Hand gestures for numbers

When I was in Los Angeles for Thanksgiving, I began noticing the hand gestures that accompanied numbers. When people said "six", they often punctuated it by holding out their hand with the thumb and pinky extended, palm towards the speaker. That's because they were using Chinese number gestures. (It so happens that the gesture for "six" is the same in both the Chinese and Taiwanese systems.)

What was particularly amusing was that when I asked them about it later, they had no recollection that they had done it and didn't even notice that I was doing it.

"I noticed you said 'six'," as I make the 'six' gesture.

"Right, it weighed six pounds."

"But you did this," and I make the gesture again.

"I did what?"

"This. The hand."

"Oh, the thing with the hand. Right, that means six."

The use of the hand gesture was unconscious and automatic.

As for me, I use the Korean system of Chisenbop which I taught myself in sixth grade from a book. To me, it's much more logical than the Chinese, Taiwanese, or ASL versions, all of whom I had taught myself at one point or another but now can recall only with some effort. In particular, Chisenbop lends itself much more easily to doing computations rather than merely conveying a value. For example, adding nine is "down one on left, up one on right". You can do computations on your hand like an abacus, paying no attention to the actual value but merely manipulating your fingers mechanically, and then when you're done, you look down at your hand to see what the result is.

Comments (21)
  1. Leo Petr says:

    Were people of all ethnic backgrounds doing this?

  2. JD says:

    Yay, someone else uses Chisenbop.  My wife still thinks I’m mental because I count to 9 on the fingers of one hand.

    I was taught it in Canada by my rather progressive 4th grade teacher and it stuck with me.

  3. b says:

    Interesting to see the other methods, I’ve always used ASL unconciously.  I think I learned it in grade school.

  4. Iain says:

    That’s a pretty horrific Chisenbop tutorial: he hasn’t bothered to take multiple pictures, he’s just taken one with all fingers extended, and then cropped the fingers off in an art package to make the full set of gestures.  Except he hasn’t rounded the knuckles, so it looks like he’s counting by lopping off digits…

  5. Cody says:

    The reason for the Chisenbop taking only two photos (I half expected one photo mirrored, though the ring gives it away) would probably be such that the hands look the same and are oriented the same in each picture, especially for use in the counter later.

  6. MJP says:

    Chisenbop is described as Korean, but it looks very similar to Roman numerals to me (if you ignore the latter’s ability to write "IV" as a synonym for "IIII"). Is it coincidence that the Chisenbop for 5 and 50 look very similar to the Roman V and L?

    Hmmm… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_numerals says this is a folk etymology, and they appear to know what they’re talking about. Still, I’m sure there’s a book in the idea that aliens transferred this system from ancient Korea to Rome…

  7. A Tykhyy says:

    I usually count on my fingers in the binary system, becomes automatic with experience.

  8. BryanK says:

    I usually count on my fingers in the binary system, becomes automatic with experience.

    Yes, but be careful when you get to four (at least in the U.S.).  ;-)

  9. Dorkmaster says:

    Yes, I have noticed many people do this.  Often, when I drive, people are indicating to me ‘4’, ‘4’, always with much enthusiasm and using binary hand counting.

  10. Trey Van Riper says:

    People speaking ASL would have a somewhat difficult time representing the number ‘3’ using the Chisenbop gesture, unfortunately, as that represents the letter ‘W’.  If someone speaking ASL needed to tell you to fill out form W-3, you’d have instant confusion.

  11. Dorkunderling says:

    Dorkmaster, perhaps you are driving a 4×4? I have often seen people use this in relation to SUVs.

  12. Mike Dunn says:

    So when Dane Cook does his hand gesture to his fans, he’s really saying "13"? ;)

  13. Mike Dunn says:

    I forget what the term for this is, but they are words that are made up of sounds *and* gestures at the same time. You can omit the gesture, of course, but unless you’re consciously trying to do it, you’ll usually make the gesture.

    The common example of this in English is the word "goatee".

  14. Spire says:

    Actually, I read it as "twenty-two". It seems to make the most sense to have the least significant bit assigned to the smallest… um, digit.

  15. I extend the binary system to both hands as needed; this gets you 0-1023, which is generally all you need. (Actually, 31 on one hand usually covers it.)

    Why do I bring this up? Forget 4, try the magic number 132 for real emphasis.

  16. Jolyon Smith says:

    If I understood the Chisenbop system right, isn’t adding nine actually the flipverse of what you wrote:

    “down one on RIGHT, up one on LEFT”


    [“Down one on left, up one on right” is correct. Down one on left adds ten, and up one on right subtracts one. Just think of your hand as an abacus. -Raymond]
  17. Finger Power says:

    Is there an ISO standard?

  18. Sign bit says:

    I would found -512 to 511 more useful, in two’s complement representation of course. Left hand=LSB, right hand=MSB.

  19. required says:

    "it looks like he’s counting by lopping off digits"

    He is actually demonstrating the Yakuza method.

  20. tjackson says:

    I count in binary. Thumb = bit 0…pinky = bit 4. I can count to 15 on one hand, 1023 if I use both hands.

    One could represent more bits using positionings of other things (elbows, wrists, arms, eyes, mouth).

  21. I was taught finger counting in Middle school, but it wasn’t called Chisenbop, it had some guys name attached to it, and after I got to college I looked it up and found out that in the late 80s he did a nation wide (US) tour preaching his system on national TV and such.

    Really odd.  I had not realized that he just stole it from the Koreans!

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