If I asked you to write down the number “ninety-two”, you wouldn’t have to think twice. By the time we’re adults, the connection between numerals and their names is almost automatic, so we barely give them a second thought. Which is why it might surprise you to hear that the English for 92 isn’t a great way to describe the number, and some languages are even worse.
Other languages do a much better job of describing digits. But it’s not just a matter of semantics – as early as 1798 scientists suggested that that the language we learn to count in could impact our numerical ability. In fact, one Western country actually overhauled its entire counting system within the last century, to make it easier to teach and do mathematics.
So what is the best way to count?
Nearly all cultures today use the same decimal, or base-10, number system, which arranges the digits 0-9 into units, such as tens, hundreds and so on. The most logical counting systems use words that reflect the structure of this system and have regular, straightforward rules – but many languages use complicated and messy conventions instead.
For example, in French, 92 is quatre-vingt douze or “four twenties and twelve”. And in Danish, the word for 92 is tooghalvfems, where halvfems, meaning 90,is an abbreviation of the Old Norse word halvfemsindstyve, or “four and a half times twenty”.
And in English, words like “twelve” or “eleven” don’t give many clues as to the structure of the number itself (these names actually come from the Old Saxon words ellevan and twelif, meaning “one left” and “two left”, after 10 has been subtracted).
Contrast this with Mandarin Chinese, where the relationship between the tens and the units is very clear. Here, 92 is written jiǔ shí èr, which translates as “nine ten two”. Japanese and Korean also use similar conventions, where larger numbers are created by compounding the names for smaller ones. Psychologists call systems like these “transparent”, where there is an obvious and consistent link between numbers and their names.
Read more: BBC