This question shows that Roman numerals did not take advantage of the regularities that were present in Latin. Quīnquāgintā (L) is clearly built from quīnque (V), yet their Roman numerals aren't related. The numeral for octōgintā (LXXX) is only structurally similar to octō (VIII). I wonder why they didn't have a symbol representing the morpheme gintā (say, G), and write, for example, "VG" for quīnquāgintā and "VIIIG" for octōgintā.

Can this be an indication that the Roman numeric system was created by someone who spoke a language different from Latin? Or is it common that the numeric notation is less regular than the actual pronunciation of the numbers? In the case of Chinese, the number notation seems to match pretty clearly with the spoken language. Which case is more common, and do we have any explanations for the cases where the two don't match?

Update: The answer given so far indicate that incomplete match between Roman numbers and Latin is not particularly strange. Note that I'm asking about the wider picture: is it more common for the systems of writing number to match the language (as in the case of Chinese), or do they usually evolve independently?

  • 2
    They usually evolve independently. The Mayan written numeral system is very different from the writing, and not dependent on the language, unlike the writing. "Arabic" (actually Indian) numerals didn't hit Europe until late Medieval times, and they swept all before them eventually. Various alphabet or abjad systems like Hebrew or Punic used alphabetic order for numeric order, which was very common where there existed such an order. Rather like the hexadecimal numerals: 0-9 plus A-F.
    – jlawler
    Nov 26, 2016 at 20:14
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    note also that linguistic systems like Arabic abjadiya and Roman numerals are not place-based. the latter are language indepent, the former, not so much.
    – mobileink
    Nov 28, 2016 at 0:06

2 Answers 2


The numeric notation in Latin is actually most likely pictorial. The I digit is a single finger, the V digit is a hand with 5 fingers, X digit is two hands with 10 fingers. Alternative hypothesis is that it was notches and the 5th and 10th element is different the same way when you count using 4 notches and the 5th notch comes with crossing the whole group. The higher digits have different origins, e.g. 1000 was typically written using Greek letter Φ (phi), which is the origin of D as 500 (half of the phi grapheme).

Also if you look at it, the pictorial nature of the notation does reflect Latin language because it is still largely decimal, it just simply is not as analytic as we are used to. Furthermore Latin numerals 18 and 19 are expressed most typically as 2-from-20 and 1-from-twenty (undeviginti, duodeviginti), which actually is reflected quite well by IXX and (the less frequent) IIXX.

  • That phi (|) is the source of M as 1000, and C as 100 is [ twice the L.
    – amI
    Nov 26, 2016 at 17:28
  • I think M = mille and C= centum.
    – fdb
    Nov 26, 2016 at 19:11
  • Sorry I said it backwards. The phi is a misreading of rounded M '(|)', and L and D are half of C [ and M (|) (orthographically and mathematically).
    – amI
    Dec 1, 2016 at 23:03

You are asking why 'eight tens' is written as 'LXXX' instead of 'VIIIG', where 'G' means 'times ten'. Instead of adding a character for 'times ten', they applied the operation 'times ten' to each character in 'VIII'. They were already using the position of characters to indicate 'plus' (or 'minus').

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