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.


38 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.

      • From what I know, you can indeed find quatre-vingts in some parts of Switzerland, like Geneva (or other cities in the western part).

        Septante has “always” existed in French, with the Old French being setante (itself inherited from the Latin septuaginta). Some say the base-twenty convention came from the Celts, others the Vikings, and yet others both. Regardless who it came from, the Romans likely influenced some groups to adopt their decimal system, but still other groups persisted in say things like soixante-dix. Thus, we have a mix of decimal and vigesimal in the francophone world.

  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.

    • You said that four and twenty in the nursery rhyme is a holdover from the earlier counting system. I would add another seven holdovers…thirteen through nineteen. Spanish and French say those numbers in the same order we use for twenties through nineties, dieciseis and dix-sept meaning ten and seven, but English retains the older seven and ten version.

  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.

    • It fascinates me how the different European languages reflect their common roots and yet differ in such varied and seemingly random ways.

  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.

  10. Great episode , I would like to add / questioned the number Seven . which you refereed as came from the Greece Septa .
    It may be true , but Seven is a “holly” number . in I believe it is relayed to the Shabat( the Seven day ) as well , and it sounds very ;like the Hebrew “Sheva ” or the Arabic Sabaa . So i think there must be connection to that .

    • Hebrew “shabath” was borrowed into Greek and Latin, and it eventually passed into English as “Sabbath.” Despite the apparent similarities, there is no known etymological connection between the word “Sabbath” and the word “seven” (or its Indo-European cognates).

  11. What I find interesting is that we changed things way we say the numbers 21 through 99 but not 13 through 19 which are still back to front. Any idea why?

  12. I was thinking also about fractions. There used to be an old British coin called a farthing valued at a quarter of an old penny. This came from the Anglo Saxon word for four thing or fourthing. Was this the standard name for a quarter part of something in Anglo Saxon? What were other fractions called?

    • Yes, a “farthing” literally meant ‘a fourth part’ in Old English. So it was the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of ‘a quarter.’ A half was “healf.” A third was “þrimen.”

    • Even “penny” wanders in its meanings. Quite apart from “a penny” meaning “a cent” – one hundredth of a North American Dollar and (when I was young) one two-hundred-and-fortieth of a pound (in the UK and in Australia), people of my mother’s age used “penny” to mean quite a different thing.

      To “spend a penny” was to badger my father for a coin from his pocket because 60-70 years ago, women had to unlock the public lavatory door with a penny. Men got in free.

      I mention this because for some people, for a short period (now pretty well gone), “penny” had connotations with biological functions.

      That, I believe, makes etymology delightfully difficult and confusing.

      Now multiply my comments on “penny” by the manifestations You (all) know of different words in different locations.

      “You should have a chat with Blue” when I was a kid in Western Australia, meant you should find the bloke with red hair.

  13. Slightly tangential to this episode, but you say “twa was the feminine version of the word … the masculine version was twegen”. en.wiktionary.org has two as “from Old English twā, neuter of twēġen (whence twain), from Proto-Germanic *twai, from Proto-Indo-European *dwóh”.

    Were feminine and neuter where the same? Did they merge at some point?

    Bigger question, did Old English have three genders, like German still does: neuter, feminine, and masculine? The Scandinavians have remnants of that but really only two genders now, neuter and common. Norwegian has remnants of a feminine gender used for a few words. At what point did that decay? Perhaps a topic for another episode?

    • Technically, Old English had the following words for ‘two’:
      Masculine – “twegen”
      Feminine – “twa”
      Neuter – “twa” and “tu”

      So the feminine and neuter forms just happened to be the same. And yes, Old English had masculine, feminine and neuter genders. They all eroded and lost most of their distinctions in the late Old English and early Modern English periods.

  14. Thank you, Kevin, for a fantastic podcast. You do an incredible job! I learned years ago that the reason why the word ‘two’ is spelled with a final ‘o’ and yet is pronounced like a ‘u’ is because it used to be written with a final ‘u’ and the ‘u’ was switched for ‘o’, but it retained the original pronunciation. I have trying to find proof of that assertion and this is the first time I have seen the ‘tu’. So, it appears that the two forms of the neuter might have merged; because the current pronunciation is that of ‘tu’ with the ‘u’ – ‘o’ switch, but the spelling retains the ‘tw’ sequence to signal etymological and meaning connection to the other words which share a meaning of two like ‘twin, twenty, twice, between’ and so. The ‘w’ in ‘two’ is referred to as an ‘etymological marker. Thanks for providing such a treasure chest of information for listeners.

    • ‘Tu’ was indeed a neuter version of ‘two’ in Old English, but I’m not sure that it produced the modern pronunciation. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the modern vowel pronunciation is a more recent development caused by the linguistic environment in which it appears. Here is the quote from the OED:

      “The pronunciation /tuː/, like that of who /huː/ from Old English hwá, is due to labialization of the vowel by the w (compare womb), which then disappeared before the related sound. The successive stages would thus be /twaː/, /twɔː/, /twoː/, /twuː/, /tuː/.”

  15. Many thanks for a fascinating episode. On the “four-and-twenty” type of construction, when I was a kid I occasionally came across cases of the time given as something like “five-and-twenty past two”, although it was very old-fashioned by then.

    An extra mystery about the number 4 seems to be the Greek tettares. I may have missed something, but I can’t think of any standard sound-shift that would connect it with either four or quattuor.

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