French name for decades and base 20 thought patterns

What do the French call “the 90s” or “the 70s”? It seems very strange to call a decade “les quatre-vingts dix” when the rest of the number words for that decade don’t have “dix” in them at all.

On that note, I have to wonder how the French numbering system affects thought patterns in general. Is it harder to do arthimetic in your head when the first word in a two-digit number doesn’t uniquely identify the first digit in a significant number of cases? Is it harder to write down numbers people are spouting off due to not being able to write a number down immediately on hearing “soixante” like when you would “trente”? Given that I learned “mille neuf cent quatre-vingt” as the beginning to the name of the year through my elementary school’s attempts at teaching me the language, they apparently don’t just pronounce each digit separately and are even less inclined than English to do so.

Some of this is GQ, some of this is more IMHO. Sorry.

Note for those not familiar with the French names for numbers, here’s the main quirk: there is no separate word for 70 - there’s just “60 + 10”, and likewise no word for 80 beyond “4-20”, and “4-20 + 10” gets used for 90. That is, if English followed the French numbering nomenclature, 78 would be called “sixty-eighteen” and 94 would be called “four-twenty-fourteen”. And since the French 18 is more directly translatable back to English “ten-eight”, 78 would actually be called “sixty-ten-eight”.

Don’t know the answers, but I like the questions. It shouldn’t be hard to set up good samples to test them, because there are French-speaking parts of the world (I think Belgium might be one) where they do say “septante” for “70” and so forth.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if the basic answer to your questions were “no, it doesn’t appreciably affect one’s abilities to do quick math, etc.”. Many languages are radically different from the ones you and I (probably) speak, in much deeper ways than this, and yet the human brain manages to do pretty much anything it needs to in any of them.

A quick search turns up lots of hits for “les années quatre-vingt-dix” (the years 4-20-10, i.e. the 90s). Other vigesimal systems do it differently. Welsh is more like English: “ugain” (20) becomes “yr ugeiniau” (the 20s), but “deg ar hugan” (10-on-20, i.e. 30) becomes “y tridegau” (the 3-10s). You can also say “tri deg” (3-10s, i.e. 30). “Deugain” (2-20s, i.e. 40) is either “deugeiniau” (2-20s) or “pedwardegau” (4-10s), but the latter has more hits on google. The decimal system is gradually replacing the vigesimal system under the influence of English.

(Note on translation: in Welsh numbers are usually followed by singular nouns, so both “three cat on ten” and “three on ten of cats” would be translated “13 cats”.)

Really, it doesn’t matter. When I hear “quatre vingt dix huit” I’m just hearing one number, I don’t hear quatre, then vingt, then dix, then huit. It’s maybe a bit longer to pronounce than “nineteen eight”, but if it is, the difference isn’t significant. Similarly, I don’t perceive a difference between seize (16) and dix-sept (17), even though the names or those two numbers are structured differently.
In fact I realized only quite late (probably when I was a teenager) that quatre vingt (for instance) meant literally four times twenty. Before that, it just was the name of the number 80. You just don’t notice things you’re so much accustomed to, even though it’s blatantly obvious if you stop to think about it for two seconds. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of adult Frenchmen who would be surprised if you pointed out this fact to them, since they never had paid attention to how numbers are expressed in French.
The name of numbers in French are just that, names. Computer is the name of what I’m using right now, and “quatrevingt” is the name of the number 80. No difference.
In French, 80 isn’t four times twenty any more than a lieutenant is a guy “tenant lieu”, or than embrasser is “prendre entre ses bras”.

Yeah, what he said. And the arithmetic part comes down to this: if a teacher asked me what is “trois fois quatre-vingt-deux”, the mental image I would get would be “3 x 82”, no extra syllables or anything, and certainly not “3 x (4 x 20 + 2)”.

It’s similar to an English speaker ignoring the inversion between “nineteen” and “twenty-nine” and perceiving both to be easily-grasped numbers, not “9 + 10” and “20 + 9”.

Four score and seven years ago… this wasn’t a peculiarly French phenomenon (just thought that might be worth mentioning)

Same for me !
By the way, Swiss, Belgians and Quebecois don’t use the same system: they say ‘Septante’ (70) and Neunante (90) which sounds pretty strange to French ear.

For the 90’, we say ‘les années quatre-vingt dix’ (in general we refer to a decade by ‘les années …’ and then the number of the decade).

I can testify that we don’t use “septante”, “octante” or “nonante” in Québec. In fact, many people here wouldn’t recognise these as numbers at all, since we have little very little contact (through TV, print media, etc.) with French speakers in Switzerland or Belgium. Most of the “European” French we hear comes from France.

I wonder about the historical origin? I imagined that the French naming of larger numbers was frozen into the language back in the early days of the language, when the average person did not have a good grasp of large numbers (i.e. did not encounter them often) and so the easiest way to count was to make piles of 10’s and 20’s.

(I recall something about linguistics once that said that the more common usage a word received, the more likely it was to be abbreviated and simplified.)

If I’m not mistaken, we inherited this system from the Celts, but I’m not absolutely sure I’m remembering correctly.

In (US) English we have special words for 11 & 12. But 13-19 are said as the words for 3&10, 4&10, etc through 9&10. Thereafter we use the form 20&1, 20&2, etc straight through to 90&9.

But then we shift again to single digits followed by the unit “hundred”, then the last 2 digits as above, including the exceptions for 11 & 12.

Explained this way, it’s real clear that English is very far from uniform in how it word-ifies / pronounces numbers up to 1000. Does this pose everyday problems for native English speakers? Does it cause them to have a harder time adding or multiplying 12 versus, say, 14?

I doubt it.

There’s no way of knowing for sure, but probably. Of the Romance languages, French has the strongest Celtic substrate and as far as I know is the only one with such a system. (I wonder if Celtic-substrate dialects of Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian have this feature?) All the Insular Celtic languages have it, but we don’t know for sure about Gaulish and base-20 is found in a few non-Celtic Indo-European languages, especially if you’re counting archaic / poetic registers.

Yes, English has custmized words for eleven and twelve, or up to a dozen - a relatively common counting target even hundreds of years ago. For up to 20 we have somewhat customized words, using “teen” instead of “ten”. Similarly, “Half” and “quarter” are common divisions with moe customized names than the rest. Heck, even the old English currency had 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound.

As I said, I imagine a time when numbers above 20 were rarely encountered by the average person, who would be lucky to own 12 chickens. Counting to 20 was easy, especially if he didn’t have shoes on. If the counting process/nomenclature for French was frozen very early on and difficult to change because it was a widely accepted and spoken language after latin in the middle ages, then maybe it was set that way before the elite scholar types had the opportunity to invent simpler numbering?

German counts inverted for higher numbers - it’s einundzwanzig one and twenty, for 21. This is confusing for foreigners learning German, who often keep inverting the numbers to say the ten digits first, then the one digits. It also means that when hearing a number we have to wait for the full number to write it down.

It doesn’t interfere with maths at all, though, because we visualize the number, not the name.

I think this is an interesting phenomenon that happens in threads about other languages. People (unilingual ones in particular) tend to perceive other languages as they would in their mother tongue, which makes sense since it’s all they know - and it does lead to interesting discussion about the origin of words. But when you think about it, the implication about how it’s interpreted by a native speaker is a little bizarre. To use this example, it would suggest that French people must hear “quatre-vingt-deux”, then break the word down into components, possibly into each word’s English meaning, then reconstruct it back into French, rather than only hearing a French word.

I guess I was slightly unclear about what exactly I was most interested in and got my mind wandering in different directions. Especially when I mixed in discussion about “quatre-vingt” which really has nothing to do with what I was wondering.

My (potential) issue the concept that in English there is a series of numbers called “the nineties” (whether they’re names for years or for temperatures or anything else) in which all the names for numbers start with “ninety”. In French you have “les (noun) quatre-vingt dix”, but the rest of the names for the numbers do not have “dix” in them at all, at least pronunciation-wise. This occurs in some sense in English when people talk about the “teens”, they generally only mean precisely 13-19 if they are referring to ages and otherwise find it completely normal that “eleven” and “twelve” are in the “teens” and have internalized this completely. But in those cases the vast majority of numbers are “teens”, and there merely are irregular forms for two numbers, while in French the pattern is completely regular in some sense, and despite “90” having “dix” in its name, no other number in “les 90s” does. Does no one find this at all odd? Do people think of “quatre-vingt seize” having “quatre-vingt dix” as part of it?

I suppose it’s just one of those things that you learn and never really think about, but for some reason thinking about it bugged me enough to ask what others’ experiences were.

Oops. 3 of the numbers do. I wonder if the far lesser number of “teens” in French is a potential source of my confusion, failing to realize that they’re basically the same as teh English teens that we use easily.

Some nitpicks. Feel free to ignore them:

This isn’t true. 13 is not threeteen and 15 is not fiveteen. I admit they are close though.

It happens as well for les années dix, which would be 2010–2019, and yes it works as in English where the teens are from 10–19 except for ages. (In French these people are called les ados short for les adolescents or adolescentes, but I don’t think the age range is as strict as it is in English, so there’s no discussion about whether 19-year-olds are really teenagers and all that.) And as you’ve noted, 17–19 are dix-sept, dix-huit, and dix-neuf.

Exactly; the 90s (and the 70s for that matter) add the teens to the 80s (and 60s). 91 isn’t some “concept of ninety plus 1” it’s the “concept of 80 plus 11”.

As far as writing the numbers, I speak French as a second language, and it did take some time to stop writing a 6 every time I heard soixante (my favorite French word, by the way). After a while though you get used to it, and only write that part down after they say the units digit. So, soixante et onze is now for me 71, and not 60 + 11, or even 70 + 1. That is, I just take both parts together, more or less the same way you do for English twelve.