Following on from last week’s blog, one correspondent asked about the peculiarity that all Western Latin-derived languages change their means of counting around the number 16-17.
To explain again specifically: for the numbers 15-18, Classical Latin had quindecim, sedecim, septendecim, duodeviginti – derived literally from ‘five-ten’, ‘six-ten’, ‘seven-ten’ but then ‘two-from-twenty’.
French and Italian have, respectively, quinze/quindici, seize/sedici, dix-sept/diciasette, dix-huit/diciotto – in each case literally ‘five-ten’, ‘six-ten’ but then (unlike Latin) ‘ten-seven’, ‘ten-eight’.
Spanish changes order one further back: it has quince, dieciseis, diecisiete, dieciocho – thus ‘five-ten’ but ‘ten-six’, ‘ten-seven’, ‘ten-eight’.
Here, it is over to you – why did all three shift from Latin, with Spanish shifting one further?
One thing which is immediately apparent, however, is that most Indo-European languages show a common trait around the number ‘nine’. This is, in French, Italian and Spanish respectively, neuf, nove, nueve. It is no coincidence that this is similar to the word for ‘new’: neuf, nuovo, nuevo. As far back as Proto-Indo-European, from which Classical Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Proto-Germanic were derived, the word for ‘nine’ showed a striking resemblance to the word for ‘new’. The reason is quite simple: it was a new digit. Originally, Indo-European speakers counted only to ‘eight’.
It is thought we now use Base Ten as our counting system because that is the number of fingers we have (including thumbs), but the linguistic evidence is that millennia ago we ignored the thumbs. Counting in Base Eight is fairly logical after all – it allows for constant doubling, from two to four to eight to sixteen as so on; computer scientists, no less, typically use Base Eight or Base Sixteen (or simply Base Two, i.e. binary).
(It should be noted no specific evidence has been found in Eurasia for ancients having counted in Base Eight; though there is none that they counted in Base Ten either. There is evidence from the Americas of humans counting in Base Eight; alongside significant evidence of Base Twelve and even a system based around Sixty used by the Babylonians.)
What is interesting is that the subsequent moves in Latinate languages towards a shift in order around the number sixteen demonstrates that there is still something innately important about that number. It is also just about possible that although Classical Latin was consistent from 11-17 (including, unlike its daughter languages, 17 itself), spoken Latin was not and that there was always a split in the spoken language around 16.
Any thoughts on this more than welcome!