Do Germans count on fingers starting from the thumb?

  • I’ve watched the Inglourious Basterds movie. In the bar scene the English spy is ordering three beers and held his three fingers up and by this giving himself away.

    The English spy orders three beers with a gesture showing three fingers: index, middle and ring

    Is it true in the real life? When the natives count on fingers do they start from the thumb?

    Actually, this three-finger gesture is more difficult than the Vulcan greeting for me

    For people interested in this scene, here’s IMDb’s FAQ about it.

    Ha, I never thought that anybody would do it any other way.. - live and learn :-)

    @TaW I always use the thumb to represent 5 when counting, so I can count to 9 on one hand. (.|...) (.||..) (.|||.) (.||||) (_....) (_|...) (_||..) (_|||.) (_||||)

    @AJMansfield You should be able to count to 31 on one hand. (|....), (.|...), (||...), (..|..). Of course 4 gets you in trouble... I find 11, 13 and 21 to be the hardest.

    @Joel I know, but that is harder mentally and physically

    This extends to most of continental Europe, actually. Once again, the English and Americans are the odd guys in the bunch :) Even the eastern Slavs and the Chinese count from the thumb, albeit slightly differently (counting to ten on one hand, for example - certainly not my case, so I can't elaborate). Signalling three like this feels incredibly awkward - it's definitely something most people will notice and *not* brush away. Instead of thinking "huh, a foreigner", it's like a glaring "why the weird gesture?".

    when I watched the movie (in Canada) I immediately knew that the british spy was discovered. Nobody in Germany uses that gesture. I disagree about the Chinese though. My chinese coworkers have a way more sophisticated system to count. They are able to show all numbers from 1 to 10 on one hand. It's a combination of the numbers of fingers and their shapes (hooks, tips tapped etc). Some cultures start counting with the pinkey finger *bend* and work their way to the thumb that way.

    @AJMansfield I reckon you usually have to declare thumbs=5 beforehand? Or is that some expected configuration in your environment? Or do you only use this way for yourself and not for public interaction?

    @hiergiltdiestfu Its not the standard way of counting on fingers here, on the US east coast. I mainly use it for myself and communicating to friends and others (after explaining it).

    @AJMansfield I find alternate systems like that fascinating. Slightly OT but I especially liked that alternative tally system which replaces the system of groups of 5 strikes with four dots on the vertices of a square (1-4), then draws the edges (5-8) and finally adds the diagonals (9, 10). Extremely compact.

    @hiergiltdiestfu Except dots are rather hard to make with a pencil. I use a hybrid Roman numeral tally system to count (say, hitpoints in D&D). Easy to add large numbers to it quickly.

    Meta discussion regarding the on-topicness of such questions: When are questions on culture-dependent non-verbal communication on-topic?.

    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about some kind of behavior of German people, but not about German language.

  • hiergiltdiestfu

    hiergiltdiestfu Correct answer

    6 years ago

    I don't have hard evidence like studies for you, only personal experience (eastern Germany): Yes, we do start counting from the thumb. My kids and their friends in Kindergarten do it that way, my colleagues do, my friends and family count like that aswell. In fact my older daughter (5yo) was only today experimenting to count in different ways, and in the end dismissed all the "wrong" ways. I don't know any Germans who don't count like that. My wife, who is a teacher, says she has seen russian migrant kids counting from the index finger, but no Germans either.

    The scene in the movie is plausible.

    Edit based on the comments: Maybe as a rule of thumb, keeping down only the pinky (on its side of the hand) feels awkward and will be avoided by first prioritizing the thumb (until 3) and then switching thumb for pinky (at 4). Signaling "one" might be done with the index finger if the thumb is not unambigious enough("thumbs up"), but counting will start at the thumb, so there probably should be made a clear distinction between counting and signaling. When counting, the pinky-thumb switch is not done by everybody, as a non representative survey among a couple of locals who happened to be at hand showed just now.


    1. _....
    2. _l...
    3. _ll..
    4. _lll. or .llll (appears to be 70/30)
    5. _llll


    1. _.... or .l... depending on ambiguity wrt. "thumbs up"
    2. .ll.. or _l... (appears to be 50/50)
    3. _ll.. definitely
    4. .llll definitely
    5. _llll

    (The ASCII art is supposed to be right hands when looking at their backs, no offense to lefties implied!)

    But note that **two** beers would possibly be ordered *either* with thumb and index finger *or* with index and middle (like a "victory sign") and **four** beers *almost always* with all fingers sans thumb.

    What about three beers? Do Germans use the thumb and first two fingers? I count using my thumb, but I order with just using my fingers.

    Yes, that's the central q of the OP. Maybe as a rule of thumb (*snickers*), keeping down only the pinky (on its side of the hand) feels awkward and will be avoided by first prioritizing the thumb (at 3) and then switching thumb for pinky (at 4). I guess that's good enough for extending the answer :D

    I wonder whether it would be possible to replace the ASCII art entirely with Unicode characters (though for compatibility, this should only be done supplementary at best).

    I am from Bavaria, living in Austria and can just agree to that. Also, nice ASCII drawings. Really made the post better to understand.

    Fantastic answer! Signed up just to give you a +1 / *thumbs-up* :)

    @hiergiltdiestfu Loving your ASCII art BTW, very inventive and gets the message across. I figured it out without needing your explanation.

    Stijn: Welcome and thanks :) @Wrzlprmft nice thought, but agreed, only supplementally. I'm wondering what would work better for screenreaders. Also, that would be impractical when editing from mobile(like I often do).

    To any offended lefties, imagine the drawings are left-hands viewed from in front :D

    @hiergiltdiestfu Interestingly, while asking around for this between my colleagues (and testing it myself), here in Zürich (Swtzerland) we seem to all use the thumb for 4, keeping the pinky down. It doesn't feel awkward to me, but maybe just because I'm used to it. But, to add extra inconsistency - we do the "two" and "three" whitout the thumb. Strange... In many cases, the pink and the thumb touch while doing the three, forming a circle (like the "ok" sign)

    @katai Yes, interesting. Do you notice a difference between counting and signaling? Thanks for your feedback!

    @hiergiltdiestfu actually, yes: Counting always starts with the thumb, signalign can vary when it comes to the thumb (see comment before). But everybody I could ask here starts counting with the thumb. There is one exception though: "counting while listing something/thinking" seems to start with the pinky for a few (including myself). This is all over the place! D:

    Where did you get those numbers? "_lll. or .llll (appears to be 70/30)" In my experience, it's the other way round, more people counting like .llll

    @Iris Thanks for asking! I gave the "source" for this right above the list: *When counting, the pinky-thumb switch is not done by everybody, as a non representative survey among a couple of locals who happened to be at hand showed just now.* I think it were a couple friends and family which were around that night. The distribution matched my personal impression, so I did not question it any further and did not conduct follow-up surveys. Not normative of course. Maybe if you provide us with your location, some kind of regional difference in preference can be determined?

    I am from southwestern Germany.Maybe here lies the reason for the difference :) @ hiergiltdiestfu

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM

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