Finger-counting across cultures

[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...

The way to indicate "2" could cause some misunderstanding if someone who is used to count in Chinese is shown a German "2" with the thumb and the index finger, because this would mean "8" in Chinese finger counting (see here below). I find it very interesting (and helpful!) that in Chinese one can count up to 10 by using one hand only!

 

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. 

 

inglourious-basterds-three-fingersThe 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?

 

29 Comments

  1. I think you are wrong to say that the UK uses the German/Italian/French convention. I am British and I have never seen *anyone* use it: everyone uses the US convention of keeping the thumb tucked to the palm for digits 1-4 and only extending the thumb (in addition to all four fingers) to denote 5. I’d always have my palm facing *away* from me, to avoid a “2” turning into an obscene V-sign that you rightly refer to.

    • Thank you for pointing this out, Martin. I have slightly changed the text.
      Before writing my post, asked among people in my fb groups about how they count – and there are many from the UK – and there were mixed answers to it. Many were counting the “US way”, others the “German/French/Italian way”. Some were even suggesting it might depend from the region?
      Ken shows different ways to count (also with using the finger of the other hand) in the video at the end of the post.
      I guess that with “everyone” you mean people you happen to observe where you live? It would be interesting to know if you happen to observe anyone, in the nearer future, who counts with the thumb first.

      • I agree with Martin – NO ONE in the UK counts like that. We’re taught in schools to count using our index finger first. Maybe the people who you spoke to on FB were from other countries originally…

        • Susan, thank you for taking the time to comment. Those I asked about the way to count with fingers in the UK online and offline were all from the UK. Just curious, what makes you say that NO ONE counts like that in the UK? Maybe it depends on the region? Please observe again and let me know.

          • Hi, I am from Northern Ireland. It is completely alien to me to start a count with the thumb. In this region we solely follow the US method of finger counting 1 to 4 and number 5 being thumb. Although I’d understand a thumb and index and middle finger to be 3, it would totally be unnatural to my part of the world. You may want to highlight it as it is misleading to suggest we follow the German way.

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    • Thank you for linking back to my post! The different ways we count with fingers can be considered funny but also puzzle people who aren’t aware of this. But it’s one of the interesting side effects of working and living with people from all over the world. I find it highly interesting!

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  8. here in Mazatlan when I ask for three of something, they look at me weird when I hold up my index, middle and ring fingers… Then to confirm they hold up there pinkie, ring and middle finger.
    Anyone have any info on this?

    • Thank you, Julianna, for your comment. Indeed, I heard that in the Middle East they would start with indicating “one” by pointing the pinky with the thumb for example, and then proceed to the ring finger and then middle finger. I saw indicating three with those three fingers but am not sure where the persons came from; I’ll definitely ask them the next time.

  9. ok there are differences
    are there resources which try to explain why there are such differences
    this question i asked when i saw that in middle east they count with their little finger first, and i was like it is these very people who write right to left

    question : why does an american start counting from index finger, why do continental europeans start to count with their thumb etc

    • That is a very good question! Thank you for asking it. I am not sure that the direction of the counting is related with the way we write – from left to right or right to left – and I noticed also some differences concerning what hand to start with (in all systems). Anyhow, the finger counting seems to be more culturally different than many suppose. There are studies by Prof. Andrea Bender from the University of Bergen (Norway) about the relation between culture and cognition (I added the link in the post).

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  11. Hey,
    I really liked your article.
    Just an interesting side fact:
    In Germany I was taught to use my knuckles for counting the months with 31 days.
    You start at the knuckle of your left small finger and follow with the space in between the knuckles to the right and then with the knuckle of the ring finger and so on.
    The knuckles mean 31 days and the spaces inbetween less.
    You end up with January 31, February 28(/29), March 31 etc.
    When you reach the knuckle of your left index finger you should be at July 31 days and jump to the knuckle of your right index finger indicating, that August has 31 days aswell and continue from there as normal.
    I am curious to know, if this was also taught in other European countries, since I never knew anyone that used it.
    Have a good one 🙂

    • Thank you for this comment! Indeed, I also learned to count the months with 31/30 days this way! I remember that we also did it in Italian. Let me ask in my fb groups and I’ll get back to you 😉

  12. I’m a 52 year old Scot. When counting on fingers, Brits will use either thumb or forefinger first. However when indicating a figure, Brits will almost always use their fingers. So ‘1’ is forefinger, counting 1 could be thumb or forefinger.
    As to indicating ‘3’ the 3 fingers with thumb and pinky secured to each other is VERY British especially for those of my generation and older. In Major Archie’s day it was the way ‘3’ was indicated across the Empire and remains common across the Anglosphere. This is because the three finger position is the hand position for the Scout and Guide Association salute. In the past when membership was far more common with kids than it is now, this hand position became universal.
    Immigration and cultural mixing over the last 30 years has introduced the thumb indicator for 3 in the UK.

    Lastly, the 2 fingers Agincourt is a myth (it’s amazing how many such myths are promulgated by the Oxford publications, they also claim, wrongly ,that Scipio salted the fields of Carthage). A warbow of the longbow type cannot be shot with 2 fingers, it is too powerful. The origin of the two fingers as an offensive gesture is probably linked to indicating a vulva. This gesture is seen in medaevil gargoyles of the Sheela na Gig type, where a hideous woman is carved with an exaggerated vulva.
    Anyway, gascinating subject and thanks for writing the article.
    Richard (MA Archaeology, medaevil British History, the languages of the British Isles)

    • Thank you, Richard, for your insights about how to count with fingers. Do you have some further references to what you say about the 2 fingers Agincourt (articles etc.)? I’d like to know more about this misunderstanding, when it started and why, and what is behind this sign.

  13. Turkish totally mix between Italians and German
    We start 1 with index finger than middle finger add it make 2 than 3 with thumbs ,4 make it close thumbs open pinky and 5 sleeping to
    Face

  14. In Spain we make the horn or bull gesture lifting the thumb and the pinky finger at the same time. That’s pretty common and cultural.

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