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I do not really know where to post such a question, so please bear with me if you think there were a better stackexchange for it.

Endianness refers to how we order elements from multiple scales. As such, ordering from coarser to finer scales is called big-endian ; the opposite is called little-endian.

The Wikipedia article discusses merely about its implications in computer architecture, but its scope is actually much broader and we can find it in everyday life.

Indeed, I identified at least four instances where endianness matters :

  • personal identity : should we put first name before or after last name ? Well, obviously English language itself answers the question (in a little-endian way), but many Asian countries beg to differ ;
  • dates : should we write day/month/year (little-endian) or year-month-day (big-endian) ?
  • addresses : should we write Number Street City Country (little-endian) or Country City Street Number (big-endian) ?
  • numbers obviously : we usually agree to write that half a kilometre is 0.5 km (big-endian), but we could have convened to write 5.0 km (little-endian) ; for instance, Arabic speakers do write 0.5 km, but read it from right to left, hence in a little-endian way.

From a psychological point of view, endianness is about choosing between prioritising global or local. Let me explain.

If you're asking someone today's date, you probably actually are just asking what day it is. You are likely very well aware of current year and even month, and as such not interested in them. One might reply "It is the fourth" without any further detail and you would be perfectly fine with this answer. You are interested in the finer scale as it helps you precise locally. This is little-endian logic.

As an opposed example, if you are a bit interested in Roman history, you will probably learn that its Western part fell in 476, but you probably won't even try to memorise the specific month, not to say the specific day. This is big-endian logic, where coarser scale helps you precise globally. Likewise, if you want to chronologically sort old administrative papers (say, paid bills) which span over more than a decade, you will first look for years, then months, and finally days. Maybe you won't even be interested in the day if it isn't necessary for you to sort. Which is why international norm for date time notation (ISO 8601) is big-endian.

Except for numbers, Western countries are mostly little-endian. Few exceptions include United States and Germany, which are sometimes quite weird using what we could call middle-endian (basically meaning there is no logic at all), respectively for dates and addresses.

Also, German would read « 132 » as « ein hundert zwei und dreißig » (litteraly « one hundred two and thirty ») which is middle-endian again, as opposed to English which is big-endian here (reading hundreds, then tens, then units).

However, Chinese people seem to be big-endian for all of these four aforementioned subjects. Which other countries or cultures also are fully big-endian ?

Is there any culture which is fully little-endian ?

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    Two factual errors: Arabic writes numerals from left to right (opposite the direction of the letters). German says "einhundertzweiunddreißig" (not "und zwei").
    – fdb
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 10:27
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    See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Branching_(linguistics).
    – Keelan
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 10:33
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    @GastonÜmlaut Gah, you’re right! I initially wrote 175, but then later changed it to 157 for some reason… not sure why? Ní foláir nó go raibh mé ar mearbhaillín giota beag ag an am… Commented May 5, 2020 at 22:49
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    @GrahamH. My understanding is that it's because of eggs. Specifically, the phrases "little-endian" and "big-endian" first appeared in Gulliver's Travels in 1726, and described opposing factions of people who ate hard-boiled eggs starting at either the little end or the big end. The phrases were borrowed to refer to the two possible ways of sending a number: starting with the least significant bit ("little end") or the most significant bit ("big end"). Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 16:13
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I do live in Hungary, and I lived here my whole life. My very own address card that is issued by the government uses the order I just specified. I think what you found must be some Posta-internal standard, since I've never seen this ordering elsewhere. I'm not sure why Posta wants people to address letters in this order. I don't really have any mail I got recently to check how they are addressed, but I can assure you that common parlance uses the big-endian ordering, and pretty much all official communication does too.
    – maritsm
    Commented Apr 2, 2023 at 11:55

3 Answers 3

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This is potentially a very interesting question, but it suffers from conflation of “language”, “culture”, and “country”. It is the same sort of confusion that happens when people who do not speak gendered languages imagine that French people think their hands are female (la main) and their feet are male (le pied). I assure you that they do not.

To take just one of your examples: British English says day/month/year, while US English says month/day/year. Here 9/11 is the 9th of November, but there it is the 11th of September. Does this say anything at all about mentality or culture? I think not. Like most things in language this is merely a matter of convention.

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  • Being a native French speaker I have no doubt about your assertion :) I also agree with the lack of rigour you mention between language/culture/country… I do not really know which concept would be most appropriate. Maybe none of them. I really do not want to extrapolate too much about it. I'm merely interested in hypothetical rules. For instance, is there a correlation between dates and addresses conventions ? Are there some conventions that never occur ? Maybe then, move on to ask what are the areas of common conventions, and why these areas share it (common history, cultural influences)?
    – tnetennba
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 12:36
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One example of endianness in language is the traditional Welsh vigesimal counting system, and its Celtic counterparts in Cornish, Breton and Gaelic.

To give examples, the number 34 would be expressed as pedwar ar ddeg ar hugain (four on ten on twenty), and the number 97 would be saith ar ddeg ar bedair ugain (seven on ten on four twenties).

This is not common to all vigesimal systems, as French would describe the latter number as quatre-vingt-dix-sept (four twenties, ten, seven).

This does not extend into all aspects of the language. Names were traditionally described as 'X son/daughter of Y' (e.g. Dafydd ap Gwilym), similar to the O' and Mac prefixes of Irish and Scottish families and clans.

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  • The Welsh numbers are little-endian, not big-endian. Commented May 3, 2021 at 8:47
  • Also don't forget Gaelic vigesimal Commented May 3, 2021 at 10:54
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Duly corrected.
    – Kaz
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 13:02
  • @OmarL I can't speak (for) Gaelic, but please feel free to add your experience to the answer.
    – Kaz
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 13:03
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Endianness is not a natural concept at all. Nature itself cannot care less about endianness, in the same way that it cannot care less about square roots. They are human-made abstract concepts, to help them (the humans) to explain the nature around them.

Endianness is especially related to computers because there everything has to be properly sorted, explained, findable etc. It is 100% scientific.

On the other hand, there are few things less scientific than languages. That is why it is many time almost impossible to translate one text from a language into another text in another language - because the structure of the languages is as original and varied as the people who created those languages.

I will give you some examples that clearly show that analyzing languages with endianness is not going to end well:

  1. The US notation for dates is MM / DD / YY - that is middle / small / big - is that little endian or big endian?
  2. Numerals in German - they write 123 and read "one hundred 3 and twenty". Which endianness is it when they read? As far as I understand, there was a habit in English to treat numbers like this also (at least according to the "old" English books that I read). So while there is some endianness in writing, there is no endianness in reading.
  3. The French language. They write 99 and read "four times twenty and ten and nine". Please try to guess the endianness of that text.
  4. Roman numerals! 11 = XI = 10+1, while 9 = IX = -1+10. Mixed endianness again.

Bottom line: languages are not good or bad. They just are - like trees and like stars. The issue here is that endianness is not the proper tool for the analysis of languages.

Consider the following (jocular) questions:

  • how many meters of water are in a bottle?
  • how many liters of water does the Amazon river have at coordinates (X,Y).

That is the result of using good tools for unsuitable jobs.

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  • It’s true of course that endianness is not a natural concept – but then neither is human language to begin with. There are tendencies for some languages to be either big- or little-endian in how they view the world. Chinese and Japanese are the most unambiguous I can think of, being extremely big-endian in every way. The opposite seems rarer – Welsh is potentially an example (but only when using the traditional counting system). Most fall somewhere in between. I don’t think that invalidates endianness as a linguistic notion – it just means that it’s only relevant to some languages. Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 10:10
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: I agree, you are mostly right. I only wanted to underline that endianness can only partially be applied to some parts of some languages. For the rest, For other aspects, endianness is so mixed it is not worth bringing it into discussion much. Some things just have to be accepted. In many paces, the address on an envelope is written as street, number, city, Country - with the zip code there somewhere in between. So again, mixed endianness.
    – virolino
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 10:45
  • [better: couldn't care less, :)]
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 14:45

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