it set in.

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    $\begingroup$ This is interesting. However, answers with references are better than "easy to see" or "it's likely" answers. $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2020 at 12:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Gerald Edgar: with the ubiquity of search engines I don't tend to bother with references. $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2020 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Mozibur Ullah with the ubiquity of unreliable information HSM doesnt tend to bother with people who dont provide references $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2020 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Sam Gallagher: You've dropped the apostrophe in 'doesnt' and 'dont'. It's a little ironic that you're speaking of unreliability. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2020 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ @MoziburUllah Welcome to the subtle difference between being formal and being reliable $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2020 at 18:22

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