Thursday, May 12

Trashing Roman Numerals

Have you noticed that when I write the name of the current Christian Carnival, I always convert the Roman numerals to Arabic numerals? There's a reason for this. Roman numerals are the one time honored tradition that this guardian of time honored traditions would love to get rid of forever. I might even make an exception to my vow never to carry a placard with a slogan in the case of a placard with a slogan that said "STAMP OUT ROMAN NUMERALS!"

The reason I don't like them is that I can't read them. Sure, I can figure them out in the same way a beginning reader uses phonics to sound out words, but I can't look at MCMXVIII and just see "one thousand, nine hundred eighteen." I have to think, "Let's see...1000 and 900 and 10 and 5 and 3 more...okay, must be one thousand, nine hundred eighteen." It's all very awkward and slow and rather humiliating, especially for someone whose "in her head" math skills are above average otherwise.

If there's a movie on TV, there's no way I'll be able to read the date of the year it was filmed in the credits before that silly string of letters rolls from the screen. Of course, there are people who can just glance at the long parade of letters in a Roman numeral date and immediately know the year was 1947. I was married to one of them and I have a couple of kids like that, too.

But what's the point? Sure, Roman numerals are fun to study as math history, just like heiroglyphics are fun to study as written language history. But we don't expect the ordinary Joe to read heiroglyphics at the drop of a hat, do we? Why, then, do we expect people (me, in particular) to be able to read Roman numerals centuries after they were obsolete?

A typical grade IV math
test for a little Roman child
There's good reason they become obsolete. They just don't work all that well. There's no easy way, for instance, to subtract MMCLXVI from MMMMCMXCIX. And to spare you the thought, I won't even put the words long division and roman numerals in the same sentence.

While I'm thinking about it, was there ever a letter for anything beyond MMMM? I don't think so. That means that after MMMMCMXCIX (4999, for my fellow Roman numeral illiterate folk) there just isn't a Roman numeral to express a number. In other words, they'd be useless for paying taxes.

Not to mention that you have to use the cap key to type them.

So why does a system of numerals that is so ill-suited to do the sorts of jobs numerals really ought to be doing live on? Why do we continue to date our cornerstones and movies and count our carnivals in Roman numerals when a much better system for recording dates and ordinal numbers exists? Isaac Asimov thought it was because Roman numerals appeal to the ego--that the ability to read Roman numerals in a sort of casual way gave someone a sensation of power.

If he's right, then I guess I'll just have to learn to live with them. If I'm sure of one thing, it's that ego inflating systems have uncanny staying power.

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