After reading the book Outliers (actually I listened to the audiobook), I was intrigued by the author’s observation that, in math, Western language speakers’ children are already a year behind Asian language speakers by the age of five. If you haven’t ever heard this before, you can read a synopsis here. This is why we need an Elegant Counting System.
A solution to this has been proposed by several others (as of May, 2015, there were 101,000 results on Google, including here and here). I want to extend this discussion a bit since math is becoming more and more important in our increasingly technological world.
Here at TIMEOC we always start to solve any problem by stating the vision or why the problem needs to be solved.
- For now, we will focus on American English only.
- It should be easy to learn for existing English speakers (otherwise they could just learn to count in Mandarin, which is another option).
- It should be easy to learn for non-English speakers. This includes toddlers, foreign language speakers, those coming to math late in life like liberal-arts-majors-turned-programmers, etc.)
- Make counting faster for those already using it.
This is a pretty common vision statement for startups too. Your product or service (provice? serduct?) needs to be easy to pick up and great for users once they know about it. You should also have other constraints as needed to help you focus.
Let’s start with the numbers 0-9. There is no reason for a two syllable single digit number. Only two numbers from 0-9 have two syllables, zero and seven. Since we can chop off the second syllable with no confusion with other English words, we can do that. Counting from 0-9 therefore looks like this:
Zer, one, two, three, four, five, six, sev, eight, nine
Simple, right? Now we get to the good part.
Ten is not your friend
We need some background here for context. When counting, it is always important to know the base you are using. By far the most common base is 10 (probably because we have ten fingers and toes), so let’s start with that.
After counting to nine, what should the next number be called? We now call it ten (for one set of fingers). But should it be called that? The confusion here lies partially with starting the count from one. It should start with zero (“zer”). Why? Because if you start at one you leave off a whole bunch of positive numbers between 0 and 1 (one half, one fourth, two fifths, etc.) . Starting at 0 includes them. It also means that what to do after nine becomes more obvious. Instead of a new number ten, it really means one set of fingers and 0 left over (1-0).
Following the conventions built into English later on (six-ty, eight-ty, nine-ty, etc.), we should call this one-ty (onety). The next number (11) should be called onety-one, then (12) onety-two, etc. Twenty becomes twoty, then threety, fourty, fivety, sixty, sevty (one less syllable!), eighty, ninety, up to ninety-nine.
To make counting faster, we need to continue with the one syllable approach and hope we don’t collide with other English words that would make the new system confusing. The next number (100) would be one hun. Then two hun, etc. That’s the elegant part of the Elegant Counting System.
Elegant Counting System
Using this pattern, here are the first set of numbers (the little number to the upper right of the “10” is number of zeros following a “1” to make that number).
100 – one
101 – onety
102 – one hun (may be confused with the shortened word for “honey”)
103 – one thou (not the same as “thou” in thou shalt… because is the th in “this” rather than “the”)
104 – onety thou
105 – one hun thou
106 – one mil
109 – one bil
1012 – one tril
Using this system, the number 7,777,777 goes from seven million seven hundred seventy seven thousand seven hundred seventy seven (25 Syllables) to sev mil sev hun sevty sev thou sev hun sevty sev (13 syllables). Almost a 50% reduction (albeit in a worst case scenario).
What do you think? This is a work in progress extending the ideas of others with an objective of making math easier for all of the world’s children.
Be sure to check out Part Two where we elaborate on the Elegant Counting System.