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:
Clear enough. Things change when we get to ten
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:
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-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?