The Art of Counting with Fingers

I was pondering for a long while now about how different nationalities/cultures count with their fingers. I noticed this the first time I set my foot in the far north. I observed that the Dutch people count with their fingers from 1 to 5 from thumb down to the little finger with their left hand. This is just so different with how I learned it from the Philippines. I think, if I am not mistaken (for me, that is), we count from the pinky (1) to the thumb (5) with our right hand.

I didn’t even know that there is a term for this: Dactylonomy. Dactylonomy is the art of counting along one’s fingers.

This subject has been on my mind for more than a year now but is always forgotten. This afternoon while in conversation with my Spanish colleagues, one started counting with his right hand, 1 to 5, from his thumb down to his pinky! I immediately forgot what we were talking about and asked him to do it again.

According to our friend Wikipedia, finger counting varies between cultures and over time, and the study is called ethnomathematics. Ethnomathematics is the study of the relationship beween mathematics and culture.

Pretty cool, eh?

I immediately went out and asked 2 more Spanish man, 1 Canarian, 2 Dutch, and our Chinese-Indonesian Cleaning lady. (I call her “Auntie”, btw, that my European Colleagues do not understand why).

One of the Spanish colleague that I have asked was raised in Andalucia. He started counting with his thumb as pointer and started with the point finger (1) and ended at 5 with his palm opened. I asked my Sevillan friend to proceed and he counted with his right hand starting with his thumb as 1 and ended with his pinky for 5. The Canarian started with 1 on his thumb and reached 5 with his pinky using his left hand. I asked my 2 Dutch Colleagues, one of whom is my Supervisor, and asked them to finger count to 5. They both started with a closed fist, started with their thumbs as 1 and ended with their pinky as 5, bringing up a full hand, using their left hand.

I think this is something European, or something that is from this side of the world. Just as they write their number 8 differently (they start from the middle and curve the upper part to the right then move the curve to meet the first point in the middle and proceed downwards to the left and curve the bottom part curving up-right completing the number: we do the other way around and not even start completely with the upper half of the number) and pronounce the letter Z as Zed.

Filipinos, on the other hand, are Americanized. I mean, let us face it, especially with the newer generations, we are influenced more by the Western World. We also finger count just like them (or correct me if I am mistaken). We start with 1 from the pinky and end 5 with the thumb and the hand open.

I did not really noticed how the Indians, Chinese and the Malays finger count in Malaysia. I guess they were finger counting the same way as us since we were all Asians. Just maybe.

Anyways, I said that I also asked our Chinese-Indonesian cleaning lady. I cornered her in the closet near the ladies toilet. When I asked her to finger count she did it the same way as the Dutch does, but with “satu, dua, tiga, ampat, lima..”

She really caught me off-guard. I said she finger counted just as the Europeans do. She just smiled at me her sweetest smile. She did not understand me. She only speaks Dutch and very little English.

She finger counted that way because she has been living in the Netherlands for 31 years now. But I am proud of her because she is really “Bahasa” by heart.

Ps. My apologies to my description of how the number 8 is being written. I got confused myself, haha!

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3 thoughts on “The Art of Counting with Fingers

  1. The official finger counting by sign language and is used in sports is this: one (index finger), two (index and middle finger), three (index, middle and thumb), four (four fingers, no thumb), and five (all). I know, that is different than the conventional Pinoy finger counting, but I got used to it when I learned to spell in sign language.

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