Postmodern Numbers

You are reading this from left to right. In Asia the direction of writing was traditionally from top to bottom. Ancient Egyptian was written from both directions, and some ancient cultures even practised writing from bottom to top. Ancient Hungarian runes alternate between right to left and left to right, and the brilliant author Borges even dreamt up a fictitious culture whose cosmological worldview demanded that they wrote in circles. There are probably pretty sensible reasons for choosing any of these systems, and I would love to know more about this stuff, and if someone could explain to me why we in Denmark insist on writing and reading everything from left to right except for particular decimals in any given number, I would be much obliged.

First let me explain. Take the number 531. Any sensible person would start reading this number from left to right and continue doing so until finished. If one had to pronounce the number, one would happily exclaim, five-hundred-and-thirty-one and be done with it. No hassle. As the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland points out, it’s quite sensible, when telling stories, to begin at the beginning and then, when you get to the end; stop, which is exactly what you have just done. Great success.

If you were a Dane however, and you were given the same task, things would pan out a little differently. As any normal person you would begin at the beginning, with the five-hundred-and-something. From here on, things would go astray though. Instead of continuing going from left to right you would (even though you have had no trouble up until this point and no reason to suspect that the procedure you have followed thus far will have to be abandoned) decide to start over from the opposite end and read right to left until you reach the middle. Instead of beginning at the beginning and continuing till you reach the end, at which point you would stop, you have chosen to begin at the beginning, skip the middle, start over at the end and work your way backwards to the middle, and then stop. I’m sure every caterpillar and sensible human being would agree that this is a silly way of doing things.

This is, silly or not, the way we read numbers in Danish. And 531 would thus have to be pronounced fem-hundrede-en-og-tredive. It’s like every number follows the postmodern narrative structure of Pulp Fiction or Memento or whatever, which makes it kind of cool I guess, but still silly. If you have taken the caterpillar’s advice, you will have reached the end of this post by now, which means it’s time to stop reading. If you are as hellbent on challenging the conventions as the postmodern storytellers or whoever it was who decided how to read and pronounce numbers in Danish, feel free to do whatever you want.

Stefan

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