Hoang Thi Chau

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The number system is investigated in this study as a small yet typical semiotic system of a larger one, i.e. language. The double-faceted nature of signs is self-evident: most numbers have two senses, one being morphological and the other being lexical. Underlying the different additions and multiplications in numbers is peoples’ mathematical and linguistic thought. While the Vietnamese reveal their mathematical thought in “mười”, “mươi”, “một chục” (ten) on the basis of decimal numeration, the French are opted for vigesimal numeration (80=4x20 – quatre vingt), and the Taiwanese merely rely on their hands and fingers. The systematicity and national peculiarities are also visible, even though numbers may have been borrowed from other languages. In this paper, we use data from ethnic languages in Vietnam, Austroasiatic and Austronesian languages, or, to be accurate, Austro-Tai languages which are closely related to Vietnamese. Some languages beyond Vietnam’s borders are also referred to when necessary. We compare and contrast the number systems in isolating, analytic languages in Vietnam and Southeast Asia with those in Indo-European languages, including such typical inflectional, synthetic languages as French, English and German before drawing general conclusions. Finally, the paper offers an overview of the evolution of number systems across languages spanning from about 10,000 years ago to the last millennium, as well as ancestral relations among languages.