Hang Lek: Fortune-telling Numerals of Thailand and Cambodia

Hang Lek

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Fortune-telling Numerals of Thailand and Cambodia…

I first came across the numerals know as หางเลข when attempting to ascertain if the system of marking tone in Thai was influenced by a previous tradition of using cantillation markers to mark tonal variation in Buddhist chanting manuscripts or by the familiarity with svara markers, found in certain chanted Sanskrit manuscripts. An issue I will however, save for another time.

Hang Lek

In some such manuscripts, numerals were used to mark tonal variations. Thus my obsession with numerals and their development was born, collecting anything remotely connected to the numerals in Southeast Asia and India that I could get my hands on.

German polymath Adolf Bastian, who traveled in Southeast Asia during the 1860’s, writes of a shortened form of the full numerals (rendered as “Hong-Lek” by Bastian). His remark set me on the quest to find samples of such numerals. It was something that proved more difficult than I had first thought, which added to my joy when I finally found the first samples in a reprint of an article entitled Boransueksa Lae Rattanaphimphawong [Ancient Education and the Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha] first published in the Wachirayan Journal in 1896.

Although the numerals previously used in arithmetic and divination seem to have been largely overlooked by both Thai and Foreign scholars, they are still known; although rarely used, in some astrological circles. One might come across these numerals on the cover on some of the modern fortune telling manuals known as ตำราเลข ๗ ตัว, yet few Thais will be able to recognize these symbols as numerals even when shown images of them.


Hang Lek

As these numerals were customarily used when doing calculations with chalk on blackboards, samples are generally not found in manuscripts or printed texts. And as their name implies, the หางเลข are a shortened form of the Thai/Khmer numerals, with only the tail of the full form being retained. They eventually lost out to the Hindu-Arabic numerals during the end of the 20th century. My paper is a humble attempt to draw attention to these numerals and provide a summary of my findings.

Numerous people have been helpful in locating sources and answering my questions. Special thanks to Luke Bruder Bauer for reading and critiquing a draft of the paper. Any mistakes are of course mine alone.

Download pdf: Hang Lek, Fortune-telling Numerals of Thailand and Cambodia

Fredrik Almstedt
Almstedt Översättning | Thai – Svenska – Engelska

Hang Lek

8 thoughts on “Hang Lek: Fortune-telling Numerals of Thailand and Cambodia”

  1. Yes these numerals are included in Khmer Unicode as well. I include those in the pdf if you have a look at the samples of the หางเลข from various sources.

  2. ៰៱៲៳៴៵៶៷៸៹ I am currently studying Khmer and looking into the writing system in order to be able to read properly. I am often using as an aid to write words I see and then plot them into the dictionary as it is often a problem finding all the sub-consonants etc on my keyboard when I do not have a Khmer keyboard. Just today I noticed that the page I posted here also gives the ability to type another set of numerals, a set which look very much like the หางเลข you have described here.

  3. Catherine,

    OK now. Thanks to you for posting and to your cats for keeping away for a while.

    BTW: Did you get the link I sent you for the ICMRP project on Isan language (Thai Noi)? Here it is again, just in case. This is the English but they also have Thai and Isan language pages.

    Keep up the good work.


  4. I will (hopefully) soon write a separate post on the issue of the tone markers in a coming post.

  5. Interesting post,Fredrik ! Also,as you have hinted at with your research,Thai tone markers are Indic numbers,as shown by both their phonemes and their written form:
    ไม้ เอก eka ऎक
    โท do,dwi दो द.वी
    ตรี tri त्री
    จัตวา chatwa,chatur चत.वा चतुर
    Note: “do”is not Sanskrit but Hindi.How did it get into Thai?…Not thru Khmer it seems.
    Now when we look at their written form,we are struck by the similarity with actual North Indian(Devanagari) equivalents as used in Hindi:
    १ २ ३ ४
    Note: Number three has been turned horizontally in Thai,and four has lost its loop but retained its cross.
    I have no explanation as to why Devanagari in its modern form seems linked with Thai in this case,and not Pallava or Khmer.Could it be because of the need of a new set of numbers arising from oral deviations from script (see A.U.A.Doctor Brown’s thesis)that Thai Pundits picked them from modern Devanagari ?…Anyone,pray tell !


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