The Gender of Numbers

I listened to a Radiolab podcast this morning about numbers. Favorite numbers, the gender of numbers, how we feel about numbers… it was the first time I ever heard someone else talk about numbers in terms of gender, and I learned something. I have always felt that numbers had a gender, and when I mention that idea to people I sometimes get odd looks.  Most people don’t understand how I can see gender in a number as clearly and instantly as I do.  I’m glad to report today that I’m not alone in my thoughts.

The Babylonian mathematical tablet, Plimpton 322

The Babylonian mathematical tablet, Plimpton 322

According to the Radiolab story, in ancient Sumeria 1 is man and 2 is woman. Further, odd numbers are masculine and even numbers are feminine so that man plus woman will always result in man. Someone in the podcast brought up a question, “so two men will result in a woman?” The story made that idea sound ridiculous, and attempted to prove it a good argument against the Sumerian idea, but in a way, actually, yes.  In terms of reproduction, if you are a Sumerian who believes that you have to have one of each type to reproduce, that makes sense.  If one gender has to be singled out as the key to reproduction, then a Sumerian likely felt it was the man.  Two women would also result in an even number (woman), resulting in no reproduction.  Only in the case of one of the couple being odd (masculine) will the resulting number continue to be masculine, and thence the male line continues. Although I don’t completely agree with this idea, it is an interesting one, a reminder really, that to produce an odd number only one of a pair can be odd.

Now, back to the idea of gender assignment to numbers.  As intriguing of a topic this is to me, being such a lover of numbers, what really struck me was how strongly, even subconsciously, people globally describe off numbers as masculine and evens as feminine. I actually feel like there’s more depth to this.

What does this mean?

Here’s how I generally assign numbers to genders.

0  – masculine
1 – androgynous
2 – feminine
3 – masculine
4 – feminine
5 – masculine
6 – masculine
7 – feminine
8 – masculine
9 – feminine
10 – masculine
11 – androgynous
12 – feminine
13 – masculine
14 – feminine
15 – feminine
16 – masculine
17 – feminine
18 – masculine
19 – feminine

I see a pattern in this. For me, the first 5 follow this suggestion, and it reverses for the second 5 of each 10. Not only this, but for me the first “1” of each set of 10 is totally androgynous. In addition, the 5 in the middle of each set of 10 alternates in gender.

The 20s, 30s, 40s, etc. seem to follow the pattern of 2-10, but entire sets are rules by the preceding digit (i.e., all 20s, although more complex and deeper in character, still have feminine suggestion).

Of course, this is all how I personally feel about only the representation of numbers… not the actual numbers themselves. It’s the words, the symbols, the visual of the idea of these numbers. If we close your eyes and think of a number most of us will picture a typed or written numeric character. The fewer of us will picture a set of objects that, when counted, total that number.

That said, is it really just how/why we have historically associated these symbols and words with the numbers that is the real story?

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