Episode 114: The Craft of Numbering

The words for numbers are some of the oldest and most conservative words in most languages.  The English words for numbers can be traced back to the original Indo-European language, but during the early Middle English period, English speakers began to borrow related number words from Greek, Latin and French.  At the same time, the modern Hindu-Arabic numerals were making their first appearance in English documents and inscriptions. In this episode, we explore the history of numbers and the words we use to express numerical concepts.

20 thoughts on “Episode 114: The Craft of Numbering

  1. Great episode!

    I note that German retains the traditional formulations of 21 through 99. So twenty-four is “vierundzwanzig”, literally “fourandtwenty”. Perhaps the change in English reflects French influence. French expresses that number as “vingt-quatre”, literally “twenty-four”.

    I also note that the twenty-based counting system continues to decline in French. Belgian and Swiss French use, to varying degrees, ten-based words for the numbers 70 to 99.

    • Thanks for the insight. I actually qualified my statement about the change from “four and twenty” to “twenty-four” by noting that other factors may have been at work in the change. I think that French influence may have also been a factor, but I couldn’t find any definitive research on the subject.

      The decline of the 20-base counting system in French has been going on for some time. Standard French once had “trois-vingt” (literally ‘three twenties’) for 60.

        • In his book “From One to Zero,” Georges Ifrah provides the following passage:

          “In Old French, terms similar to the modern quatre-vingts (80, literally ‘four twenties’) were often used. For 60, 120, and 140, for example, trois-vingts (‘three twenties’), six-vingts (‘six twenties’) and sept-vingts (‘seven-twenties’) were common. A corps of 220 policemen in Paris was called the Corps des Onze-Vinghts (‘Corps of the Eleven Twenties’). A Paris hospital built in the thirteenth century to house 300 blind veterans still has its original name: Hopital des Quinze-Vingts (‘Hospital of the Fifteen-Twenties’). In Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, act 3, scene 4, Moliere has one of his characters say six-vingts (‘six twenties’) for 120.” (Page 41)

          It is my understanding that these older terms held on through the 18th century and weren’t really extinguished until the French Revolution.

    • Evidence of “decline”? Francophones in European regions outside France have always (i.e. for the past few generations) said septante, octante, and nonante. Those terms have been around for centuries. I am quite sure no change has been noted in France or Quebec regarding the 20-based equivalents.

  2. Yes, a really great episode thanks.
    Fascinating that ream and number were one and the same. Ream means a bundle, now of paper, and these days 500 sheets but before decimal rationalisation it used to be 480 (divisible by 60).
    Oh! Isn’t language exciting?

    • The Old English word for number was “rim.” It was pronounced similar to the modern word “ream,” but it was actually a completely different word. I noted back in Episode 90 that the word “ream” was actually borrowed from Arabic. The original Arabic word was “rizmah” meaning ‘a bundle of something,’ and it came to refer to a bundle of paper became the Arab paper trade was quite substantial in the period before paper mills were introduced to Europe.

  3. Hello and thank you for an excellent podcast!

    I just listened to the latest episode, the craft of numbering, and the discussion about the number four had me thinking. The reason you gave for why “quattuor” became “four” rather than “hour” was alliteration. What I think is more likely or more of a dominant reason is that the u/v sound in “quattor” turned into an f-sound and that the initial “h” sound that the k-sound would have shifted to would have been dropped since it is more or less silent in the combination h-f. If you say the word “quattor” with an initial h-sound, the u/v sound kind of becomes an f-sound because of the assimilation with the voiceless h-sound. What do you think of this hypothesis?

    • It’s an interesting theory. I try to present the theories I come across in my research, but alternate theories occasionally come along to present a new perspective on the issue. Maybe there is something to your theory.

  4. Very interesting episode, thanks!
    I can give my two cents on this topic:
    Du meant two also in the old language Aramaic, which survived to modern Hebrew

  5. You mentioned how the Indo-European languages did not develop common names for “thousand” because they rarely counted that high. A similar example exists in modern English with the word “billion”.

    In US English, a billion was 10^9 (1,000,000,000), while in UK English, a billion was 10^12 (1,000,000,000,000). (Or a trillion, in US English.)

    I believe now both countries use the US formulation, but this is supposedly different than what other European countries did. French for example calls our billion as a “milliard” while reserving their own “billion” for the 10^12 number.

    Very interesting stuff!

    • Very interesting indeed. I didn’t spent much time on “million,” “billion,” etc. in my research because they were all later additions to the language.

  6. About the theory of phoenecian traders. The one of the more lavihs bronze age graves found in scandinavia is “The kings grave”. It contains several stones with petroglyphs, one of them can be stipulated to mean:
    Two people came out of two different wombs. They performed a ritual. And then became one people, with the same pantheon of gods.

    Another tidbit of information is that many petroglyphs found in the nordic bronze age are identical to petroglyphs around the mediteranean. The normal explanation for this is that scandinavian traders encountered these motifs when going down to central europe to trade for tin. But why could it not be phoenecian traders coming up the coast o spain?

    Another tidbit is the lavishness of the material culture of the Nordic Bronze age. The artifacts are of very high quality and workmanship. Which is surprising because of the low population density. So this could have been an impulse from outside. Then again, the climate was warm before 500 bc and the population density of the bronze age was not repeated until very late, i forget the exact number but could be in the sixteenhundereds or somesuch.

  7. The word “quinzaine” is very much alive and well in France where it survives in various phrases related to “half a month” or “two weeks’ holiday”.

  8. Hearing about the “special” Germanic forms for 11 and 12 made me think about how the Romance languages do that too. E.g. in French the words for 11 – 16 are kind of unique (onze à seize), but when we hit 17 it reverts to a formula: dix-sept, dix-huit (ten-seven, ten-eight). So did the ancient French have a base 16 counting system ?! Turns out, “non”. They just use the old Latin form for 11-16, and then switch to a composite form. Spanish makes the jump at 15-16 (quince – dieciséis), while Romanian is the only one to keep the original Latin all the way to 20.

  9. Great stuff especially after a long life of fascination with numbers and numeration – but an anecdote! As a child I was convinced that the word “couple” meant a small number not necessarily two. Then decades later when trying to learn Gaelic I discovered that their word for few is “cupla”. Did that come down from my grandmother who grew up speaking and writing Gaelic before learning English as a teenager? Yet I was in my sixties before I understood that.

    • From how I understand the etymology, both the English couple and the Irish cúpla come from the Old French cople, ultimately from the Latin cōpula (“bond, tie”).

      As far as the meaning of couple goes in English, however, I would argue that it almost always means “small number” when used conversationally in the context of counting; for me at least, it tends to convey a precise pair only when I talk about a couple, i.e. romantic partners.

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