How prevalent is the use of Western/Latin Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, hereafter referred to as Latin digits)† as the primary means of symbolically manipulating numeric ideograms in cultures whose native script also uses the Hindu–Arabic numeral system but employs different numerals (hereafter referred to generically as native numerals), such as the CJKV: 〇, 一, 二, 三, 四, 五, 六, 七, 八, 九?

For example: my understanding is that in many regions, the usage of native numerals is roughly analogous to how English speakers use phonetically spelled words ('one', 'two', 'three', etc.). Which is to say, primarily for display or long form writing. However, most literate adults would use Latin digits for even basic symbolic math.

I'm hoping someone can correct my terminology and adjust the question to match how it would be operationalized in academia. Off-the-top-of-my-head, a survey designed to measure this scenario would look something like this:

  • Are native numerals or Latin digits used when performing math in people's daily lives?
  • Are native numerals or Latin digits displayed on price tags, speedometers, calculators††, etc?
  • What is taught and used at different levels of education (primary, secondary, and tertiary)?
  • In what ways are usage of native numerals or Latin digits environmentally dependent? Examples:
    • Native numerals are the default, with Latin digits only being used in specific business environments (such as banking, programming, etc).
    • Latin digits are the default, but tourist areas use native numerals to display cheaper pricing for locals.

PLEASE use the terminology "Latin digits" and not "Arabic numerals". Similarly, please use "native numerals" or insert (native) into your first usage (i.e. Thai (native) numerals).

An authoritative answer would be academically oriented and cite either quantitative survey data or a literature review summarizing a large number of cultures.

I would also love individual answers based on personal experiences! Especially those which would break the dichotomy used presented here.

† Confusingly, the term "Hindu-Arabic Numerals" is used to refer to both:

†† Abacus usage being an orthogonal topic, which shall be ignored to spare me from any more counting-system related digressions.

  • 1
    You never know but I doubt there's any formal research into that. FWIW, in Thailand Arabic numerals are used for pretty much all everyday purposes, the exception being dual pricing, where a price for Thais is shown in Thai numerals with a higher price for tourists being shown in Arabic numerals. Otherwise the Thai numerals are used for decorative purposes (e.g. on house numbers). I'm not sure about ceremonial usage (e.g. in royal announcements including a date). Both Thai and Arabic numerals appear on bank notes.
    – rchivers
    Dec 22, 2020 at 1:31
  • I'm not sure you can draw much of an analogy between the use of native numerals in a culture that has two systems and spelling out the number in the English-speaking world. Spelling out a number does make it seem more decorative or ceremonial, but since you can do this in any writing system I don't think you can equate it with use of alternative numerals. Using the alternative / traditional numerals is a third alternative that we just don't have.
    – rchivers
    Dec 22, 2020 at 1:34
  • To clarify: you are asking about 0,1,2..9 compared to ०,१,२...९ or ٠,١... and excluding Chinese 一,二...九, of Ge'ez letters etc? AFAIK 0...9 are universally available.
    – user6726
    Dec 22, 2020 at 1:36
  • 2
    Latin numerals are not really relevant to your question. I, II, III, etc., are not Latin numerals – they’re Roman numerals. Latin numerals is just another word for Latin numbers (ūnus/-a/-um, duō, trēs, etc.), that is, the actual words in Latin spoken when counting, not the symbols used to represent them as numeric entities. Dec 22, 2020 at 7:19
  • 1
    The question seems completely confused about the relation between numbers, spoken words for numbers, written words for numbers, and numeric writing symbols. Not to mention different words and different languages and different writing systems all in the same place and time. If these can be disentangled consistently, several reasonable questions might be asked about them. Unfortunately we have no idea which one it might be.
    – jlawler
    Dec 23, 2020 at 21:15

1 Answer 1


This relates to the linguistic ecology of these Latin Hindu-Arabic numerals in the respective cultures.

In the Sinosphere proper, although the "Chinese numeral" glyphs are 一、二、三..., they operate as lexical words within the written language. The Latin Hindu-Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3... have been integrated into the written language since the 19th century, with the drive to modernisation in the late Qing and with influence from Meiji Japan (the 1872 Education Order over there).

Thus in Chinese-writing nations, Latin Hindu-Arabic numerals are used in:

  • arithmetic from primary / elementary school mathematics classes onwards
  • dates, specifically YYYY 年 (M)M月 (D)D日
  • times, in the HH:MM:SS format but also in the H点MM(分)format for at amore casual situations
    • However, this coexists with the Chinese 'numeral' versions, and the latter can be used with 半 (half-past) and 刻 (quarter)
  • figures requiring decimals
  • percentages using the "%" sign
    • The order of the syntax in the spoken language (百分之X) is different to that of the written language (X%). There is also a form that uses units of 10% (成), which is colloquial and would use Chinese character numerals.
  • figures in commercial contexts (whether that's the price of pomelos at a market, scores of a sports match, or national import/export figures)
  • "identifying" digits, e.g. bus/metro routes, scriptural verses, credit card numbers, telephone numbers
  • specific Internet / text-slang (88, 520). This is a non-numerical use, and is composed of puns based on phonetic similarity.

Chinese character numerals are used with:

  • dates in the lunar calendar, which generally do not require the year and have a specific syntax in the spoken language anyway (正月初二)
  • days of the week: although the spoken language uses the numbers in the names of the days of the week, they are represented with Chinese character numerals, e.g. for Monday 星期一/礼拜一/周一
  • small quantities of a noun: the point at which the number becomes big enough to require Latin Hindu-Arabic numerals varies. For some it is as low as 11; for others, as high as 101. The "round" quantities X百、一千、一万 may be kept as Chinese character numerals.
  • small ordinal numbers (which are of the form 第X + noun); the limit is similar to above.
  • names of events that involve dates (六四)
  • references to chemical names that involve numbers (often corresponding to Greek-derived prefixes in English) e.g. 四氧化三铁
  • regnal dates of emperors and kings
  • regnal names of (Western) kings (亨利八世 for Henry VIII)
  • when writing Latin Hindu-Arabic numerals above 10,000 in written text, to fit them into a {10^4}-based linguistic system. For example, 7,058,231,496 = 70亿5823万1496.

There is also a further numeral system in Chinese, 大写字 (the formal Chinese "capital" numerals), going 壹、貳、叁... which have the following use(s):

  • on currency for protection against fraud
  • while writing out cheques, again to protect against fraud

Much of this informtion is codified in grammars for Chinese. Much academic research in this field is currently focused on neurolinguistics rather than the sociolinguistics.

The whole "foreigner rate" vs "local rate" at a market is something that sounds plausible in the Chinese context, but I've not seen it in my personal experience and I can't find much research about it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.