Finger-counting around the world

September 19, 2016 10:30 am

On my first trip to Düsseldorf, I encountered a critical incident that resulted from the different finger-counting systems between China and Germany. It happened at the most popular snack bar selling freshly-made French fries in the city centre. When the seller asked me how many boxes of French fries I want, I held up two fingers – the index and middle finger (See picture 1), to signal number two as it was quite noisy around. Guess what? He looked confused, and then he held up his own two fingers – the thumb and the index finger (See picture 2), to double check with me if I need two. Immediately, a question came into my mind – “I want only two, why is he showing me eight?” Because in China, number eight is represented by the thumb and index fingers making an “L”. western-europe_meitu_2         Picture 2, The two fingers the seller held up     

 

picture-1_meitu_1Picture 1, The two fingers I held up

Finally I got my two boxes, but this experience aroused my curiosity about the differences in finger-counting systems around the world. I started to realize that counting on fingers may feel natural, but it is not innate or universal. It differs based on region, ethnicity, and historical period. Differences in counting were even used to distinguish nationalities in war time. There is a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards” where a British spy outs himself simply by ordering a drink with three fingers up — his index, middle, and ring finger. However, a German would have ordered “three” with the index, middle finger, and thumb extended. (See picture 3)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

inglourious-basterds-three-fingersPicture 3, The scene in “Inglourious Basterds”​

Therefore, it seems important to understand the different finger-counting systems to avoid misunderstandings, and even to save lives.

So how do people count on their fingers? After intensive online investigation and offline consultation with my friends from different cultures, I was shocked that counting on fingers not only varies between countries, but also between different parts within the same country. The following examples present conventional finger-counting systems in several countries, intending to attract more contributions on this topic.

the US and the UK

English speaking countries typically count with the index finger as the first digit and end with the thumb to represent five. (See picture 4)

norh-america-and-ukPicture 4​

Western European  

In countries such as Germany, France, Spain, the thumb represents the first digit to be counted. The index finger is number two through to the little finger as number five. (See picture 5)

western-europePicture 5​

Japan

The Japanese finger counting system is the opposite of the Western counting system. Digits are folded inwards while counting, starting with the thumb. A closed palm indicates number five. (See picture 6)

western-europe_meitu_4

Picture 6​

China

Chinese use one hand to signify the natural numbers one through ten. (See picture 7)

china

 

 

Written by Ting Huang

Study visitor at TermCoord

Master Student in Multilingual and Multicultural Communication, University of Luxembourg

 

 

Sources:

“Finger-Counting”. Wikipedia. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finger-counting

“Count Numbers On Your Hand – In Different Countries – Suitqais Diaries”. SuitQais Diaries. N.p., 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. http://www.suitqaisdiaries.com/count-numbers-on-hand/

Willett, Megan. “How To Order A Beer Like A True German”. Business Insider. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/order-a-beer-like-a-german-2014-3?IR=T

Tofugu.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. https://www.tofugu.com/japan/japanese-body-language/

 

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