Numbers

If you have read the English novelist Jane Austen, you may have noticed the way numbers are used in her writing: two-and-twenty, six-and-forty, eight-and-seventy.

While English has obviously changed, we find the same structure in contemporary German:

zwei (two) und (and) zwanzig (twenty) zweiundzwanzig;

sechs (six) und (and) vierzig (forty) sechsundvierzig;

acht (eight) und (and) siebzig (seventy) achtundsiebzig.

Danish also works this way:

to (two) og (and) tyve (twenty) toogtyve;

seks (six) og (and) fyrre (forty) seksogfyrre.

However, saying achtundsiebzig (78) in Danish is a little tricky. Seventy is expressed by halvfjerds, being short for halv-fjerd-sinds-tyve, meaning half four times twenty, which is 3.5 times twenty, thus equaling seventy.

Consequently, achtundsiebzig would be otte (eight) og (and) halvfjerds (seventy) otteoghalvfjerds.

Italian, in contrast, reminds us of modern English:

venti (twenty) due (two) ventidue;

quaranta (forty) sei (six) quarantasei;

settanta (seventy) otto (eight) settantotto.

If you look carefully at the last number, you may notice that the last letter of settanta (-a) is missing: settantotto. The rule goes that if two vowels clash, the first one is omitted to enable easier pronunciation.

Like Italian, French resembles English structure:

vingt (twenty) deux (two) vingt-deux;

quarante (forty) six (six) quarante-six.

Yet with seventy, the system changes. While sixty is soixante, seventy is soixante-dix: sixty-ten as sixty plus ten equals seventy.

Thus, settantotto (78) becomes soixante (sixty) dix-huit (eighteen) soixante-dix-huit because sixty plus eighteen equals seventy-eight.

Also, note the pattern of dix-huit, meaning ten-eight. Besides eighteen, the only other -teen numbers with this pattern are dix-sept (ten-seven) and dix-neuf (ten-nine).

The same applies to Italian: diciassette (ten-seven), diciotto (ten-eight), and diciannove (ten-nine).

As you can see, despite being "just" numbers and sharing similarities across languages, the systems have developed their own peculiarities. But once you understand how they work, memorizing them becomes much easier.

Dr. Daniela Ribitsch originally comes from Graz, Austria. She has lived in the United States since 2009 and teaches German at Lycoming College in Williamsport. She can be reached at ribitsch@lycoming.edu.