Carrie had been living in France for several years and was pretty proficient in the language, so when she and another American friend decided to take a trip to French-speaking Switzerland, she didn’t expect to have any language problems! The accent took a little getting used to, but the actual problems came when she went to make a purchase — and encountered a number she’d literally never heard before. “What on earth is…septente-trois?!” she asked.
For those who learned the “standard,” what we really ought to call “Parisian” French taught in most schools, it can be a minor shock to learn that French actually has multiple competing number systems for the 60–90 range. You probably learned to count like this:
If you’re new to French, no, you’re not going crazy — 70 is literally “sixty-ten.” 71 is “sixty-eleven” (soixante-onze), then “sixty-twelve” (soixante-douze), and so on until you get to 80, which is… “four-twenty.” 81 is “four-twenty-and-one” (quatre-vingt-et-un), and so on until 90, which is “four-twenty-and-ten,” then 91 is “four-twenty-eleven” (quatre-vingt-onze), up to “four-twenty-nineteen” (quatre-vingt-dix-neuf) for 99 and then, thank goodness, we’re back to a more familiar system from the moment we hit 100 until 170.
In other words, the French count by tens until they reach sixty, at which point they switch to base twenty. But wait — isn’t this the country that invented the metric system? But they don’t always count in base 10? How did that happen?
As it happens, a base-10 or decimal counting system is far from universal. Many languages all over the world use a vigesimal or base-20 counting system, including Yoruba in Africa, Mayan and Inuit in the Americas, or Ainu in Japan. It’s easy enough to see how it happens: you have ten fingers and ten toes, so why not? (A few languages actually use other systems, like base 12, base 15, or base 60, but we won’t get into that here.) Most Indo-European languages, however, use a base-10 counting system — with one notable exception: the Celtic family. Modern speakers of Welsh and Scots-Gaelic still count in base 20, though they have a decimal system that schoolchildren might learn in, for instance, a math class. (In Irish, the decimal system is used even in everyday speech.)
Linguists theorize that when the ancestors of modern Celts left the Indo-European homeland, they picked up base-20 counting from the Basques, who also count in base 20 and who used to live in a much wider area of western Europe than they do today. And that’s where this little historical linguistics lesson becomes relevant to French, because France, if you think back to ancient history classes in school, used to be a Celtic country. In the year 58 BCE, future Roman Emperor Julius Caesar looked at the Celtic lands to the north of Italy, then called “Gaul,” and decided they needed some Roman roads. His subsequent conquest of Gaul brought the future country of France new taxes, a new language, and a new counting system — because Latin, unlike the Celtic-speaking Gauls, used base 10.
Today, all languages descended from Latin, called “Romance languages,” count in base 10, as you will know if you’ve ever studied Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, or Romanian, among others. Many French speakers, however, never completely abandoned the Gaulish system of counting in base 20, even after the Gaulish language itself became extinct. Over time, however, various base-10 alternative numbers have become more or less common in different parts of the French-speaking world. So a more complete picture of the French counting system looks something like this:
|trois-vingts||60||Literally “three-twenty.” This one isn’t used anywhere anymore, but it crops up frequently in French documents from a few centuries ago, so you can see that the base-20 counting pattern used to be more widespread than it is today.|
|soixante||60||Happily, this is the only number for “sixty” you need to know for any French-speaking country or region.|
|trè-vingt-dix||70||With trois-vingts gone the way of the French kings, it should be no surprise that trè-vingt-dix is hot on its heels. You may still hear it in some rural areas of eastern France near the Swiss border, but that’s about it.|
|soixante-dix||70||This is what you’ll hear in most of France, Canada, West Africa and sometimes in East Africa.|
|septante||70||This, however, is what you’ll encounter in Switzerland, large swaths of rural eastern and southern France, Belgium and former Belgian colonies in East Africa. (While West Africa was colonized by France, East Africa was colonized by Belgium, and today French speakers there might use either Belgian or French terms. Those who are closest to the institutions put in place by the Belgians are most likely to use Belgian expressions! Travel comic artist Itchy Feet did a fun strip on the topic.)|
|quatre-vingt||80||You get this one in most of France, Canada, Africa and Belgium — but not Switzerland.|
|octante||80||A lot of French people who use quatre-vingts believe that this is the word for “eighty” used in Belgium and Switzerland — the same areas that use septante and nonante. But as noted above, the Belgians actually say quatre-vingt, just like the French do, and the Swiss mostly use huitante (see below). In fact, while historical documents show that this word used to be more common, the only place you’ll hear it today is scattered parts of rural eastern France and a little bit in rural western Switzerland.|
|huitante||80||Huitante is the preferred word for “eighty” in Francophone Switzerland, though you might occasionally hear it in some rural areas of southeastern France and southern Belgium. You’ll also hear some variations such as utante and otante.|
|quatre-vingt-dix||90||This is the word you’ll hear in most of France, Canada and West Africa. Some people in East Africa also use it.|
|nonante||90||This is used in pretty much the same places you’ll hear septante: Switzerland, Belgium, East Africa and rural areas of France along the eastern and southern borders and coastline.|
So, there you have it! And you thought at least learning to count would be easy! The good news is that the system used in most of France and taught in most textbooks — the one that appears in the first table up above — is understood pretty much everywhere, so if you ever decide to take a trip to Switzerland, don’t worry that they won’t be able to understand you! Just brush up on your Latin roots (remember, sept means “seven,” which should be a clue if you come across septante) and be prepared to ask if you come across a number you don’t recognize. You’ll most likely get a good-natured laugh, and the person will be happy to either “translate” it for you or write it down!
About the Author
Mikaela Bell is an American living in France and is a copywriter and copyeditor at NaTakallam, as well as doing freelance work. Besides learning languages, she enjoys reading books, hiking, and dance.
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