Financial Translations: Un…deux…quoi?

Published 27th December 2011
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Financial Translations: Un…deux…quoi?

One of the first things that we learn in any language is how to count up to ten. But in some languages this is more complex than others. In many languages, children are taught to count using their fingers, as they use the decimal system (count  in blocks of ten). But there are still some groups of languages which use a number of other number systems. For example, Celtic, Mayan and Inuit languages favour the vigesimal or base numeral 20 system, which, unsurprisingly, counts in blocks of twenties. Knowledge of these systems is one of the essential building blocks of required knowledge for financial translations.

Some East-Asian languages such as Korean and Japanese actually use two numbering systems. One being based on their native vocabulary and one on a formal writing system. The latter of which is commonly used in spoken Japanese. In addition, in the Sinitic languages, two separate characters are used to signify the concept “two”. 二 designates a number involving two e.g. “200”, “the year 2012”, whereas 兩/两 identifies a pair. For example “two books” or, “my two brothers”. As financial translations between English and Japanese are common, this knowledge is vital.

If we look at the change in the way that numbers have been written in English over time, it gives a great insight into the evolution of writing systems. Let’s look at how English numbers were written at two crucial points in history:

In Old English, the numbers 1-10 were written as follows:



They may look a bit strange to the modern eye, but take the numbers ‘fif’, ‘sex’ and ‘tien’ for example. Do they look familiar to you?

Now we’re moving on to the era of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Here’s how the spelling of the numbers had changed by this point:

oontwo thréfowrefivesyxe/sexeseveneeighte nyneten

The similarities to our modern numbers are marked here. This shows how English has evolved over time to be the language we all know and love today.

No one? HOW!?

Finally, there is evidence to suggest that there is a language spoken in the Amazonian tribe which has no word for “one”. The study was carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It showed that the Piraha tribe, whose language is spoken by around 300 people, have words to express quantities such as “some” and “more”. But not precise figures.

The research supports the view that some language reflect the collectivist culture of the group of speakers. Whereas Western countries such as the UK and the USA primarily value independence and the individual, groups like the Piraha tribe have no need for a word to describe “one”, as it is not important in their culture or day-to-day lives. Situations such as this pose obvious issues for financial translations, although a cultural difference on this scale would dictate the amount of business that is done with that area.

Do the financial translators out there know of any other languages with interesting counting systems? Share them with us!

As there are so many cultural as well as linguistic pitfalls involved, let the experts handle it. Visit our financial translations page to find out more.

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