# origin of number names, usage

I’ve searched the archives, as well as a general internet search, but the terms are difficult to evaluate, especially at this late hour!

I’m curious to know three things:

1. Why do the numbers eleven and twelve have those particular names while every other number in that range (13-19) simply has a -teen suffix? Why the special designation in a base-10 number system? Incidentally, in the Chinese base-10 system, eleven is “ten one”, twelve is “ten two”.

2. Why are the numbers 13 through 19 pronouced digit first, tens second? (fourteen, nineteen) While every other tens grouping uses tens first (twenty-one, ninety-six).

3. Do the names of the digits have any particular significance beyond their designation as a point on a number line? (When you trace them to their root name, i.e. seven to sept, and so on)

1/ and 2/ Historically our number system has not only been based on ten but also on 2/4/8, 12, 20 and 60. For example we still divide inches into halves, quarters, eighths etc, pounds weight into sixteenths, feet and shillings into twelfths, numbers and pounds sterling into scores, and hours into minutes. Multiples of these also occur- 360 degrees in a circle, eighty is quatre-vingt in french etc.

Two major break points are 12 and twenty and therefore it is not surprising that numbering to these points have different terminology.

3/ Most numbers in Indo European languages trace back to proto Indo European and have unknown meaning other than that defined by their numerical usage.

Here is something on the etymology of English numbers, of which I will only quote a bite-sized chunk. It looks interesting, though.

numbernames
It’s from something called Cenius.net

The numbers eleven and twelve may mean something like “one left” and “two left”. There are many residues of a base-twelve counting system in our culture, and this sounds like a reconciliation.

In German and Dutch, the pattern “ones first, then tens” persists from thirteen through to 99. The “twenty-one” pattern arose in English. Maybe it’s French influence.

Many people have speculated about the relationship between the words for “nine” and “new” in IE languages. This could suggest the earlier existence of counting words up to 8.

In Finnish, the words for eight and nine are “kahdeksan” and “yhdeksan”. These are similar to the words for two and one (“kaksi” and “yksi”). This could suggest a reconciliation from base-8 up to base-10 (“two left” and “one left” again, but in the opposite direction this time.

hibernicus: In German and Dutch, the pattern “ones first, then tens” persists from thirteen through to 99. The “twenty-one” pattern arose in English.

Comparatively recently, too: we used to use the “ones-tens” order, as phrases like “four-and-twenty blackbirds” and “between eight and thirty Degrees and five and forty Degrees of the said Latitude” (from the 1606 Charter of Virginia) remind us.

Just dawned on me that French numbers ‘break’ at sixteen- seize goes on to dix-sept. I believe that old french and Canadian French break their decades at different points, whereas modern Europpean French has a break at 70 which is quatre-vingts moins dix.

Are you sure you’re not thinking of Danish, or something?

70 = soixante-dix

Yes, I’m probably confused. My French (as was pointed out by a hotel owner in France) is fair for the discussion of food and drink, but useless for anything else.

Probably I was trying to say was that non-standard French has septant rather than soixante et onze etc… I probably got confused with quatre-vingts dix and so mispoke! Having checked I find that Belgium has septante and nonante for 70 and 90 and Switzerland has huitante for 80.

Now you mention Danish, you may have a point- I’d have to check that - I’ve checked, no- but Norwegian has:

20 tyve
30 tredive
40 fyrre
50 halvtreds
60 treds
70 halvfjerds
80 firs
90 halvfems
100 hundrede

Curiouser and curiouser.