LINGUIST List 15.533

Mon Feb 9 2004

Sum: French Counting System

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Kim Ruth, Why the French Count as they do - 14.3497-2

Message 1: Why the French Count as they do - 14.3497-2

Date: Fri, 6 Feb 2004 12:02:37 -0500 (EST)
From: Kim Ruth <>
Subject: Why the French Count as they do - 14.3497-2

Re: (Linguist 14.3497)

Why the French Count as they do - using base 20 sometimes 

I received many responses (over 40) to my question. I thank all
responders for their time and effort. The question had been asked
before in this forum, and appeared previously in a LinguistList of
October 1997, but I believe I got more traffic. Disclaimers - I am
not an academic, errors and opinions are all my own. Secondly, the
question is still quite open in my opinion.

The main comparative linguistics fact that I learned from the
responses was that twenty-based counting (vigesimal) is not unique to
French amongst IE languages - the modern-day Brythonic Celtic branch
uses a vigesimal system (Welsh, Breton, Manx, Scots Gaelic, etc.), and
that Danish also uses the 20-base, in its own special way. One
respondent noted that Danish was the sole vigesimal system among the
Germanic branch, while another claimed that Swedish earlier had such a
system. Others noted the use of ''score'' in English, e.g., ''four
score and seven years ago''. And then outside the European area, most
Caucasian languages are apparently vegisimal. And Basque, a non-IE
language, is also vegisimal.

I learned that there are other French dialects, Walloon (Belgian) and
Swiss, which are 'decimal', and use septante, octante/huitante, and
nonante, for 70, 80 and 90. A couple people directed me to a French
link (, (go to the root
URL if you have trouble accessing the directory tree)), which states
that these words are also in use to varying extents in different
regions of France. I quote one part: ''SEPTANTE [...] en France, le
mot commence � c�der la place d�s le XVe s. � soixante-dix
(v. FEW). Type �galement attest� dans les patois romands. Absolument
courant en Suisse romande, au Val d'Aoste, en Belgique, au Za�re et au
Rwanda, le mot se rencontre encore � l'occasion dans le fr. r�g. de
l'est de la France (mais jamais dans l'usage scolaire), avec une
vitalit� qui varie toutefois d'un point � l'autre''.

I believe that the first sentence means that the soixante-dix term
only began to replace septante in FRANCE itself in the 15th
century. (It's a little ambiguous to me because the discussion itself
is about ''Suisse romande'') The same link references the FEW as the
Bible of French etymology, Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch,
Eine Darstellung des galloromanischen Sprachschatzes,
Bonn/Leipzig/Basel [En cours de publication depuis 1922]. If I had
access to this book, this is where I'd go next.

Thus to some extent I framed my question as a victim of ''schoolboy
French'', which as taught in the US definitely represents the ^Ile de
France variety. My question more accurately could have been: why do
some French dialects use the decimal varieties of 70, 80, and 90,
while the predominant dialect uses a base-twenty nomenclature? It
would seem that the vegisimal versions came to supplant the decimal
versions in most places, but this was something that began during the
late Middle Ages.

At this point I would also say that Danish vegisimality alone amongst
the Germanic branch is perhaps a bigger mystery than the mixed
counting system in French.

I would group the explanations of the mixed decimal-vegisimal French
system into four factions:

Celtic Substrate
Non-Celtic Substrate - later adoption
Pre I-E language vegisimal
''Spontaneous generation''

* The majority of respondents thought that the French system was
influenced by the Celtic ''substrate''. According to the Wikipedia,
Gaulish was a Continental Celtic language spoken prior to the invasion
by the Franks, and then submerged by the Latinate Roman
occupation. One of the defining characteristics of the Celtic
languages is that they count by twenty. I believe this is based on the
fact that the surviving Celtic languages, the Brythonic ones, are
vegisimal. However, what is the evidence that Gaulish was
vegisimal?. Not much evidence at all exists from so long ago. from
what I could find. only a few surviving Gaulish inscriptions. One of
the most important, the Coligny calendar, is a lunar calendar, which
shows the Gauls had 29-day and 30-day lunar months, which doesn't
buttress any counting system theory).

Also, the Celtic languages were on one branch of the Italic languages,
Latin on the other, which is decimal. Latin is clearly the source for
the French ''vignt'', viginti, ands its 70, 80 and 90 were
septuaginta, octoginta, and nonaginta (which seem pretty clearly
related to the Swiss/Belgian variants of septante, octante and
nonante). Is it even safe to assume that the ancient Continental
Celtic languages used a vegisimal system while Latin did not? .

* Only a few respondents felt thought that the ''Celtic influence''
theory was flawed. Harald Hammerstrom expressed this point of view
best, and I quote: ''This isn't a good idea (Celtic substrate) for
several reasons although it's not impossible (check Price's article in
the volume mentioned for more details)... The only continental Celtic
language we vaguely know the relevant numerals for is Gaulish, and
that only for 30 which happens to be the inherited decimal and not
vigesimal. The Irish,Welsh and Breton are insular Celtic (Breton came
from Cornwall) and are unlikely to have been able to exert the alleged
influence in the right time.

That French and all of Celtic were originally decimal is beyond doubt
since their forms can be reconstructed and connected with other IE
languages but it's not easy to say when they adopted the vigesimality
found today.''

In the same camp I would place the authors of the Fr.Wikipedia, in the
article ''Nombres en Fran�ais''. ( Interestingly enough, they disagree
somewhat with most respondents who told me about the Belgian and Swiss
counting system. According to the Wikipedia authors, both systems
mainly use quatre-vingts for 80, but 70 and 90 are in decimal). Here
is the link:

They seem to think that the Celtic influence theory is poorly
substantiated. I quote: ''Archa�sme Alors que les langues romanes
utilisent normalement des d�riv�s du latin septuaginta, octoginta et
nonaginta pour 70, 80 et 90 (cf. castillan setenta, ochenta, et
noventa), le fran�ais de France se sert d'expressions compos�es � base
20. Leur origine n'est pas claire, et le recours � une suppos�e
num�ration vic�simale gauloise est un raccourci rapide que l'analyse
ded�tail ne confirme pas. Une influence nordique est aussi possible
(le danois, par exemple, utilise la base vingt dans certains
nombres). Quoi qu'il en soit, le fran�ais de Suisse et de Belgique,
principalement, peut utiliser des termes issus du syst�me d�cimal

L'utilisation de la base 20 se retrouve dans des expressions anciennes
; autrefois, on pouvait utiliser quinze-vingts pour dire trois cents
(d'o� l'h�pital des Quinze-vingts � Paris, fond� par Louis IX
vers 1260 pour accueillir les aveugles et dot� de trois cents places,
d'o� XV-XX), ou six-vingts pour dire cent vingt (ainsi dit Frosine
dans l'Avare de Moli�re � Harpagon en le flattant sur sa long�vit� :
'' Par ma foi, je disais cent ans, mais vous passerez les
six-vingts. '', acte II, sc�ne 5). '' End of Wikipedia citation.

* Another theory holds that the pre-IE language in Europe was
vigesimal, and the IE invaders adopted it or were influenced by
it. The latter theory is apparently supported only by the existence of
Basque, which is vigesimal. Larry Trask explained this best.

* No respondent here, but one on
attributes the reversion to base-twenty counting in French to the
influence of the Norman invasion.

* One writer supposed that perhaps vegisimal usage occurs due to
spontaneous generation or due to simplicity. The ease of use idea
doesn't seem that plausible to me since languages in general don't
seem to do the easy thing, as any second language learner will attest.

I have attempted to organize the reponses I received under the
following rubrics:

* French counting in the various dialects
* Danish counting
* Present day Celtic counting (Welsh, Breton)
* English
* Other Languages
* Theory of Influence by Ancient Celtic
* Anti Celtic Substrate Theory
* Pre Indo-European Theory
* Autochthonous Eruption

Many responses covered much more than one subject area, some were
quite comprehensive, so the placement was subjective. A respondent
could very well find his response under a rubric which he feels is not
the burden of his message - I apologize..

Subject-Language: French; Code: FRN 
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