LINGUIST List 13.3329

Tue Dec 17 2002

Sum: Subtraction in Numerals

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Ivan A Derzhanski, Sum: Subtraction in Numerals

Message 1: Sum: Subtraction in Numerals

Date: Wed, 11 Dec 2002 17:07:24 +0100
From: Ivan A Derzhanski <>
Subject: Sum: Subtraction in Numerals

A fortnight and a day ago, in (Linguist 13.3102), I asked:

> In English the number 19 is called _nineteen_ `9 and 10'.
> In Hindi 19 is <unnIs> `1 to 20', but 18 is <aThArah> `8 and 10'.

[Latin draws the line between 17 and 18, Yoruba between 14 and 15.]

> In what other places do languages draw the line? For instance, is
> there a language where 17 is `3 to 20', but 16 is `6 and 10'? How
> about one in which 16 is `4 to 20', but 15 is `5 and 10'?

Adam Werle <>
C.A.M. Williams <>
Ece Wayne <>
Hannele Nicholson <>
John Lawler <>
John Lynch <lynch_jVANUATU.USP.AC.FJ>
Keira Gebbie Ballantyne <>
Mark Chamberlin <>
Martin Weikmann <>
R�my Viredaz <>
Yiwola Awoyale <>

wrote to me in the following days.

The responses to the general question (where do languages draw
the line between addition and subtraction?) suggest that if a
language uses subtraction at all, it is likely to do so already
in the first decade, usually starting from 7 (Titan and Buin in
Papua New Guinea, Yapese in Micronesia, etc.) or 8 (the Finnic
branch of the Uralic family, Nuuchahnulth (Nootka) and its close kin).
More examples can be found by analysing the data in Mark Rosenfelder's
collection of numerals up to 10, 

No one addressed the specific questions (are there languages that
draw the line between 15 and 16? between 16 and 17?), so I conclude
that the existence of such languages is quite unlikely. However,
some Romance languages do change the pattern in precisely those
places, switching from `ones-teen' to `ten-ones': Spanish _quince_
`15' but `dieciseis' `16', Catalan _setze_ `16' but _disset_ `17'.

- Ivan A Derzhanski <>;
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