Words for numbers --- English --- French and German --- Songs --- Counting sheep
The English language is a mixture of many languages, but two important ones are Anglo-Saxon, which is a Germanic language, and Norman French. It is interesting to look at the words for numbers in French and German, to see where the English words came from. It's not as simple as you might think!
The introduction shows that twelve and twenty were so important that they had special names - a dozen and a score. If you look at the words for English numbers, you can see the importance of twelve. The numbers for 13-19 are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and so on. You can guess that 'teen' means 'ten' and so thirteen means three + ten. But 11 and 12 have names of their own - eleven and twelve. German is the same. It has special names for 11 and 12 - elf and zwölf - while 13 is dreizehn or drei (three) + zehn (ten). But French has special names right up to 16 (seize) and it's only 17, 18 and 19 which bring in dix (ten). The French wouldn't understand why a 13 year old is a teenager! However, the other English word for twelve is a dozen (even though we never use it when counting) and that word comes from the French - douze.
So far, it might seem that English numbers are closer to German than French. However there is something strange about German numbers above 20. The English and the French words are in the same order as the numbers: 21, twenty one, vingt-et-un ('et' means 'and'). But the German is 'einundzwanzig' or 'one and twenty' (the Germans like running words together), and this continues for the higher numbers. This seems odd to English ears, but think about it. We say 'seventeen' for 17 - or 'seven ten', similar to German 'siebzehn'. The French sensibly say 'dix-sept', which is the same order as the digits 17. That means that English is closer to German for 1-20, but mostly closer to French above 20. The English numbers from thirteen to nineteen can be hard for young children to learn as they are the 'wrong way round'. In fact, even above twenty, we occasionally use the German order in English. The Nursery rhyme says "Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie".
|English||twenty one||twenty two||twenty three||twenty four||twenty five|
French also has an interesting words for multiplies of ten. 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 are quite normal, but 70 is soixante-dix (60 + 10). 80 is quatre-vingt, which means four times twenty or four score. 90 is quatre-vingt-dix or four score and ten. This may seem odd, but English used to use the same idea. To quote from the King James Bible, "The days of our years are threescore years and ten".
To summarise, English is a Germanic language, but heavily influenced by Norman French, or to put it another way, a mess!
Here is a frivolous account of other languages reacting to the French spoken number system:
|French:||... Sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine, sixty-ten...|
|French:||.. sixty-and-eleven, sixty-twelve, sixty-thirteen, sixty-fourteen, sixty-fifteen, sixty-sixteen, sixty-ten-seven ...|
|Other languages:||**shutting eyes**|
|French:||... sixty-ten-eight, sixty-ten-nine ...|
|Other languages:||**hands over face***|
|French:||... four twenties! :) Four twenties one ...|
This shows another pecularity of the French system. Multiples of ten plus one (such as 21) use 'et' (and) from 21 to 71, but not 81 or 91.
© Jo Edkins 2006 - Return to Numbers index