Academic journal article Visible Language

Thinking on Paper: Hindu-Arabic Numerals in European Typography

Academic journal article Visible Language

Thinking on Paper: Hindu-Arabic Numerals in European Typography

Article excerpt


Western typography involves the 26 letters, punctuation marks and numerals as a whole "expanded alphabet." Between the 11th and 16th centuries the hindu-arabic numerals entered that alphabet, causing greater numeracy, much like the growth in literacy during that period, Europeans had to overcome ignorance and prejudice toward a foreign number system, but also had to adapt the numerals' visual forms to fit in with their existing alphabet. Westerners were at last able to work out calculations "on paper, " which helped Europe move from a primarily oral to modern graphical culture. While the numerals we use today remain residually "foreign" in some ways, their introduction is a significant part of the history of Western typography.

INTRODUCTION THE PRACTICE OF TYPOGRAPHY INVOLVES WORKING WITH THE 26 LETTERS, punctuation marks and numerals more or less as a whole "expanded alphabet," yet most histories of typography focus on the letters with little or no mention of the hindu-arabic numerals. The origination of the numerals in India and their migration to Arabic cultures has been dealt with extensively elsewhere. What follows is an account of how these characters became part of our writing system after repeated introductions; how they were adapted to fit in with our written letterforms; and how their incorporation played a part in the transition from the primarily oral culture of medieval Europe to modern graphical culture.


PRIOR TO THE RENAISSANCE, EUROPEANS USED SEVERAL SEPARATE SYSTEMS to count and do calculations. A farmer might have counted his sheep by carving notches in a wooden tally stick using a system of marks specific to his family or region. A merchant might have counted on his fingers, toes and other body parts to do addition and subtraction. A monk might have calculated the dates of upcoming Easter celebrations by moving stones on a counting board (a table that served as a sort of abacus) while another monk transcribed the dates onto parchment using roman numerals. These various methods were adequate for counting and recording simple operations, but none of the systems lent themselves to working out extended calculations "on paper." Those few who could do calculations on the counting board constituted a powerful elite, and the vast majority of Europeans could have been described as innumerate.

Georges Ifrah describes the arithmetical state of Europe as late as the 15th and 16th centuries:

A wealthy German merchant, seeking to provide his son with a good business education, consulted a learned man as to which European institution offered the best training. 'If you only want him to be able to cope with addition and subtraction,' the expert replied, 'then any French or German university will do. But if you are intent on your son going on to multiplication and division - assuming that he has sufficient gifts - then you will have to send him to Italy.'

It has to be said that arithmetical operations were not in everyone's grasp: they constituted an obscure and complex art, the specialist preserve of a privileged caste, whose members had been through a long and rigorous training which had allowed them the mysterious and infinitely complicated use of the classical (Roman) counter-abacus.

A student of those days needed several years of hard work as well as a long voyage to master the intricacies of multiplication and division - something not far short of a Ph.D. curriculum, in today's terms. The great respect in which such scholars were held provides a measure of the difficulty of the operational techniques. Specialists would take several hours of painstaking work to perform a multiplication that a child could now do in a few minutes. And tradesmen who wanted to know the total of the week 's or the month's takings were obliged to employ the services of such counting specialists.1


ROMAN NUMERALS WERE USEFUL TO PRE-RENAISSANCE EUROPEANS FOR basic notations, but proved problematic for denoting large numbers. …

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