The “phonetic numbers” technique

The lists section showed how to remember long lists by visualizing the items and connecting them. The technique for how to memorize numbers is to do the same, but first we need a way to replace numbers with words that can be visualized.

For example, which of the following two things would you rather remember?


A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

In fact, by remembering the quote you have already learned the number—you just have to read this section to learn to turn the sentence into the number. Even better, you’ll be able to turn any number that you want to remember into a phrase or list of words.

What this system is not

You are most likely already familiar with one way to make words from numbers. On most telephones every number from 2 to 9 is labeled with several letters. Many companies buy a number that spells their name or a word associated with their product (1-800-INSURANCE). It is sometimes possible to take an existing phone number and make a word out of it, but this doesn’t always work. The number 1 isn’t even labeled with a letter, and some number combinations, like 5797, don’t have any vowels.

The system that you’re about to learn can be used to memorize any number. It is much easier to translate the numbers into words compared to things like the telephone method, and just as easy to recall.

The major system

In this system, each digit from 0 to 9 is matched with a group of similar consonant sounds. Vowels do not correspond to any number. This way, each word in the English language can be unambiguously translated to numbers, and for any set of numbers there are many possible words that you can use to memorize them.

For example, the T sound will correspond to the number 1, and the N sound corresponds to the number 2. So the words tuna, tune, toon, tiny, tan, and Tina all translate into the number 12. The words net and nut become the number 21. The different vowel sounds in each word do not represent any digit, so there are many possible words the can be used to memorize the same number.

The following chart shows the consonant sounds that are matched to each digit. The fourth column gives an easy way to remember each number. Don’t feel like you have to learn them all before you read the rest of the section.

Number Consonant Sounds Examples Memory Aid
0 s, z, soft c Sue, zoo, ace zero starts with a Z
1 t, d, th toe, aid, Theo a t has 1 down stroke
2 n in, yawn, Anne an n has 2 down strokes
3 m my, home, Amy an m has 3 down strokes
4 r ray, hero, ear R is the 4th letter of four
5 l hill, owl, Will L is the roman numeral for 50
6 j, ch, sh, soft g jaw, chew, ash, huge a script j has a lower loop like a 6 (sort of a stretch)
7 k, q, hard c, hard g key, cow, egg K looks like two horizontal 7’s (…also a stretch)
8 f, v, ph hoof, Eve, phooey a script f looks like a figure 8
9 p, b ape, bee a P and a 9 both have a loop and a tail

You might notice that several letters are missing from the table: A, E, I, O, U and Y, along with H and W. The sounds that these letters make have no numerical value. (The letter X is also missing, but we’ll talk about that in a second.)

How to remember the sound groups

At first it may seem difficult to remember the groups of letters for each number. Practice saying the example words given above and pay attention to the position of your tongue and lips. For example, when you say words with the ‘P’ or ‘B’ sound, you’re likely to close and open your lips the same way. The ‘K’ and hard ‘G’ sound both come from the same place in the back of your mouth.

Right now it may seem easier to have a system based on letters instead of sounds, but after some practice this technique allows you to memorize and recall numbers very quickly; it becomes second-nature, and you don’t have to worry about spelling mistakes.

Should I make my own system?

It is definitely best to learn the system as it has been explained here. This memorization technique, called “the major system,” was created by Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein sometime in the 17th century. Those who use the technique almost always match the digits and sounds as has been shown here. So, if you’re tempted to rematch the sounds and numbers, just remember that anyone else using the system, as well as any books or software that you consult, will be doing it differently than you.

Translating words to numbers

You may want to see some examples of interchanging words and numbers; the following chart shows some words and the numbers that they signify.

Word Number   Word Number
book 97   staple 0195
door 14   thunder 1214
shoes 60   pencil 9205
paper 994   calendar 75214
train 142   computer 73914
guitar 714   olympics 53970
lamp 539   calculator 757514
glove 758   tournament 142321
orange 426   Strong Bad 0142791

Numbers are sounds, not letters

In the examples above it is possible to change the words into numbers just by looking at the letters, because the letters sound exactly as you would expect. However, many English words have letters that sound different than they normally sound, and sometimes letters do no make a sound at all. The following list gives some examples.

Word Number Explanation
ball 95 There is only one L sound
attic 17 There is only one T sound
clock 757 The “ck” together only make one K sound
match 36 The “tch” together only make one CH sound
witch 6 The “tch” together only make one CH sound
chemical 7375 The “ch” together only make one K sound
reign 42 The “g” is silent
half 8 The “l” is silent
knee 2 The “k” is silent
painting 9212 The “g” is silent (for most people)
ocean 62 The word is pronounced “oh-shun”
lotion 562 The word is pronounced “loh-shun”
ax 70 The “x” makes a K and an S sound

A few words may not have the same consonant sounds depending on who pronounces them. An example is the word picture. Some would pronounce this word as “pic-shur” (9764) and others might say “pict-shur” (97164). Another word that is tricky is wolf; depending on where you’re from and how carefully you’re speaking you might say this word several ways.

When you choose words like these to memorize, always pronounce them as clearly as possible so that they always represent the same numbers.

Translating in your head

This technique makes it very easy to do the translation from words to numbers in your head because you don’t have to worry about how the word is spelled. Simply sound out the word and pay special attention to all of the consonant sounds. Each time you hit a new consonant sound, you’re at a new number.

Translating numbers to words

Before you can memorize and recall a number, you first have to translate it into the words that you will memorize. This can be fun, and there’s some room for creativity because there may be many words that can represent any number.

Say you need to memorize the number 14. (Sure, it’s a short number, but we’ll start with it to practice.) If a word is to represent 14 then its first consonant sound has to be T, D, or TH. The second and last consonant sound must be an R. Now say the consonant sounds together, “TR…DR…THR,” and think of a word that they make.

You might have come up with any of the following: tire, tree, tower, door, Drew, deer, udder, throw, or Heather. If you grew up in the 80’s then you might have thought of Atari. Any of these words represent the number 14.

Also, don’t forget that the words do not have to start with T, D, or TH and end with R; these only have to be the first and last consonant sounds. So the words water, waiter, doorway, throwaway, even diarrhea, can all be used to memorize the number 14.

Below are some more examples of translating numbers into words. Keep in mind that there are many other words that could be used in addition to those listed.

Number Word(s)
75 coal, clue, cola, eagle, glue, goal, keyhole, koala, quill, ugly
29 bean, bin, bone, bun, bunny, open, pan, pawn, pen, penny, piano
63 chime, gem, jam, Jim, shame
491 robot, rowboat, warped, robbed, rabbit
75214 calendar, colander
14265 tarantula, torrential
8426840 french fries

Common pitfalls

Be careful to not choose words that have unnecessary consonant sounds in them. When finding a word for 14, it’s easy to say to yourself, “DR…DR…dirt!”, which has an extra T sound. When you pick a word make sure that it translates into exactly the same numbers that you started with.

Along the same lines, don’t think that a word represents more numbers than it actually does. This happens sometimes due to the spelling of the word. An example is the word lamb—it seems like it translates to 139, but since the “b” is silent, it only represents 13. To avoid making this mistake be sure to only think about the sounds a word makes, not how it’s spelled.

Putting the technique to use

You may have already guessed this, but the longer a number is, the harder it is to find a word to represent it. Because of this, it is necessary to combine words to memorize long numbers. There are two good ways to do this.

Using phrases to memorize numbers

Once way to memorize a long number is to just use a phrase or sentence instead of individual words. We’ll use pi as an example number to memorize. Using some creativity and experimentation, you might come up with a sentence like

I might write a lab in jail.

which represents 314159265. If you want to remember even more digits you might come up with

Mighty hero, to you who will banish all my love—a big bohemian ham for a change.

which is 31415926535897932384626. But while it’s syntactically correct, that sentence is bizarre, not very memorable, and took a long time to come up with.

If you can find a sentence to represent a number then you will probably memorize it very easily and be able to remember it for a long time. But making a phrase or sentence for every number is very difficult which is why we need a second technique.

Linking a list to memorize numbers

This is definitely the more useful of the two methods. To memorize a long number, just break it into smaller numbers and find words to represent each of the smaller segments. Then, memorize the list by chaining together all of these words in order to form the longer number. Again, we’ll us pi as an example:

314 15 926 53 58 979 323 846 26
mother towel banjo lamb elf pickup M&M fridge nachos

By memorizing the list “mother, towel, banjo…,” you can memorize the first 23 digits of pi. With a little practice, the process of linking a list of numbers is very fast and can be done completely in your head. This method can be used to learn phone numbers, your credit card numbers, birthdays, or any other number you would like to memorize.