Counting by 10s vs. 20s

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Aug 22 19:32:00 UTC 2013

I wouldn't call it a vigesimal counting system, nor would I say that (French) French counts the numbers by twenties based on a couple of quirks.  There's just one instance of a twenty showing up unexpectedly: "quatre vingts" ('four twenties') for '80' and as a component of numbers up to 99, which is thus "quatre-vingt-dix-neuf" or 4 x 20 + (10 + 9).   There's an equally weird instance of 60 featuring in numbers between 60 and 79 (soixante-dix-neuf, or 60 + (10 + 9).   But it seems to be that a really vigesimal system would insist on "trois vingts" etc., not "soixante".


On Aug 22, 2013, at 12:56 PM, Geoffrey Steven Nathan wrote:

> The standard theory is that it was borrowed from Celtic languages spoken in the area where French developed . Some Celtic languages do indeed have 'vigesimal' counting systems ((Breton, Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Irish all have or had it) .
> Others think the borrowing went the other way round. Vennemann (whom some of you know) thinks it's Basque in origin.
> There's some discussion in the Wikipedia article on Vigesimal counting systems
> but any comprehensive recent history of French would cover it in some considerable detail.
> Geoffrey S. Nathan
> Faculty Liaison, C&IT
> and Professor, Linguistics Program
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> ----- Original Message -----
>> From: "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
>> Sent: Thursday, August 22, 2013 11:48:58 AM
>> Subject: Counting by 10s vs. 20s
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster: "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
>> Subject: Counting by 10s vs. 20s
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> What is the received wisdom why English counts the God-given natural
>> numbers by tens, whereas French counts them by
>> twenties? Did European serfs of colder Northern Europe wear shoes,
>> while the peasants of warmer Southern Europe went barefoot?
>> (Only the second question above is facetious; I am curious about the
>> first question.)
>> Joel
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