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What is a Numeral?

Updated on May 16, 2010

A numeral is a written symbol used to represent a number. The Arabic numerals 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 are now used almost universally. At other times different systems have been used.

The simplest way of representing numbers is by using a given symbol for the number one and then repeating it for each successive number.

Once the needs of a society require the use of large numbers, however, it becomes awkward to use only one symbol. For example, to write the number 9,642 in this way would require 9,642 marks. To solve this problem, one number, called a base, is usually selected and given a special symbol. Most often the base used is ten, probably because men have ten fingers with which to count, but other numbers have been used as bases. Once a symbol for a base is adopted, it becomes easier to write large numbers.

About 5,000 years ago the Egyptians developed a system of numerals in which there were special symbols for ten and powers of ten. The illustration shows how they would have written the number 9,642. The Roman numeral system, even though it was developed much later than the Egyptian system and is still used ceremonially, also requires the repetition of symbols for ten and powers of ten and sometimes for five times a power of ten. It requires almost as many symbols to write a large number in the Roman system as in the Egyptian system.

A more compact method of representing numbers was also developed in the ancient Middle East, most probably in Greece. It assigns numerical significance to the position of the letters of the alphabet. This system was used by many ancient Middle Eastern peoples. Another early method was to write out whole words to represent numbers. Abbreviations soon developed as the first letter of the word was used as a symbol for the number.

The numeral system now used is a positional system based on ten. That is, all numbers can be represented by using only the ten Arabic numerals, whose values depend on their positions in relation to other numerals. The system is believed to have been developed in India about 2,000 years ago. The numerals of ancient Babylonia were also organized in a positional system. Because it used 60 as a base, it is called a sexagesimal system. The ancient Mayan civilization of South America developed a positional system that used 20 as a base.


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