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The Chinese Typewriter
February 27, 2012 6:12 PM   Subscribe

As you can see, the [Chinese] typewriter is extremely complicated and cumbersome. The main tray — which is like a typesetter's font of lead type — has about two thousand of the most frequent characters. Two thousand characters are not nearly enough for literary and scholarly purposes, so there are also a number of supplementary trays from which less frequent characters may be retrieved when necessary. What is even more intimidating about a Chinese typewriter is that the characters as seen by the typist are backwards and upside down!

The influential author Lin Yutang received a patent in 1946 for his "Mingkwai" [clear and quick] model - which could produce 90,000 words with 72 keys.

Stanford professor Thomas S. Mullaney's work-in-progress on the history of the Chinese typewriter is being blogged here.
posted by Trurl (43 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Victor Mair is Santa Claus.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:18 PM on February 27, 2012


Holy cow, I just realized - how do Chinese bureaucrats find files? No alphabetical order?

And what is the purpose of the map on the box lid here? It looks like a one to one relationship with the contents. I mean...first you look at the map....find the doodad you want....then to the cranny it's in. Why not just look in the box?

Damn glad I am not a Chinese typesetter.

I know, I know, they probably have some really simple method, I am just indulging in some gentle ethnosnark.
posted by Xoebe at 6:18 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


And what is the purpose of the map on the box lid here? It looks like a one to one relationship with the contents. I mean...first you look at the map....find the doodad you want....then to the cranny it's in. Why not just look in the box?

Without that, how do you know where to put it back when you're finished with it?
posted by komara at 6:21 PM on February 27, 2012


"No alphabetical order?"

No, but characters are grouped according to stroke order. It's really not that big of a deal.
posted by bardic at 6:26 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


The most frustrating and incredible thing, watching these videos of the typewriter in action, is to realize that all that effort is being put into making just one paper copy of whatever it is you're typing up. There's no way to run off another copy with the touch of a button, no way to copy and paste what you've typed there onto another page.

Even pre-Web computers were a million times more useful. We're so spoiled.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:26 PM on February 27, 2012


Also, my high school had a Chinese language program. This was way back around 1992 or so, and we got Chinese language software that allowed you to input Chinese characters based on their English phonemes. I remember thinking how awesome that was, and our school's Chinese teacher was close to tears when he realized what a great leap forward it was.
posted by bardic at 6:28 PM on February 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


what a great leap forward it was

I see what you did there.
posted by briank at 6:31 PM on February 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


great leap forward

ಠ_ಠ
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:32 PM on February 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Just watching that makes me want to cry.
posted by the jam at 6:45 PM on February 27, 2012


You can buy these things for about RMB 2500 -- like $400 or so -- on Taobao, China's answer to eBay. For years now, I've been tempted to get one -- it only weighs 40 kilos or so!
posted by bokane at 6:45 PM on February 27, 2012


Western Infidels wrote: all that effort is being put into making just one paper copy of whatever it is you're typing up.

Carbon paper. I feel so old.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:20 PM on February 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


That is all so cool! Thanks, Trurl.

Here's another cool thing: Boshiamy character input. I will learn it, someday. Around the same time I learn to use a Chinese typewriter.
posted by jiawen at 7:42 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've heard a theory that one of the reasons that Europe ended up surpassing China was simply that European alphabets were so much more conducive to printing, which made possible the intellectual revolution that followed Gutenberg. China had invented movable type much earlier, but their writing system meant that it could never take off.
posted by moorooka at 8:10 PM on February 27, 2012


You know, I never get the philosophy that all languages are beautiful and unique and special. Most languages in the world can be typed and typeset quite easily, and are much easier to learn to boot. Therefore I am going to clearly state I believe they are superior to Chinese. I don't just mean English: Pretty much any European language has a small character set, and from what I understand so do most African and South American languages. Using more then 100 characters is just making things harder.

Not that English is perfect: We really need to standardize a genderless pronoun (I like Hir myself), and the spellings are a pain, but it is so easy to add new words to it. German has a word we don't? *YOINK* Which is about how half of our scientific terms from pre-WWII came about. Which we should really do with all those emotional terms that other languages have: English is rather lacking in words to describe emotion.
At least we don't randomly declare then pens and pencils have different genders.

Of course, I'm also one of those annoying logical people who thinks the best language is the one you can communicate in the most accurately and quickly, which drives my poetic multilingual friend up the wall.
posted by Canageek at 8:29 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have heard that Chinese and Japanese kids have to spend more time mastering written language in the early school years, leaving less time for other subjects. Does anyone here have first-hand knowledge, or has anyone seen studies on this?
posted by Triplanetary at 8:43 PM on February 27, 2012


Modern IMEs have rendered most of this a quaint historical curiosity, much like 8-track tapes. They really are quite good. I was shocked to see MicroSoft finally get something right.
posted by RavinDave at 8:49 PM on February 27, 2012


Of course, I'm also one of those annoying logical people who thinks the best language is the one you can communicate in the most accurately and quickly, which drives my poetic multilingual friend up the wall.

What you say has truth to it, but don't you realize that with Chinese characters you get to have an entirely second level of puns? Sometimes when translating things from Chinese you get to jokes and just kind of have to give up

It's like, "sorry your puny language isn't capable of ideographic humor". Chinese people are like 4th dimentional beings when it comes to being silly.
posted by Winnemac at 8:57 PM on February 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


I have heard that Chinese and Japanese kids have to spend more time mastering written language in the early school years, leaving less time for other subjects.

Other parts of China may be a little different, but an average first-grader in Shanghai would have four 40-minute classes in the morning and one or two in the afternoon, covering the following subjects each week:

Language/Reading - 8 periods
Math - 5 periods
English - 2 periods
PE - 4 periods
Civics - 2 periods
Art/Music - 4 periods
posted by twisted mister at 9:08 PM on February 27, 2012




Using more then 100 characters is just making things harder.

Not that English is perfect: We really need to standardize a genderless pronoun (I like Hir myself), and the spellings are a pain


I think we need to take Twain's plan a step farther, and reduce our language to just 8 characters. Then your fingers would never have to leave the homerow, and it would be like we're in hawaii, and everyone is happy in hawaii right?

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling
....Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

posted by Chekhovian at 9:30 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Carbon paper. I feel so old.

You should put that sentiment in an email and cc it to anyone you think might find it interesting. (Solid old memes die hard.)

Pretty much any European language has a small character set, and from what I understand so do most African and South American languages.

Same with the majority of widely spoken Middle Eastern/South Asian languages, as far as I know. Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and Hindi might look as complicated as Chinese to Western eyes, but they're phonetic and only have a few dozen characters, not thousands.

I learned to read and write very basic Hindi awhile back, and one of the great thrills was that you could sound out almost anything you saw written in Hindi after only a few lessons. I'd been bracing myself for months of difficult study, but I could read a sign in India (even if I had no clue what it meant) within a couple of weeks. So fun - it was like learning a code language, like being a spy.
posted by gompa at 9:42 PM on February 27, 2012


Rebus system:

Over 80% of Chinese characters are composed of two halves: the radical (which gives a general idea of what a character means) and the phonetic (which gives a general idea of how to pronounce it). Thus, the character for "oak" is made of the TREE radical (left 1/3) and the XIANG4 phonetic (right 2/3). If you see this character for the first time ever, the TREE radical (#75 in the traditional Kangxi dictionary sequence) reminds you that this character is the name of a tree or is something made of wood (perhaps a piece of furniture). The XIANG4 phonetic (which means "elephant" when used alone) reminds you that this character is probably pronounced XIANG4 (and indeed, it IS pronounced XIANG4.

Because of phonetic & semantic drift, this rebus system is not perfect, but this is not a uniquely Chinese problem. Words in every language slowly change over time. Two examples:

1] The Middle English (~ 1200 AD) word 'huswif,' for example, split in two and became "hussy" and "housewife" in modern English.

2] The word "gay," which originally meant "joyful" underwent a change around the middle of the 20th century and is now mostly used to refer to homosexuals (for the original usage, check out 19th century literature in the Gutenberg project, such as Sherlock Holmes novels).

Because many Chinese characters were created over 2000 years ago, the meanings and pronunciation have drifted even more. If you see the CAVE radical with the GONG1 (= "work") phonetic below, it is only vaguely related to caves (it means "empty") and it is pronounced KONG1 rather than GONG1. This is part of being Chinese: you learn to accept approximations.

The characters on type trays are arranged in order by Kangxi radicals, ranging from simple radicals (1 stroke) to highly complex radicals (such as the DRAGON radical, which has over a dozen strokes). The radicals function as rough thesaurus headings. Within a given radical group, the characters are again arranged in order from simple to complex (radical + 1 stroke, radical + 2 strokes, ...).

After working with upside-down & backward characters for a while, a Chinese typist can read them and remember their relative positions on the type tray. It's an eyestrain, to be sure, but it's not really that difficult. Try it yourself. Turn a book or newspaper upside down and try to read it. You start out very slow but gradually pick up speed. Chinese characters are even more distinctive, so recognizing them upside down and backwards is not a superhuman feat, it just takes time.
posted by juifenasie at 9:48 PM on February 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


one of the great thrills was that you could sound out almost anything you saw written in Hindi after only a few lessons

I briefly took Russian, and before abandoning it, I also really enjoyed this part. Learning a new script and how to pronounce it (...ish) is fun! Cyrillic is all in cursive and super clever looking.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:19 PM on February 27, 2012


It's an interesting machine, but I'm not sure why it exists.

A typewriter confers an obvious advantage on a user of a phonetic language with a small character set, like English — you can, with a relatively small amount of practice, type far more quickly than you can hand-write. There are some side benefits, like a neat, regular appearance and ability to produce a few copies simultaneously (with carbons), but the principal one is speed, since you can get all of those other advantages with handwriting in various ways; e.g. copying pencils, standardized scripts, etc.

But the Chinese typewriter doesn't seem to give the user any advantage. The video showing (what I presume is) an experienced operator still looks painfully slow. Someone could probably get out a brush and write the characters in the traditional way more quickly than he's typing them... and I suspect could produce some very nice calligraphy with about the same amount of practice that it takes to operate the machine competently.

Except as a way of producing camera-ready copy for phototypesetting, I can't imagine why anyone would use one instead of just writing by hand, and the machines look far older than something that would have been created just to aid in phototypesetting.

It's a hell of a lot of effort to go to, if the motivation is just to make something that is machine printed for the sake of being machine printed.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:23 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Perhaps for use alongside a Duplicating Machine, Kadin2048.

While you could duplicate a hand-drawn page, there would still be benefits to duplicating clear crisp standardised typeset documents, even though the initial document creation would be labour intensive.
posted by panaceanot at 11:32 PM on February 27, 2012


Haha my mother can use one of those! When she saw that picture she said using it made her want to scream and run out of the office flailing. At a decent pace, it took her maybe a couple of seconds to type out each character - hard, but not impossible.

According to her, there were two methods she used when she used it: the first was the traditional typewriter method, with ribbon and paper. The second was using it as a mimeograph with old-school waxed paper.

For this mind-numbing insanity she was paid the grand total of $150HKD a month - at current exchange rates, about $20USD.

Oh man I feel so spoiled with my character-recognisation touch-screen phone
posted by zennish at 11:37 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


...and pwned by panaceanot!
posted by zennish at 11:38 PM on February 27, 2012


One of our own, Zompist, has written an explanation of the Chinese writing system using the idea of writing English the same way.
posted by tykky at 11:49 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Of course, I'm also one of those annoying logical people who thinks the best language is the one you can communicate in the most accurately and quickly, which drives my poetic multilingual friend up the wall.

You'd probably really like Turkish. It has some neat stuff... Like a question suffix. Now that's efficient.
posted by nathancaswell at 4:40 AM on February 28, 2012


There's a reason why we don't work with Roman Numerals any more. The Arabic number system is just better, in every way imaginable. Even the Chinese use it, and it just looks out of place next to Chinese characters. Complex operations that would be difficult and tedious using Roman numerals become simple with Arabic numbers. I feel the same way with the alphabetic system against a pictoral system such as Chinese. Now that there is a reasonably well accepted way to write Chinese using Western characters, I can't really see any justification for continuing to use kanji in day-to-day life.
posted by salmacis at 4:55 AM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


> Victor Mair is Santa Claus.

As he wrote in response to a remark about the beard:
The beard and mane were all shaved off on Friday, April 15, 2011. They had been growing for just a little over a year (from March 27, 2010) — the only time in my life I had ever seriously grown a beard. It wasn't a happy beard; rather it was a sad beard of penance and mourning.
> You know, I never get the philosophy that all languages are beautiful and unique and special. Most languages in the world can be typed and typeset quite easily, and are much easier to learn to boot. Therefore I am going to clearly state I believe they are superior to Chinese.

It's always nice to reduce problems to a meaningless apparent simplicity before you try to solve them. "Most tall people have an easier time reaching upper shelves, and are better at basketball to boot. Therefore I am going to clearly state I believe they are superior to short people."

> It's really not that big of a deal.

Yeah, no, it really is.
posted by languagehat at 8:10 AM on February 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Two more comments:

1] Soon after practical computer input methods appeared, mechanical typewriters fell into disuse (Chinese people are not masochists). The main point of using a typewriter was to produce neat printed copy. Nobody in Taiwan uses them anymore (and I'm pretty sure the same goes for HK and probably mainland China). People in China mostly use phonetic input methods (mostly prediction-based), but graphic input methods (based on various techniques of character analysis) are still quite popular in Taiwan. Chinese typing is much, much faster than it used to be.

2] After you have learned enough Chinese, you can start to guess not only how to pronounce unknown characters, but also what they probably mean, something that is not possible with purely alphabetic systems. What's more, new words are usually made up from existing characters, so building up a vocabulary becomes easier and easier. This is one reason why Chinese college students use their Chinese dictionaries much less often than English speakers need to look words up in English dictionaries. These facts are not obvious to foreign beginners who have painfully memorized a few dozen characters.
posted by juifenasie at 8:24 AM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chinese computer input methods have now come full circle. After decades of hair-pulling and absolutely baffling input methods, the Chinese can now return to handwriting like they have for thousands of years because of handwriting recognition. My mother got her hands on a Chinese handwriting recognition tablet. It changed her life. She never got around to learning any other input method, how she kept finding YouTube uploads of her favorite Taiwanese talk/variety shows was totally beyond me.

One of the most mesmerizing things I saw riding the MTR when I was visiting Hong Kong was people drawing characters directly into their iPhones. Some of the more skilled users were easily scrawling out a character a second, even for absurdly complex yet frequently used characters like 灣 (bay), clocking in at 25 strokes! All in a few somewhat careless finger swipes!

This is fairly natural behavior for the Chinese speaker. Ask one to tell you what their name is. All Chinese dialects are chock full of homonyms, and to clarify which qian or li or duo is in their name they'll often write an imaginary character onto their palm with a finger.

Handwriting recognition is beautiful because every input method there is has a huge, gaping flaw. Think of it as the linguistics analogue to Arrow's Impossibility Theorem. Learning to type Chinese is a dangerous road through every circle of hell.

Take the phonetic input methods, the most common of which is Pinyin. You type in the phonetic translation in Standard Mandarin and a menu pops up with your options. Let's try to type 是, the most common copula. It's pronounced shì, fourth tone, which you'd type in as shi4. The following characters have the same pronunciation according to a quick dictionary search:

是市式事室試視士世飾示氏仕勢釋適柿恃逝嗜拭噬弒奭昰舐蒔澨螫丗諡戠軾栻鈰襫

Luckily, the common characters tend to show up first, but there's still a round of hunt-peck going on for every character you type.

It's simple, but can be quite slow. This would be quite annoying to a typical Cantonese-speaking Hong Konger, whose Mandarin prounciation is passable, if heavily accented. Don't know how a character is pronounced in standard Beijing dialect? Tough shit!

They tend to prefer decomposition methods that break characters down into their component parts. This eliminates most hunt and peck, but you'll have to learn the system. Most mortals using decomposition use CangJie. Professionals favor WuBi, a system so complex that I can't even comprehend how to explain it quickly.

是 thus is typed AMYO, after the parts for 日弓卜人.

Have you ever seen a court reporter's keyboard, where English is broken down to otherwise totally incomprehensible character strings? That's basically what it is.

CangJie admits its own difficulty. The "X" key is "重/難": Collision/Difficult. The X key is used for characters that just dont follow the rules, at all, so a user just gives up and goes hunting for it.

All of this nonsense can easily make one want to just give up and scribble things into a tablet.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 9:07 AM on February 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have heard that Chinese and Japanese kids have to spend more time mastering written language in the early school years, leaving less time for other subjects.

That may be true, but the numbering system far surpasses ours, thus making math SO MUCH EASIER!

We have a different name for every group of ten numbers, where-as the numbering system itself is mathematical in nature.

Husbunny, who is a certified math genius says that the American way we learn math is a total mess in comparison.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:14 AM on February 28, 2012


I was going to say, I don't understand why Westerners believe this system of typing is so complex. And then I realized I did understand, it's because they don't understand the orthographic systems of kanji. This really is a simple solution to the problem. I understand it pretty well, having previously written about Japanese typewriters and the conversion to modern computer input systems. I remember my bafflement at my initial exposure without knowledge of the language, it seemed impenetrable. Then I learned the language and it seemed much simpler. So I will explain a little bit.

The mechanism is pretty straightforward, a device picks up a slug of metal type and flings it into the paper, then drops it back in the slot. You move this "picker" (I have no idea what it's really called) over a tray of type to select the character. That's the easy part.

The tray of type is laid out in a specific order, I could vaguely compare it to an index of a kanji dictionary. So selecting each piece is sort of like looking up a kanji character in an index. After a while, you start to remember where related characters are located in the index, and even memorize the position of the most frequently accessed characters. In more modern systems (like the one in the second video) you don't have to look at the tray of reversed characters, there is an index table in front of you linked to a pointer indicating the position of the tray. You can see the operator looking down at the table pointer, moving the tray into position, then glancing up to get the tray into the exact position, then BANG.

I could sort of compare this layout system to the California Job Case used by Western typesetters. How the hell do you find a letter in a layout like that? It's not ABCDEF, it's not even QWERTY, it's more like JBCDEISFG. Well you get used to it.

Now the interesting part was in the first video, about halfway through. The operator wants to print a character that isn't in the tray. He opens up a box, uses a tweezers to pull out the character he needs, puts it into the machine, then prints it. There are tens of thousands of kanji characters, you can't make a typewriter that would hold ALL of them or it would have a tray the size of a room. So the most frequently used characters are in the tray, and others are held in drawers and picked out as needed. And there are sometimes rare characters that aren't in the box, no metal type exists. Sometimes they commission a type foundry to make that character, which can take days or weeks, but sometimes there isn't sufficient need for it, so someone will have to just neatly write the character by hand when needed.

It is worth noting that mimeograph systems were popular in Asia for producing copies, and they still are. When I was a student in Japan in the mid 90s, I was astonished that the school had a high speed mimeograph. The reason we have mimeographs in the West today is because Thomas Edison saw a demonstration of a Japanese mimeograph system at a World's Fair, and rushed out to patent it in the US before they did. Here is a photo of the original "Edison" mimeograph that I took at the Edison Museum in Florida, it's an exact copy of the flat stencil system that was used in Asia. This flat system is still used today and has even become an artform of its own. And here is a (blurrier) photo of the rotary mimeograph that is more familiar to modern users.

Also it is worth noting that the resolution of the FAX machine was specifically designed to be sufficient to make kanji legible, both handwritten, and typewritten. The low rez mode used almost universally today, was added to save transmission time for Western writing that did not need such detail.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:33 AM on February 28, 2012


FYI, kanji != hànzì. They're often equivalent, but not actually synonyms. 仏 != 佛, for example.
posted by jiawen at 10:09 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The traditional Chinese numbering system (ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, ten-thousands, hundred-millions) may be easier, but trust me, the effort it saves doesn't even come close to the effort spent on essentially brute-force memorization of characters.
Consider also that passive literacy (i.e., reading) doesn't equate to an ability to write characters by hand -- the two skill sets are related, but emphatically separate, to the extent that plenty of college graduates can barely hand-write a letter of any length without having to refer to their mobile phones to see how a relatively infrequent character is written. I've seen this even with people who use shape-based inputs (Wubi) rather than romanization-based inputs (Pinyin).

I'm not going to lie; as a non-native speaker of Chinese who put in thousands of hours handwriting characters, I get such a kick out of this.

When I was a student in Japan in the mid 90s, I was astonished that the school had a high speed mimeograph. The reason we have mimeographs in the West today is because Thomas Edison saw a demonstration of a Japanese mimeograph system at a World's Fair, and rushed out to patent it in the US before they did.

Fascinating fact about the mimeograph, charlie don't surf -- hadn't known that before. Thanks!
posted by bokane at 10:19 PM on February 28, 2012


"Are you getting all this, Lisa?"
"...I don't know."
posted by BiggerJ at 2:17 AM on February 29, 2012


Oh yeah, bokane, it's a fascinating story. There used to be a site about the history of the mimeograph in Japan, it was one of the greatest websites I ever saw, but now it is gone and I have never been able to find anything so comprehensive again. It showed "traditional" mimeograph artists inscribing lettering on gelatin stencil sheets with a sharp stylus, oh are they great calligraphers, it looks like typesetting. And mimeographed short-run magazines are an artform, there are even printmakers who still work today in mimeograph format with multiple colors of detailed artwork, it looks like high end printmaking.

And you can't be all that surprised that Edison stole yet another patent.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:50 AM on February 29, 2012


@gompa Cool, I didn't know that. I'm still trying to figure out what the absolute best language in the world is, but most loose due to either hieroglyphics (Don't merge with computers well), bidirectional nature (see above) or use of gendered objects (illogical). I'd want to see some studies first, but in English I know that long strings of text reduce reading speed, thus why we write parallel to the short part of the page. This could eliminate vertical languages as well, since they have the choice of either using more pages or landscape to hold the same amount of information, and landscape books are a pain to read.

@Chekhovian You'd have to figure out what the balance point between speed of typing due to not moving your fingers was balanced by the number of additional characters you need to type per word. It probably isn't 8, but might be 16, 32, etc.

Also because I was thinking about what I was typing instead of just typing, I had to retype most of this at least once.

@Ruthless Bunny: We could probably equal them if we switched to Reverse Polish Notation, while keeping our numbers intact. Also, I don't see an easy way to do instant decimal manipulations in that language. Would make writing large numbers easier though. I could see it being hard to write superscripts legibly however.
posted by Canageek at 9:19 AM on February 29, 2012


I'm still trying to figure out what the absolute best language in the world is, but most loose due to either hieroglyphics (Don't merge with computers well), bidirectional nature (see above) or use of gendered objects (illogical).

I'm telling you, it's Turkish. No genders. No irregular verbs. No definite article. And it's all built with suffixes... It's like assembling meaning out of blocks. There's even a yes/no question suffix so you don't have to rely on inflection to know something is a question.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:38 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


@nathancaswell: Cool. How is its technical vocabulary?
posted by Canageek at 6:13 PM on March 4, 2012


That may be true, but the numbering system far surpasses ours, thus making math SO MUCH EASIER!

That seems like it's pretty much just like Arabic numerals, only instead of having the value of each numeral implied by its position, the multiplicative factor of each numeral is made explicit. E.g., you write something that represents (1 hundred)+(2 tens)+(3 ones) for 123.

It seems like it might be more compact in certain circumstances, because I assume you can skip places that are represented by zeros in Arabic/positional number system, but it doesn't seem like it would make math necessarily easier. The same process that you go through with Arabic numerals, lining them up vertically over each other so that the 'places' match, you would have to do with the Chinese integers accompanied by particular 10, 100, 1000 multipliers. It might just not take the form of arranging them in the same way on the page. There doesn't seem to be any obvious advantage. If anything, borrow and carry seem like they'd be a bit harder when working longhand.

The fact that you can pretty trivially do Chinese-style numbering with Arabic numerals and a few additional characters (pick a letter for each multiplier value, e.g. X for 10, C for 100, M for 1000, etc., and you could write 123 as 1C2X3), but nobody really does, suggests that there's not a lot of natural advantage. Similarly, the fact that you seemingly could do Arabic-style positional numbering with Chinese numerals, since they have the characters for 0-9, and yet they don't, suggests that Arabic numerals aren't inherently that advantageous in their environment, either.

Once you move beyond simple counting-based notation systems (tally marks), have an abstract zero, and use a regular base, it seems likely that any manmade numbering system is going to be roughly as good as any other.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:53 PM on March 4, 2012


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