Why most languages use special names for the numbers 11 to 19?


For example, some languages follow the same rule regardless if its in 10s or 20s:

Japanese | Chinese |
Juu-ni | Shi er | twelve
Ni-juu-ni | Er shi er | twenty two

But other languages such as:

English | French | Romanian | Icelandic | German | Philipino |

Twelve | douze | doisprezece (two towards ten wtf) | tólf | zwölf | labindalawa
Twenty two | vingt-deux | Douăzeci și doi (two tens and two) | tuttugu og tveir | zweiundzwanzig (two and twenty) | dalawampu’t dalawa

Initially I thought it was an european thing but not even koreans do it like japanese or chinese people, so why is that?

In: 38

This is a holdover from older languages.

In English only 10, 11 and 12 have special names 13-19 all have the suffix teen or ten. We say thirteen three-ten, fourteen four-ten, etc

While French has special names for 10-16 but those names are derivative forms of 1-6. (onze douze treize sounds like un deuz trois) but when you get to 17 it’s pronounced dix-sept ten-seven

This is common in Germanic languages and languages that have basis in Germanic languages like English.

Likely this comes from a time before writing language and numbers was common place and people were typically mathematically illiterate. The lower numbers 1-12 were frequently used in every day life so they gained special names.

The counting system that includes special words for 11 and 12 is found in Old English which dates from 5th century to 11th century. At this time the learned class spoke Church Latin and counted in Roman Numerals which didn’t have unique symbols for 11 and 12 (X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV) or words ūndecim (one ten) duodēcim (two ten)

Some argue that having special names for up to 12 is a result of base 12 numbering, possibly because of the wide spread use of 12 hour time keeping or clocks which dates back as far as the Egyptians. But clocks didn’t become common place in Europe until the 14th century, and Arabic numerals about the 12th century.

The European languages you listed all have common origins – French and Romanian are both descended from Vulgar Latin, while English, German and Icelandic are all descended from Proto-Germanic, and going back even further they’re all descended from Proto-Indo-European. So a lot of their words for numbers come from the same source.

Also I think all of the languages you picked happen to have a base 10 number system, which is by far the most common, but there are plenty of languages that use other bases, and even languages that don’t really have a number system or that have one without a base.

So you’d probably want to look at a broader set of languages if you wanted to get an understanding of where the “special” numbers stop and the ones that follow simple patterns start. But it makes intuitive sense that we use smaller numbers more often and it’s easy to remember special names for them, and then at some point we start using a consistent formula to simply things. And there is no reason why that cross-over should happen at the same point in every language.

It also comes back from days of old when base 10 numbering wasnt the standard.

Base 12 has an advantage that it is divisible by 2,3,4,6

So stands to reason you have a word for 1 to 12

It’s a relic of older number systems.

Today, most people tend to think of all number systems as base-10; but that’s not the case. French counting is still practically in base-20; while English has a lot of relics of a base-12 system (including the counting units “dozen” and “Gross”, for 12 and 12*12). On the other hand, Chinese and Japanese have always been base-10; so they don’t have the same relic-words from an older number system.

This is definitely not academically sourced, just from my general knowledge, but here it goes.

The first part is that languages all evolve slowly from common ancestors. Some of the languages you mention (basically, the European ones) are so closely related that linguists *can*, with some degree of accuracy, reconstruct their proto-language, called Proto-Indo-European, the origin of most European and (north) Indian languages. But beyond that it gets very scarce and very speculative. We can’t ever hope to reconstruct the “first” language in any meaningful way, but if our general theories about language evolution are correct, almost everything that’s found in lots of unrelated modern languages likely came from this very early proto-language. It could very well be that odd names for the lower numbers beyond 10 are part of this. Which leads to the second part.

The second part is that, base-10 (0-9 numerals) is actually a relatively recent invention. Most of Europe didn’t even conceive of 0 until the middle ages with the arrival of Arabic (and properly, *Indian*) numerals which included the concept of a 0. There was no 0 in Roman Numerals, for instance. Thus, the way we do numbers in the west today was a relatively new thing at around 500 years ago. Before that, you tended to have letters represent specific numbers (like Roman Numerals do, along with many other similar systems) and group them together to make large numbers. I’m not knowledgeable about the Chinese system before the introduction of modern Arabic numerals, but I imagine it took a similar method, and like how many European languages were influenced by Latin, most east Asian languages were influenced by ancient Chinese.

But most people most of the time wouldn’t be dealing with hundreds or thousands of something. They’d be dealing with smaller amounts, so it made sense to have words for >10 but still relatively small amounts. Thus words evolved to make saying these things easier, and this causes all sorts of weird counting systems. French uses 20’s, ancient Sumerian used base-60, and English has a hodgepodge of Germanic and Romance (Latin-derived) systems. So it all gets complicated quickly.