Why are the ten basic numerals called Arabic numerals even though their script is not Arabic?

Arabic numerals are the numbers you learned as a child and grew up with, you find them at the library, on your phone, on your books, and just everywhere! These are the ten digits from 0 to 9, opposing the Roman numerals, which used I, V, X etc. What makes Arabic numerals orderly is that it contains zero, and has a base-ten system that well represents a specific value. But have you ever wondered why they are called Arabic numerals when their script is not even Arabic?

Well, despite the name, Arabic numerals originated from a number system invented by ancient mathematicians in India. Arabs and Persians situated in India also used the numerals extensively. Soon enough, Arabs embraced the number system, spreading it in the western regions before eventually bringing them into Europe.

The digits that we are using today actually came from an indigenous number system from India called the Brahmi numerals. It traces back from Buddhist carvings from the third century B.C. that displayed the use of digits 1, 4, and 6.

Babylonian mathematicians then invented a number sixty-base numerical system in the middle of the second century B.C. But, it was only in the ninth century A.D. when zero began to be used in academic writings. Though there are artifacts or pieces of evidence, found both in India and Iran implying that all nine digits have been utilized since seventh century A.D.

The use of numerals began to spread through time. Arab and Persian mathematicians wrote books revolving on concepts on how to use the Arabic numerals. Such writings served as the catalyst for Arabic numerals to reach larger parts of the Middle East and the Western regions.

Come the 10th century, scholars from the Middle Easter also started using the Arabic numeral in percentages and fractions. At the later part of the era, a mathematician named Sind ibn Ali initiated the usage of decimal point notation. Through that, a new way of writing numerals, regarded as the sand table, was born. It serves as the foundation of the numeral styles we still use today.

It was believed that Arab merchants brought the number system to Europe. However, Europeans did not know about the numerals’ origin. Thus, naming them ‘Arabic numerals.’

Codex Vigilanus, a compilation of different historical documents about Hispania circulated in 976, was the first chronicle to mention the Arabic numerals in Europe. Four years later, Pope Sylvester II started diffusing knowledge about the numerals across Europe.

Arabic numerals became primarily accepted in Europe when the printing press was invented in the 15th century, allowing the far-fetched reach of the number system. But, other significant events also contributed to spreading awareness about mathematics.

The bell of Sussex’s Heathfield Church of 1445 used Arabic numeral writings. Meanwhile, the numerals were also found on the tomb of a Scottish nobleman, implying the elite’s use of the Arabic numerals. Soon enough, European books, trade, and colonialism, further diffused the knowledge about Arabic numerals. Today, it remains as the most popular and widely-used symbolic representation of numbers across the globe.

More Readings:

Arabic numerals (Wikipedia)

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