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Was talking to my friend (native Chinese) the other day and when she read out a phone number she said "yao" for all the "ones" in the phone number.

However, as far as I remember, for all other cases she says it normally - eg. "yi ge" when counting etc.

Also, as far as I know, people from Taiwan don't use "yao" but stay with "yi" for all cases of uses of the number "one".

Does anyone know why "yao" is used instead of "yi"?

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Related: Number two in chinese: 二 vs 两 –  Alenanno Jan 15 '12 at 11:03
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

In the mainland of China (I don't know how people in Taiwan use this character, sorry), people usually use "yao" when reading numerical serial numbers, digit by digit. One typical application is the phone number. In almost all other cases, only "yi" should be used.

Why can it mean "one"?

The character for "yao" is "幺". Which originally (in classic Chinese) means "young,little". Especially this meaning is used (still used nowadays, very popular here in Chengdu) to refer to the youngest child in a family.

I believe the meaning "one" extends from this meaning, since 1 is the "youngest" element in natural number family (without 0).

Why is it used as "one"?

As Bathrobe pointed out, once this was very popular in military actions, to avoid the misunderstanding as 七, to express the numbers more clearly.

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My understanding is that it is originally a military usage. Since the pronunciation yī is easily mistaken for 七 qī in radio transmissions etc, yāo is substituted in the interest of aural clarity.

This usage is not found in Taiwan (although I can't speak for the Taiwanese military).

This question has been answered before.

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