While I was running this evening, and my mind was wandering, I thought about the phrase a nice round number. I wondered to myself why we call them round numbers. And then almost straight away I answered my own question and said that it’s obviously because of the zero. Which is round. And round numbers always end in a zero.
Well, that’s that. Sometimes the answer is just that simple, and I’m even able to figure it out myself. Not that that stopped me thinking about numbers, and roundness of course.
Because there is more to a round number than that, isn’t there? Roundness as a concept is very attractive. It’s got a sense of completion. You could say that about any shaped where lines join together and don’t leave any gaps, like a triangle or a rectangle. But there’s something about those angles in shapes like that which spoils some of the sense of completion. It doesn’t feel as unified as a nice round circle which has no beginning or end, or pointy parts which stand out from the rest and distract us. There’s a sense of perfection and purity, and completeness, that makes circles appeal to us.
And I think that applies to round numbers too. Round numbers are at the beginning and end of a journey through the main numbers, 1 – 9 (there’s probably a proper mathematical term for them, but I’m calling them the main numbers). That’s a very circular, appealing trip, from one round number to another, repeating again and again, into infinity. We can picture a progression of numbers beginning with 1 like a chain of circles spiralling out into the infinite. And I think that’s why we really call them round numbers, not just because of the zero. Even when we count, we emphasise the round numbers as we speak or subvocalise, with a crescendo rising until we get to the round number and begin again, in a cyclical, circular fashion.
Even the word “round” sounds round. And it’s a pleasant sound, “round.” Interestingly enough though, it seems that there’s a surprising link between circles and language, beyond the mere pleasure of the idea and sound of roundness. The other day, I read this fascinating article, about how our language seems to affect how we draw circles. Try drawing one now, if you can. Did you draw it clockwise or anti-clockwise? Chances are, you drew it anti-clockwise, starting from the top and moving to the left. Most people around the world draw it like that, except for the majority of Taiwanese and Japanese people, who draw circles clockwise. What could explain this difference?
The article will give you the full details, but basically it’s because of the fact that scripts based on Chinese have many circular figures, which are generally drawn in a clockwise fashion, thus leading speakers of these languages to draw circles in this manner. It seems that reading and writing from right to left also influences how we draw circles. Arabic, for example, features similar, slightly-less-circular figures which are usually written clockwise, from right to left. Therefore while most Arabic speakers still draw circles anti-clockwise, the majority is much smaller compared to speakers of languages with the Latin alphabet.
The vast majority of us who use the Latin alphabet draw circles anti-clockwise. It’s a little harder to identify a reason for this, but it seems like letters such as c and g, which we normally begin at the top before turning left, have a strong influence. I was surprised to learn this though, because I draw my circles clockwise. It seems that this might be because I’m left-handed though. Which makes sense, because if I try to draw a circle clockwise, I can’t really see what I’m doing.
I find it fascinating that there’s such a connection between simple shapes like circles, and language. It seems like a natural enough fit when you think about it though, because what is our language, at least our written language, but a series of shapes? They’re specific patterns that we ascribe meaning to, and we do that with non-linguistic shapes too, like triangles and squares. And circles are particularly special, offering us a little hint at a sense of infinity, and that’s why we’re so fond of round numbers. They represent both a beginning and an end, a step in an unending chain, and they’re pleasant to us, even if we don’t consciously consider why.
Well, that’s what I think about when I go for a run anyway.