Talky Tuesday: After ten

Yes, it’s cinco de mayo, but one of the few places where they make a big deal out of it… the United States, particularly Los Angeles, CA — although, of course, not this year. A lot of Americans have the idea that it’s Mexican Independence Day, but it’s not. That’s el 16 de septiembre.

Cinco de mayo celebrates one battle, in the Mexican village of Puebla, and that’s the primary place in that country where they observe the holiday now. Yes, it did lead to Mexico’s final defeat of the French, but not their ultimate independence as a nation.

For comparison, this would be like people in Canada having a big party on January 8 to commemorate the Battle of New Orleans, assuming that it’s a big deal in America when, in reality, it was only a small footnote to the War of 1812, and really only celebrated in the area. At the same time, they would have no awareness of the 4th of July.

There’s also an internet joke going around bemoaning the fact that Cinco de Mayo finally falls on Taco Tuesday, but it’s being cancelled because of a virus with the name of a Mexican beer. Either way, there won’t be much of a celebration anywhere this year so, instead of the holiday, let’s look at numbers and the words for them.

Why are the number words in romance languages so similar to each other and yet so different from those in Anglo-Germanic languages. For example, here’s the number five in Romance languages: cinco (Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician), cinq (French), cinc (Catalan), cinque (Italian and Corsican), quinque (Latin), and cinci (Romanian). Meanwhile, in Anglo-Germanic languages, we have: five (English), Afrikaans, vyf (Afrikaans), fem (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish), vijf (Dutch), fiif (Frisian), fünf (German), and fënnef (Luxembourgish).

By the way, the word in Dutch is pronounced exactly the same as the word in English, despite the huge difference in spelling.

If you run all the way up the numbering systems for both language groups, you will find the same pattern of similarities within each, as well as big difference between the two groups. Let’s just grab Spanish and German and take a look at the numbers up to twenty:

                        Spanish                                    German

1          uno                                          ein

2          dos                                          zwei

3          tres                                          drei

4          cuatro                                      vier

5          cinco                                        fünf

6          seis                                          sechs

7          siete                                         sieben

8          ocho                                        acht

9          nueve                                       nein

10        diez                                         zehn

11        once                                         elf

12        doce                                        zwölf

13        trece                                        dreizehn

14        catorce                                     vierzehn

15        quince                                      fünfzehn

16        dieciséis                                   sechszehn

17        diecisiete                                 siebzehn

18        dieciocho                                 achtzehn

19        diecinueve                               neunzehn

20        veinte                                      zwanzig

Any resemblance between numbers below ten is just a coincidence, but look at what happens after ten. In both German and English, we have those two weird numbers — eleven and twelve — that are unique, and bring us up to a dozen. Note, though, that in both languages they bear a bit of resemblance to the numbers one and two, as well.

After that, in the Anglo-Germanic languages, the rest until twenty are basically of the form “x and ten.” Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, etc. Or, dreizehn, vierzen, fünfzen, usw.

Both twenty and zwanzig again bear a little resemblance to the number two/zwei in their respective languages, and it’s the same all the way up from there.

Meanwhile, Spanish does something very similar, except that its run of special numbers goes all the way to fifteen. And, again, each of them resembles the single digit it relates to: 1 and 11, uno, once; 2 and 12, dos, doce; etc.

Why do Anglo-Germanic languages only have two special words in the teens, while Romance languages have five? Well, the former comes down to commerce and the ease of working with things in units of twelve. It’s divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6, and works well with 8 and 9 by giving easy fractions — 12/8ths is one-and-a-half, and 12/9th is one-and-a-third.

Also, not being a Roman language, Anglo-Germans were not as influenced by their numbering systems, instead using Arabic numerals — made up of the digits from 0 to 9. The Romance languages used Roman numerals until the middle ages, and these are made up from seven letters: I, V, X, L, C, D, and M.

The pattern in the numbers is that they alternately represent units of 1 and 5. In the order above, the letters represent 1 and 5, 10 and 50, 100 and 500, and 1000. This made for a natural break in naming things. Up to 15, the form of the number is along the lines of “one-ten, two-ten,” etc., before flipping around to “six-ten, seven-ten.”

But Latin does something else here that Spanish skipped, although French kept it. Instead of using the equivalent of “eight-ten, nine-ten,” the numbers 18 and 19 are of the form “two from twenty” and “one from twenty.”

If the systems were logical, then once a language hit the number after ten, then the words would be of the form “ten and number” or “number-ten.” We would count nine, ten, oneteen, twoteen, etc. But, of course, that just sounds ridiculous to our ears.

And those are just the cardinal numbers. Ordinals — the forms you use to indicate that something is a certain number in a series — are a whole different matter, and one for another day. Yes, there really isn’t a lot of apparent logic to why 1st, 2nd, and 3rd would differ from everything else, which is just a “-th.”

But even that isn’t completely consistent. Otherwise, we’d be (not) celebrating May Fiveth today.

Image: “Lots of Numbers” by Black ice via

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