2005/04/19

License Plates and Arabic Numbers

It always amazes me the thing that you can find on the web. For example, I was doing a search for information about the UAE, and I found this page that displays license plates of UAE. That page is part of a site of license plates from around the world and is really fascinating. I especially love the polar bear-shaped plates (not plates with pictures of polar bears; the plates are actually shaped like polar bears) from the Northwest Territories.

Since we will live in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, our plate should look something like this the two plates on the right in this photo.

As you can see, these plates display the license number two ways. You recognize the numbers on the bottom of the plates as the numbers that we use in America and Europe. These numbers are called Arabic Numerals. The characters above those are also numbers, but they are the ones that used in the Middle East. So, I thought to myself, if we use Arabic numerals, why don't the Arabs?

First, I had read years ago that Arabic numerals are not from the Arab world, but from India. I had read that the Indians had invented them, the Arabs, via trade, learned about them and used them and then brought them to the Europeans, who then stopped using Roman numerals. Well, it turns out that the story is more complicated than that.

It turns out that what the Arabs got from the Indians was not the symbols for the numbers themselves, but the positional base 10 number system (that is a number system with ten symbols wherein the position of a digit determines its value; so in the number 3,428, the digit 3 represents 3,000 but in the number 328 it represents 300). Arabs, by the way, don't call these numbers Arabic numerals; they call them Indian numerals. The Arabs then took this idea and used their own symbols for the ten digits. Those in present day Iraq developed the digits still used in the UAE, and they are called East Arabic numerals. The ones that the Europeans were exposed to, developed in North African and the Iberian peninsula, are called West Arabic. And, just to make this more interesting or boring, depending on what you think about math, one of the important individuals in introducing the numbers to Europe was Fibonacci, the same guy that invented the Fibonacci numbers. His father was a trade official for Pisa in modern-day Algeria, which is where his son was probably exposed to them.

Anyway, here, collected from the various license plates, are the numbers 0-9 as American would write them and as Gulf Arabs would write them.



If you just have to learn more than I could cover here, try these pages:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_numerals
http://www.geocities.com/rmlyra/arabic.html
http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/HistTopics/Arabic_numerals.html

1 comment:

Dhabi Dabbler said...

Welcome to the UAE.
You may have worked out by now that green plates are from Al Ain and that red, grey and blue are from Abu Dhabi. Red were the first to be issued so have a certain cachet. The low the number the higher the standing of the owner. Avoid cutting up cars with 3 digits or lower!