Onze, douze, treize…

Onze, douze, treize…

awz, dooz, trez… Click below to hear this pronounced.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen…

Ah, yes: numbers. The bane of every student of French. I can hear the wails of despair from here. “Why do they do it like this? It’s not logical!”

Oh, but it is. It’s just not the same logic you are accustomed to!

Imagine this. You are a member of a Celtic tribe, living somewhere in northern Gaul. You have a fine language, called Breton, and a sophisticated base-20 counting system. That means that every number from one to 20 has a new name, and you think of things in bundles of 20s. This matches the number of fingers and toes you have, so it’s pretty satisfying.

And then Julius Caesar and his Roman soldiers march in, and subdue your people. They occupy your land, speak a strange language. And they don’t seem to be overly bright–they don’t know how to count! They use the same numbers all over again, every time they count another ten!

…But time passes, and your counting system and theirs inevitably get all tangled up. So do other parts of the languages. Your grandchildren can’t remember the correct names of the numbers, and all those little Celtic-Gaulish-Roman offspring have a strange way of counting too.

Time travel back to the present! Now you know why French counting seems so odd. It’s a combination of the Roman base-10 system and the Celtic base-20 system! And it happened, to one degree or another, in many of the languages that developed across what is now Europe.

So here’s how it works in modern French, English, and Breton (the tables are not as elegant as I would like, since WordPress and tables don’t play nicely together):

Numeral Name in French Base
11 onze 20
12 douze 20
13 treize 20
14 quatorze 20
15 quinze 20
16 seize 20
17 dix-sept 10 (10 + 7)
18 dix-huit 10 (10 + 8)
19 dix-neuf 10 (10 + 9)
Numeral Name in English Base
11 eleven 20
12 twelve 20
13 thirteen 10 (10 + 3)
14 fourteen 10 (10 + 4)
15 fifteen 10 (10 + 5)
16 sixteen 10 (10 + 6)
17 seventeen 10 (10 + 7)
18 eighteen 10 (10 + 8)
19 nineteen 10 (10 + 9)
Numeral Name in Breton Base
11 unnek 10 (10 + 1)
12 daouzek 10 (10 + 2)
13 trizek 10 (10 + 3)
14 pevarzek 10 (10 + 4)
15 pemzek 10 (10 + 5)
16 c’hwezek 10 (10 + 6)
17 seitek 10 (10 + 7)
18 triwec’h 6, I guess! (3 x 6)
19 naontek 10 (10 + 9)

See? I told you it gets all scrambled up! Keep coming back, because there’s more. Another time, soon, we’ll talk about the bigger numbers, which gets even more interesting!

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