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track of time. (A concern for quantifying the passage of time, and

minding the calender, seems to have been a characteristic of many

primitive peoples, and prompted much of the early record-keeping.)

An example of a Mayan representation of a number is shown below:

The Mayans wrote their numbers vertically, with each "digit" being

represented by either a set of dots and horizontal lines or else a

symbol that looks (to me) like an empty bowl, which denotes zero (an

impressive invention of the Mayans, considering how many millenia it

took the people of the other hemisphere to think of it). For the

non-zero digits, each horizontal dash represents 5, and each dot

represents 1, and these are simply added together to give the value

of the digit. Thus each non-zero digit consists of from 0 to 4 dots,

and from 0 to 3 lines, and these arrangements, along with the "empty

bowl", give representations for every number from 0 to 19.

the lowest digit signifying 1's, and the higher places signifying

more powers of the base which was nominally always 20. However, the

system had one anomaly in that the denomination increased by a factor

of 18 instead of 20 when rising from the second to the third digit.

The presumed explanation for this is simply that since the Mayans

were mainly interested is counting days, and their basic annual

calender had 360 days, it was most convenient for the denomination

of the 3rd least significant digit to be (20)(18) = 360 instead of

(20)(20) = 400.

representations of a given number are not necessarily unique. For

example, suppose we tip the Mayan numbers over, so the digits are

horizontally arrayed, and we use our numerals to signify the digit.

Then the decimal number 360 could be represented in the Mayan system

as either (1 0 0) or as (18 0). A nice feature of our more

conventional fixed-base representations is that they give a strict

one-to-one correspondence between the natural numbers and all the

possible permutations of a fixed set of digits.

For some reason the "18-anomaly" in Mayan numeration reminds me of

a funny story that Isak Dinesen told in her autobiographical book "Out

of Africa". When she first arrived in Africa from her native Denmark

she was sent to a "shy young Swedish dairy-man" who was to teach her

the Swaheli number system. Now, it so happens that the Swaheli word

for "nine" is very difficult for a Swede to pronounce, so when teaching

the numbers this dairy-man invariably skipped it, explaining the

omission

by telling her that the Swaheli "have not got nine". "Does that work?"

asked the Baroness. "What do they do when they come to nineteen?"

very firm. "Nor ninety, nor nine-hundred" - for these words

in Swaheli are constructed out of the number nine - "But

apart from that they have got all our numbers."

think of, and for some reason a great pleasure. Here, I

thought, was a people who have got originality of mind,

and courage to break with the pedantry of the numeral

series..."

by the alleged absence of "nine" from the number system. Just as

two and three are the only consecutive prime numbers, so (she thought)

we might regard eight and ten as the only consecutive EVEN numbers

(apparently forgetting about 18 and 20). She then noted that people

might try to prove the existence of "nine" by arguing that it should

be possible to multiply "three" by itself, but she points out that the

number "two" has no square root [among the integers], so why should we

insist that the number "three" have a square? It isn't clear if she

knew that the square root of two is irrational, but in any case her

point is valid: the elements contained within any given set of numbers

need not include all conceivable numbers based on arithmetic operations

involving those elements.

reducing it to a single figure, it makes no difference

to the results if you have got the number of nine, or

any multiple of nine, in it from the beginning, so

that here nine may really be said to be non-existent,

and that, I thought, spoke for the Swaheli system.

the decimal number system) implies the "non-existence" of the number

nine, or whether the Swaheli even used a decimal number system, I

find it interesting that the Baroness Blixen was familiar with

this arcane bit of numerical trivia. I suppose the process of

"casting out nines" was better known in the days when all

computations were performed by hand... speaking of which, she also

mentioned that one of her servant boys at the time was missing the

fourth finger of his left hand. "Perhaps, I thought, this is a

common thing with Natives, and is done to facilitate their arithmetic

to them, when they are counting upon their fingers."

Alas, all these engaging ideas had to be abandoned when she learned

that the Swaheli actually DO have the number nine, and her Swedish

tutor had just been unable to pronounce it. If he thought this omission

would make no difference to his pupil, he obviously misjudged her.

Even after being enlightened as to the Swaheli nine, Karen's original

idea retained its romantic appeal for her.

Native system of numeral characters without the number

nine in it, which to them works well and by which you

can find out many things.

mind, more than just an abstract quantification. From Eliot's "The

Waste Land":

When I count there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

-But who is that on the other side of you?

of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which one, but

I think one of Shackleton's): it was related that

the party of explorers, at the extremity of their

strength, had the constant delusion that there was

one more member than could actually be counted.

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