Counting on your fingers is different in different regions

Is there a mistake in the first line? Do all Germans order two beers that way? And what is that “forbidden” sign all about? All your questions answered!

Why is the “2” different in the top line?

Dutch speakers count from their thumb, making the two with thumb and index finger. But when they order two beers, they hold up their index and middle finger.

I’m Dutch, and I start on my index finger when I count

Imagine yourself counting to five for a small child: “ik tel tot vijf, en dan mag je beginnen!” You bend down to the child’s height, and count using your fingers, so that it is extra clear to the child what is happening. “Eén, twee, drie, vier, vijf, starten maar!

I myself first thought that I start from my index finger (I mostly grew up in Tilburg). But when I gave myself the following thought experiment, I realised: oh, actually I start with my thumb!

When I imagine myself doing this, I start with my thumb.

However, of course there are also Dutch speakers who start with their index finger. Before I made this graphic, I asked people in a Facebook group and a large majority said they start counting from the thumb, but some people said they started from the index finger. Perhaps this is a generational thing?

Why is that “forbidden” sign there?

In the UK, we have something called the “two-fingered salute” or “V-sign”. This hand gesture has the same meaning as sticking up your middle finger, or “flipping the bird”. (Which is ALSO rude in the UK.) It is very rude, you are basically telling the other person “f— you”.

It’s not an English-speaking thing, it really is just a UK thing. Many Americans don’t know it, and the Irish don’t do it either.

The story goes that the symbol originated at a 15th-century battle between the French and the English. The French would capture archers (= boogschutters) and cut off the two fingers they needed to use their bows. The V-sign was uncaptured archers taunting the French with the fact they still had the fingers that could kill them.

Great story. Not true, though. In reality, nobody knows where the hand gesture comes from.

This Danish advertisement would NOT run in the UK

How do you order three or four beers in the Netherlands and Germany?

Dutch and English speakers order three or four beers without their thumb.

German speakers definitely add their thumb for “three” as well – it’s a whole plot point in Inglourious Basterds (see below).

“Four” is pretty uncomfortable the German way, though, so I suspect they stick up four fingers without the thumb for that one. Germans, what say you? Let me know in the comments!

So do Germans order one beer with their thumb?

No, in that case they stick up their index finger.

Did you know that this was a plot point in Inglourious Basterds?

I did!

Spoiler alert!

In the Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds, an American spy is discovered when he orders three drinks the wrong way (see picture). (It’s actually more nuanced, described e.g. here.)

I’m German, and I don’t agree!

Are you relatively young?

My German husband is of the opinion that younger Germans would order two beers in the Anglo-Saxon way, with index and middle finger up, and that sticking up your thumb and index finger is something for older generations. Germans, do you agree? Let me know in the comments!

Are these hand positions the same in sign language?

American, British AND Dutch sign language start counting on the index finger. This means that when a Dutch signer counts to five, they will be making different finger movements to most Dutch non-signers counting to five.

The German two, with index finger and thumb, actually signals the number seven in Dutch, American and British sign.

In German sign language, counting does start on the thumb. This means the two in German sign is a seven in Dutch sign.

(If this surprises you, because you thought that sign language was the same everywhere, you are not alone. Unfortunately, every country and even every region has its own sign language. Even regions that have the same spoken language, like the Netherlands and Flanders, have different sign languages. More info here.)

I’m a Dutch-speaking historian and I know stuff


Mega speculation now. My husband’s second theory is that in the Netherlands and Belgium, this shift also happened, just earlier. This would explain the difference in fingers for counting. He thinks that perhaps, say, 100 years ago, the Dutch also would have stuck up their thumb and index finger when ordering two beers. Any historians who would like to weigh in on this? Please leave a comment and let me know!

Why those four countries?

I write an edutainment newsletter about English for Dutch speakers, and this picture was originally meant only for them. So it’s the countries that speak Dutch (the Netherlands and Belgium) and their neighbours.

(Dutch-speaking Belgium borders on French-speaking Belgium and is its own neighbour, so to speak. No, I have not forgotten about the existence of France and Luxembourg.)

What about other places in the world?

Starting from the little finger. I’ve heard that this is something they do in Finland, but I’m also hearing Arabic countries…

There’s a whole Wikipedia page on how people count on their fingers around the world. And a Reddit-thread that is still open for comments.

Arabic countries start with an open hand and close their fingers, apparently. Or they start with their little finger. I’m not sure, I’m hearing different things…

In some parts of Asia you touch the finger bones of each of your fingers with your thumb, allowing you to count to twelve with just one hand.

How do you count to five on your fingers? And how do you order two drinks? Let me know in the comments. Don’t forget to mention which country you are from!

Heddwen Newton is an English teacher and a translator from Dutch into English. She thinks about languages way too much, for example about how strange it is that these little blurb things are written in the third person.

Heddwen has two children, two passports, two smartphones, two arms, two legs, and two email newsletters.

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Photo credits: the picture with the hands is 100% my own creation (yes, that is my hand) and can be shared anywhere. Hooligan: (cropped), Danish ad:, Inglourious Basterds: still from the film (I can’t imagine they’ll mind)