The more languages you speak, the more perspectives you have on the world. Bulgarian, Czech and Hungarian proverbs capture this observation: ‘Човекът е толкова пъти човек, колкото езика знае’ (Bulgarian: a person is as many times a person as many languages knows), ‘Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem’ (Czech: as many languages you know, as many times as you are a person), ‘Ahány nyelvet beszélsz, annyi ember vagy’ (Hungarian: as many languages you speak, as many persons you are). And a similar proverb has also been attributed to that famous polyglot, Emperor Charles V. By drawing on linguistics and anthropology, Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that the proverbial language-thought nexus is universal, so that the structure of a language has an influence on the speaker’s thinking and behaviour even if the speaker is unaware of this influence.
Does the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis apply to non-alphabetic – in particular, numeric – languages as well? Learning numeric systems other than the prevailing Arabic and Roman ones, however, would be a challenge, as only a few other systems are preserved in Europe, mainly alphabetic numerals, for instance in Georgian, Greek and Hebrew. Why do we ‘speak’ so few numeric languages in comparison with alphabetic languages? If Sanskrit, the origin of Arabic numerals, and Latin, the origin of Roman numerals, had their own numeral systems, can we assume that each language once had its own symbols for writing numbers? If so, how, when and why did they abandon their own numerals?
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