I had a dream: vigesimal numbers in French

Vigesimal numbers in French and how they lead to the definition of Kupwarization.

How to say 92 in 5 languages, the last one French. Picture source: http://favim.com/image/2789995/

Although I’ve been in China for a week and a half, my body stubbornly refuses to adjust to the time change, and I just took a mid-morning nap.  I had the following dream: I’m in a library.  I’m trying to find a book that I mislaid.  I ask a man for help, and when he hears that the book that I’m looking for is in French, he starts speaking French to me.  He goes on, and on, and on, and I can only catch bits and pieces of what he’s saying.  “He must be Belgian,” I think to myself.  “Oh, well–at least I’ll be able to say septante, and huitante, and nonante…”  I woke up to find Les matins de France Culture playing on my iPhone.  I guess that explains that.

Even expats whose French is otherwise good struggle with understanding French numbers.  There are a number of reasons for this.  One is that some of them contain sounds that English doesn’t have.  For example, deux (2) and douze (12) sound quite different in isolation–the z at the end of douze makes the contrast clear.  However, when followed by a vowel, deux is also pronounced with a z at the end; English doesn’t have the vowel in deux, and it’s very difficult for anglophones to distinguish it from the vowel of douze (or the vowel of du, for that matter), so it can be really hard for us to hear the difference between deux euros (2 euros) and douze euros (12 euros).

In addition to problems with the sounds, the structure of the numbers is also sometimes different.  This is particularly true for the numbers from 70 to 99, especially in the range 80-99.  The problem is that from 80-99, the numbers are all formed from a base of quatre-vingt–“four twenties”–to which you then add something else.  So, 99 is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf–“four twenties ten nine.”  See the cartoon above.

There’s actually a whole class of number systems based on 20, known as vigesimal number systems.  Many languages have them.  Here’s an example of vigesimal numbers from Yoruba, one of the big languages of Nigeria, from Wikipedia.  (The tones are only indicated for the first one, sorry.)

  • Ogún, 20, is the basic numeric block. Ogójì, 40, (Ogún-meji) = 20 multiplied by 2 (èjì). Ogota, 60, (Ogún-mẹ̀ta) = 20 multiplied by 3 (ẹ̀ta). Ogorin, 80, (Ogún-mẹ̀rin) = 20 multiplied by 4 (ẹ̀rin). Ogorun, 100, (Ogún-màrún) = 20 multiplied by 5 (àrún).
  • 16 (Ẹẹ́rìndílógún) = 4 less than 20. 17 (Etadinlogun) = 3 less than 20. 18 (Eejidinlogun) = 2 less than 20. 19 (Okandinlogun) = 1 less than 20. 21 (Okanlelogun) = 1 increment on 20. 22 (Eejilelogun) = 2 increment on 20. 23 (Etalelogun) = 3 increment on 20. 24 (Erinlelogun) = 4 increment on 20. 25 (Aarunlelogun) = 5 increment on 20.

As you can see, the French system isn’t fully vigesimal–it only uses 20 as the base for part of the system.  However, vigesimal systems aren’t particularly unusual.  Sometimes they are an areal feature–a feature of language that is shared by a number of the languages spoken in a geographic region that are not related to each other.  For example, vigesimal number systems are a common feature of Central American languages.  In other cases, they’re shared by inheritance in related languages, as in several Celtic languages, including Breton, the Celtic language spoken in northwest France.  English has the vestiges of one, as in Four score and seven years ago…  (Non-Americans: that’s the beginning of the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches in American history, delivered by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.  I talk about how score is used as a number in American English today in the English notes at the end of the post.)

So: what’s up with the Belgian connection in my dream, and my relief that even if I couldn’t understand the guy, at least the numbers might make sense to me?  It’s this: not all French speakers use the vigesimal system.  As Wikipedia tells it:

…in the French of Belgium, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, the Aosta Valley, and the Channel Islands, the numbers 70 and 90 generally have the names septante and nonante. Therefore, the year 1996 is “mille neuf cent quatre-vingt-seize” in Parisian French, but it is “mille neuf cent nonante-six” in Belgian French. In Switzerland, “80” can be quatre-vingts (Geneva, Neuchâtel, Jura) or huitante (Vaud, Valais, Fribourg); in the past octante was also in use.

I seem to recall reading that the vigesimal system in French is an innovation, i.e. a later development in the language, and that using the huitante/nonante forms gives you an archaic air.  Native speakers, can you verify?

OK: nap done, dream out of my system–time for lunch, and then back to writing up data on coreference relations in biomedical journal articles…  Being a computational linguist isn’t all beer and pétanque…

Want to practice vigesimal numbers in French?  You’ll find randomized recordings on this page on the Lawless French web site.  Want to read more about Anglophone struggles with French numbers?  Check out this post.

Miscellaneous additional notes (scroll down for English notes):

There’s a fil rouge (theme) in this post: famous American speeches.  The title, I had a dream, comes from The Rev. Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech.  I would guess that all Americans can recognize the most famous line from this one: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  Dr. King’s speech itself echoes Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and its equally famous Four score and seven years ago with this line: Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Despite my assumption in the dream that an unintelligible-to-me French speaker must be Belgian, Belgian French isn’t actually that hard to understand.  For example: I recently saw a Belgian movie, La fille inconnueFitting the stereotype of “French” movies, it’s all dialogue–a series of conversations, with no action in the sense that an American movie would have “action.”  I could understand all of it except the scene that I can’t understand in any French movie, which is, of course, the crucial one–these are often long, emotional monologues, and I have trouble staying on top of the French in long, emotional monologues.

Want to know more about the phenomenon of unrelated languages within a geographic area sharing features?  The Central American situation is pretty representative–7 major language families, plus some smaller ones, adding up to hundreds of different languges–but, with some shared features.  Wikipedia has a short description of the shared features here.  More generally, this kind of thing is known as a Sprachbund.  The phenomenon interacts in interesting ways with multilinguality; the classic example of this Sprachbund/multilingualism interaction is the linguistic situation in the town of Kupwar in the state of Maharashtra, where four separate languages have developed local varieties that share particular features, but I haven’t been able to find a short description of the Kupwar phenomenon on the Interwebs.  The original paper is here, and you can find the definition of the deverbal noun Kupwarization here.

English notes

Score is an archaic word meaning twenty.  It still shows up with the meaning of a large, but indefinite, number.  There are two typical constructions, scores of [nouns] and [nouns] by the score.  Examples of both:

  • Legal highs linked to scores of deaths in British prisons (Mirror)
  • Does that mean our society, with its scores of fundamentalists and wing-nuts, went wrong somewhere? (The Towleroad blog)
  • Scores of hacktivists have already been arrested or jailed. They aren’t so anonymous anymore. Remember that.  (Twitter)
  • I had clearly arrived at the mecca of the carbohydrate world (Pancakes by the score, 6 different crepes, Dutch Babies, 7 different waffles & a host of cereals.  Oh & a few omelets.)  (Carrie Brown)
  • There was very little profanity and no nudity, but deaths by the score, all of which required suspension of disbelief.  (JayFlix)
  • The Reds weren’t bad. That header from Grujic is absolutely outrageous. Bring on yer Cockney’s by the score.


6 thoughts on “I had a dream: vigesimal numbers in French”

  1. i have few occasions to mistake between deux euros and douze euros and you’ll acknowledge language is easier when you only have to deal with deux millions and douze millions d’euros . He he .
    Hey Kev, you shouldn’t exagerate ! 99 is “only” four-twenty-nineteen, not ten-nine . The proof : 93 is said four-twenty-thirteen, not ten-three, it’s weird enough like that . I always knew that this remain of vigesimal is the message our main ancestors, the Gauls, left for us, along with the many standing stones which dot France, a message from even older ancestors . From what I can remember, quatre-vingt is rather old . You find it in classical literature from the XVIIth century for sure, and I don’t know when, where and how the logical numbers from Latin origin were replaced or contested by the Gallic system, but I’d guess it stayed around all the time . There is a French way to keep living inside the origins, even mixed, of a national soul . The relationship of the “citizens” with their elected power is something that I can trace back to these short periods when everybody knew these guys were just our delegates . But well, to realize all those things you need to be able to talk, really talk .
    There is a system I admired at first sight, it’s the Indian one . They have a special number for 100 000 and above, not two-hundred-thousands, just 2 lakhs . These guys were so used to manipulate gigantic numbers they had to create an extra word, like astronomers and their light-years . Masters of mathematics, who also transmitted the zero .
    Sorry, I cannot stay in the linguistic path, I hope those who don’t like just skip the extrapolations .

    Liked by 1 person

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