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GESTURE NUMBERS

August 8, 2017

Gestures have been used from time immemorial either as a rudimentary number system, or as a supplement to spoken or recorded systems. Claudia Zaslasky (Africa Counts, Lawrence Hill 1999), gives visual examples of a ‘gesture for “six” ’ from Rwanda and a Xhosa woman showing by gesture the number of her children. Zaslasky notes that “in some African societies finger gestures have equal status with the spoken numerals and constitute a proper system of numeration which may or may not agree with the spoken words” (op. cit. p. 37).
I would guess the original ‘symbol’ for zero was something like the double open handed gesture that hunters still use to indicate that they have caught nothing that day. This gesture, common amongst country people in the South of France, does not quite signify “nothing” in the absolute sense, but rather “Nothing where something was to be expected” — which is somewhat different.

“In those systems that build by addition to five, counting usually starts with the little finger of one hand and proceeds by the addition of the appropriate fingers in sequence until five is reached. This number is generally denoted by a closed fist. For six, the little finger of the other hand joins in the counting, and the fingers of the second hand are used in the same sequence as those of the first” (Zaslasky, Africa Counts p. 49).

That gestures directly gave rise to full-scale finger counting seems unlikely : the sophisticated finger counting systems such as the Venerable Bede describes in his 8th century treatise De computo vel loquela digitorum (“On calculating and Speaking with the Fingers”) must surely have developed after an advanced spoken number system. No one in their right senses would use finger counting alone to represent really large quantities : what generally happened is much more likely to have been a combination of various systems, gestures, spoken words, the use of object numbers alongside recorded numerals and so on. Zaslavsky says that the Arusha Masai of Northern Tanzania “rarely give numbers without the accompaniment of finger signs” (op. cit. p. 248). Different ethnic groups had different ‘cut-off points’, most ending with our 50 at most while in the Luo system “there are no gestures for numbers beyond 19” (op. cit. p. 254).
The, at first rather surprising, fact that African languages are predominantly base-five (rather than base-ten) suggests that ‘gestural number systems’ predated written and even spoken ones. Tylor writes: “Word-language not only followed Gesture-language, but actually grew out of it” (Tylor, Primitive Culture)

SH 08/08/17

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