Numbers in Different Languages: Typesetting Multilingual Numerals

Not all languages share the same numerals; something it can be importantly to remember from the start of the design process. A page design that plays on the shape of a number might fall apart when typeset in a foreign language.

First, what we all have in common. Whatever language we speak, we all count. Quantities matter. The vast majority of languages have separate words for particular amounts. 

Many of these use the same symbols for these amounts as we do in English. The French might say “dix” when the English say “ten”, but we both write “10”.

But many languages do not use the same symbols. Omniglot have produced a useful chart:

Writing foreign language numbers
Numerals in a range of writing systems
Graphic: Omniglot

This is a great illustration of the range of numeral systems out there, but it should be used combined with some local knowledge. For instance, it is very common for Chinese text to use the same numerals as English. Also, I would argue the first label should be “Arabic Hindi” or “Eastern Arabic” to differentiate from the numerals used in English, which are correctly referred to as “Arabic numerals”.

Typesetting multilingual numerals

The typesetting of numbers is usually straightforward. The characters for a given language should be in the multilingual font being used for the rest of foreign language typesetting. The translator types the numbers as part of the translation, you import into InDesign (or whatever), apply the font and hey presto! You can sometimes control the form numerals take from within your typesetting software. For instance, InDesign ME allows users to special Arabic, Farsi or Hindi numerals.

Foreign languages count differently

It is not just the symbols used to represent numbers that can vary. The way of grouping together large quantities can be different too. In English, we count large amounts in millions, billions, trillions and so on, but not everyone breaks things up like this.

For instance, the BBC website recently ran a Chinese headline announcing the birth of the “7 billionth child”:
全球人口突破70亿面临巨大挑战
The headline highlights the challenges for the planet, but the interesting part from a strictly translation point of view is the “70亿“. In Chinese, you don’t “lump” quantities together in billions but in hundred millions. So the world population has just hit 70 hundred million. That’s the same amount as 7 billion, just a different way of thinking about it.

Of course, numbers that are writen out in words can reveal interesting patterns too. For instance, the French for 81 translates literally as “Four twenties and one”. The Finish for one is “yksi” while eleven is “yksitoista” – one repeated. Most typesetting will not have to get involved in the details of this, but it’s interesting stuff. Also, how langauges put numbers together can lead to long compound words. Try fitting “kaksikymmentäkahdeksan”, the Finnish for “two tens and seven”, into a narrow column width! You can read some more information on how languages count here.

There is also lengthy list of numbers in various languages on Wikipedia, containing both the symbols and transliterations of the pronunciations. It is certainly a comprehensive article, perhaps too much so for day to day use, but it makes for fascinating browsing. Who knew the Kentish Old English pronunciation of “1”? 

Foreign language calendars

A brief aside as it is distantly related to numbers, but not all languages share the same calendar. The Western (or Gregorian) calendar is the generally accepted international calendar, but there are others in use around the world within particular countries or languages. For instance, there is a Korean calendar, Islamic calendar, Bengali calendar, Hebrew calendar, Iranian calendar – to name a few. More on this in a future post.

2 thoughts on “Numbers in Different Languages: Typesetting Multilingual Numerals”

  1. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  2. Hey, it is awesome the table you did, do you have the Font for all those languages? I would like to make a vinyl for my wall, or could you please share where to find it?

    Thanks!!!!!!

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