Monday, May 31, 2010

Counting in French

Counting seems like a pretty universal concept. I'm sure as language was first invented, words to express various quantities of items were some of the first grunts we settled on.

Counting seems relatively standard these days too. Sure every language has its own word for one, but the concept of one remains the same. In fact most languages even have a remarkably similar progression of numbers--0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and we can combine these 10 digits to continue the progression for ever. 11 is very logically 10 and 1, 12 is 10 and 2, 952 is 9 hundreds 5 tens and 2. Quite logical, and it conveniently never ends.

These 10 digits of Indian origin (the country in Asia, not the natives in the US) have even become the standard for nearly all languages on the planet (at least by number of speakers). From English to Chinese to Russian to their origins in India, these digits mostly replace the native numeric representations for most pratical uses. When was the last time you wrote something in Roman Numerals?

Most humans have 10 fingers which are amazingly useful tools for counting in a base-10 counting system, but not all languages originally counted by 10. For example, the original Celts of Europe--who were famous for wearing no shoes and therefore having access to 10 additional counting digits--counted in sets of 20. Instead of having numbers like thirty, forty, fifty, etc. they would just have twenty and ten, two twenties, two twenties and ten, etc. Even in English we still have those weird words like eleven and twelve before we switch back to something that more resembles a base-10 counting system (thirteen, fourteen, etc.) and by 20 we are back to a very systematic base-10 system.

Before being conquered by the Romans, France was a mostly celtic country and some of that cultural heritage is preserved in their utterly bizarre counting system. The French, the champions of the metric system, do not even have a metric (base-10) counting system--at least not entirely. Things start out fairly similar to English and we count quite normally from one to sixty-nine, but for some odd reason the French have no word for seventy. Well, actually they do, they just chose not to use it, and instead the say sixty-ten. Similarly we have sixty-and-eleven, sixty-twelve, all the way up to sixty-nineteen for 79.

The French word for eighty is similarly unused, and instead we have four-twenties. Four-twenties-and-one, four-twenties-two, etc. leading up to four-twenties-nine, and after that, where we would logically expect a word for ninety, we get four-twenties-ten. I would have to say that there is no more horrible number in French than 99, which in this pseudo-base-20 counting system is four-twenties-nineteen!

As mentioned above, French actually does have words for seventy (septante), eighty (octante), and ninety (nonante), the French just chose not to use them. However, some francophones outside of France do use this more modern (and logical) vocabulary, as George and I were a bit surprised to hear when we were recently in Brussels. George purchased some fruit at a small grocery and the grocer gave her the price as nonante-huit (98), and George, being familiar with the weird French version, had no idea what he said. It took me a minute to realize what he said as well, and when I translated from logical Belgian French to weird base-20 French French, quatre-vingts dix-huit (four-twenties-eighteen), she immediately understood and the cashier and another customer in line laughed a bit at us.

We actually have some small remnants of this in English too. We are all familiar with Lincoln's "four score and seven years ago" entrance to the Gettysburg address, but outside of quoting old Abe, I don't think I have ever heard anyone ask for four score of anything, and I have certainly never been quoted a price at McDonald's as four score and eighteen cents.

Welcome to the 21st century France! You can leave your pre-historic counting system at the door.

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