[update May 2023]
Finger-counting varies considerably across cultures, and not only: it can vary within a same culture too!
The following examples present conventional finger-counting systems in several countries.
I asked in my facebook groups – and among speakers of different languages in my community – about how people count with their fingers and compared their responses with what I read and observed about this topic.
In countries like Germany, France, Italy etc. it seems that people start counting with the thumb (=1), adding one finger at each number up to five. Some say that in Spanish one would do the same, but when asking Spanish speakers, they said that they would rather follow the US way of counting, where the number one is indicated with the index finger, and one continues counting by adding the other fingers, with the thumb as number 5.
In the picture below, the number 4 is indicated with the thumb down. When counting from 1-5 in German, one would rather keep the little finger (pinky) down. But when indicating "4" as for example when ordering 4 coffees, use the thumb down like illustrated in the picture.
Although some people from the UK seem to count in the same way as in the US and China, it seems that counting starting with the thumb is equally acceptable. – Please have a look at the last video in this post about this.
In Japan, the finger counting system proceeds the opposite way. Instead of showing the numbers by raising the fingers, it is the fingers that are hidden in the hand that indicate the number. You start with the thumb and hide the next fingers in the hand while counting upwards until the closed palm indicates number five.
Two or not two...
When indicating number "2" in the UK following the US way (with index and middle finger) one should be careful not to turn the palm towards oneself, inwards, as that gesture is or was (!) perceived as an insult in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Although this gesture seems to loose its offensive connotation, it is advisable to avoid it when in international settings. The origin of its meaning is uncertain. Only in recent years the origin of the V-sign dating it from the Battle of Agincourt has appeared. "The story maintains that British archers were so effective and so feared by their enemy that when the French captured an archer they chopped off the two fingers he needed to draw a bow-string. Bowmen who had not been thus disfigured took to holding up two fingers to taunt their cowardly foes." (see Oxford Reference) Another explanation wants the V-sign "a development from the much older horns symbol (...)"
The V-sign with the palm away from the gesturer has multiple meanings: it indicates the number 2, victory (since the WWII) and peace (since the 1960ies).
The finger counting in India
Finger counting in India goes a step further as per finger one can count up to 4, and therefore count up to 20 with one hand only. In this article you can find a short video about different types of finger counting across the world. Prof. Andrea Bender from the University of Bergen (Norway) has done some research about culture and cognition, and the way people count with their fingers across cultures.
"In the past, researchers have believed that finger counting, and especially the way that we do it in the West, is essential for children when they start to learn counting, and when they try to grasp what numbers actually are. One reason for casting doubt on that is that there is so much cultural diversity in how fingers or body parts are used for counting."
When considering the many different ways to use fingers for counting across cultures and eras – think about the way Romans used to count! – and the way numbers are signed in Chinese, shows that there is much more to this than meets the eye.
Finger-counting differs between regions, ethnicities, and historical periods
In war times, differences in counting were used to distinguish nationalities. In Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards there is a scene where a spy outs himself by ordering a drink with three fingers up — his index, middle, and ring finger. A German would have ordered “three” with the index, middle finger, and thumb extended.
|The scene in Inglorious Bastards
Have a look at this short video where people around the world show how they count with their fingers. I assume that this all changes when we indicate the finger with the index of the other hand though. What do you think?
If you want to know how Romans used to count with their fingers...:
Ken Powell from Write Out Loud was so kind to show us his various ways of counting with fingers.
- When indicating "first thing... second thing...etc." starting with his little finger and using the index finger from his other hand to count up to 5, with pointing at the thumb for last.
- When pointing out a "first task... second task... etc." he'd start with the index.
- When counting to himself and using one hand he would start with the thumb.
- When counting in Bangla, he would count with the thumb of the same hand, counting 4 per each finger, i.e. up to 20 on one hand.
I haven't even shared how people count and do maths in India and other countries, as this deserves a separate post...
In international settings at school or at work, I find it is important to understand the different finger-counting systems to avoid misunderstandings. Teachers who adopt translanguaging practices in class, shouldn't assume that their pupils count in the way their parents do: they might count like their peers in class just because they are used to doing maths in the school language. Some children switch ways to count with fingers when switching languages, whereas others adopt one "universal" way to count with their fingers.
How do you count with your fingers?
What about your friends and colleagues?
Do your children use the same finger counting across all their languages?
Please share in the comments!
I recommend also reading this article mentioned above.
Please read also my other post about What is your maths language?