How We Count

A while ago, I came across a neat little video by Dutch filmmaker Jeroen Wolf. For fun, apparently, he filmed people from 1 to 100 saying their age.

It’s a pretty cool look at the human lifetime, but as I was watching it, I noticed something interesting. Numbers in Dutch are different from those in English. Not the numbers themselves, of course, but the names we give those numbers.

Take “42”, for example. The literal translation of the Dutch name for it is “two and forty. English puts the tens first – “Forty two” – and dispenses with the “and”. If you really want to get picky, you could say that “forty” is just a contraction of “four tens”, making the English term “four tens (and) two”. This pattern – number of tens, then units – holds for the English numbers from 20 to 99. Before 20, English is strange.

There’s a remnant of a base 12 system in the numbers from 1 to 12. Each number has a distinct name. If the base 10 system that’s used for larger numbers held here, English would have something like “onety one” and “onety two” instead of “eleven” and “twelve”. For the rest of the teens, the order is flipped. Instead of “onety four”, the units come first: “fourteen” (four and ten), “fifteen”, etc.

If you think that makes English weird, check out French…

It starts out with one word for each number:

un                        one
deux                    two
trois                     three

Clear enough. Things change when we get to ten

dix                       ten
onze                   eleven
douze                 twelve
treize                  thirteen
quatorze             fourteen
quinze                fifteen
seize                  sixteen

The “-ze” seems to be the equivalent of the English “-teen”, so the terms look like basic variations of the units number. A simple method, except it changes at seventeen:

dix-sept              seventeen           “ten seven”
dix-huit               eighteen              “ten eight”
dix-neuf              nineteen              “ten nine”

Pretty simple. The simplicity continues with twenty:

vingt                   twenty
vingt-et-un         twenty-one
vingt-deux          twenty-two
trente                  thirty
trente-et-un         thirty-one
trente-deux         thirty-two
quarante             forty
quarante-et-un    forty-one
quarante-deux    forty-two

OK, so French actually sticks an “and” in there for 21, 31, etc. No matter, it’s the same pattern as English. A special word to indicate you’re dealing with multiples of ten, then the word for the units. This keeps going up to 70:

soixante-neuf       sixty-nine
soixante-dix         seventy              “sixty ten”
soixante-onze      seventy-one       “sixty eleven”
soixante-seize      seventy-six        “sixty sixteen”
soixante-dix-sept  seventy-seven   “sixty ten seven”
soixante-dix-huit   seventy-eight     “sixty ten eight”
soixante-dix-neuf  seventy-nine      “sixty ten nine”

It’s almost as if it’s shifted from a Base 10 system to a Base 20 system!

Actually, it has:

quatre-vingts         eighty               “four twenties”
quatre-vingt-un      eighty-one       “four twenties one”
quatre-vingt-deux  eighty-two        “four twenties two”
quatre-vingt-dix      ninety             “four twenties ten”
quatre-vingt-onze   ninety-one      “four twenties eleven”

When you get to 100, the system just puts the term for the number of 100’s at the head:

cent                    one hundred
deux cents          two hundred
trois cents onze  three hundred eleven

It’s really weird how French changes systems so often. I’m sure there’s a fascinating reason why, but I will leave that to all the philologists reading this as an exercise. Someone must have already studied the relationship between languages based on their words for numbers, right?

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