Category Archives: Language

Ulster Scots will never cum on, an aye claucht tae the Airis

The Depairtment Cultur in Norlin Airlan is cam tae the view, at the oncum o the Ulster-Scots tongue wad lyk be best taen awa frae it. Wha nou coud “beir the gree for aa that”?!

Coud it be, but, at the mukkil problem here isna whaur the oncum o the tongue gaes on, but whit hit bes ettilt at?

Thar a notion, at the oncum o Ulster Scots wad aye be ettilt at the ae thing as the Airis. In Norlin Airlan, aabodie kens richtlie, hou this wad be! But thar nae pynt tae siclyk. Ulster Scots isna the lyk thing, an haesna the lyk things nott for its oncum (for a wheen reasons, as kythes on this steid an ithergaets).

An aye claucht tae the Airis, Ulster Scots will lyk juist win tae naewhaur. Thar ither, better ensaumpils athort Europe o whit Ulster Scots soud be ettilt at. Laich Saxon, Swiss German, ein Catalan an ithers shaws a road, at wad ansuer tae Ulster Scots (an Scots aagaets) – tongues, as bes the lyk o the staundart langage, as fowk forordinar taaks mair nor wryts, an as wis aince richtlie unner threit.

An thinkan mair on whitwey fowk coud mak uiss o the tongue (for ensaumpil in new music or leiteratur), mair fowk wad tak a interest – an no sae monie wad fash thairsels, anent wad it be a langage in its ain richt or no!

A langsom collogue anent “status” an whitwey Ulster Scots gets on agin the Airis is nae road foerairts. It is tym for a chynge in our wey o gaein. We maun wirk thenou for the guid o the tongue, an it leivan yet.

Hae yeirsels a braw Burns Nicht!

Stop it, for the sake of you and me!

There is an advert on the television at the moment that uses the term “to you and I”.

Every day I see some similar phrase: “to you and I”, “from you and I”, “between you and I”, even “between him and I”.


It is “to me” and “from me“, so why on earth would it be “to you and I“?

English uses the oblique pronoun (“me, him, her, us, them”) as a general object form, including universally after prepositions (“from, to, of, between” etc).

The direct personal pronoun forms (“I, he, she, we, they”) are only ever used as the subject of the sentence.

The confusion arises around “you”, whose direct and oblique forms are identical in Modern English. That does not excuse such grammatical carnage.

The rule is incredibly simple. So let us keep it that way, eh? For the sake of you and me… and us and them…

NI politics, and why language matters

I kicked off a bit of a firestorm on Twitter the other day – it so happened in opposition to an MLA who is also a personal friend – on the SDLP’s use of the term “the north” in response to the UK Chancellor’s Autumn statement.

This is a subtle thing and some people thought raising it was churlish. I understand why they felt this, but I believe they are missing a fundamentally important issue. Language is about a lot more than pure, rational communication. Our daily language is littered with markers – of who we are and who we are not, of what we approve of and what we do not, of what our background is and is not, and everything in between.

“The north” is of course in widespread use by Nationalists to refer to Northern Ireland even when it is not clear from the context that Ireland is being referred to. It is of course a means of firmly positioning Northern Ireland within an exclusively Irish context (arguably while hinting at the assumed illegitimate and/or temporary nature of the jurisdiction), and hence it is used in this way only by Nationalists. Its use is a deliberate identifier, notably by Nationalist parties and the Irish News, of Nationalism and the user’s innate comfort with and preference for Nationalism. It identifies the “in group”, and thus the “out group”, and is thus deliberately exclusive of non-Nationalists (even if inadvertently).

This exclusivity is further marked by those defending the phrase being unable to identify its equivalent, which is not “Northern Ireland” (the official name) or “Norn Iron” (derived from the official name used often with reference to the football team).

Its equivalent, widely used by Unionists and the News Letter, is in fact “Ulster” (used to refer to six counties only). Like “the north”, “Ulster” is deliberately used to place Northern Ireland in a particular political context, in this case outside “Ireland” altogether. Like “the north”, “Ulster” is confusing out of context, as in other contexts (notably history and sport) it clearly refers to nine counties, not six. Like “the north”, “Ulster” thus identifies an “in group” and an “out group”, and is thus deliberately exclusive of non-Unionists (again, even if inadvertently).

Infrequent use of “the north” or “Ulster” to mean Northern Ireland is not a serious problem, of course, but users should be (and frankly are) aware that such terms always identify an “in group” and an “out group”, and are thus exclusive. Occasional use will be regarded (as one correspondent rightly suggested) as inoffensive, but determined use of such phrases will always be taken as deliberately exclusive and insensitive by those in the “out group” – and rightly so, because it is.

Most notably, those genuine about making NI work and carrying forward the required compromises around identity (as well as the required promotion of both British and Irish identity) cannot hope to do so if in their very phraseology promotes only one particular worldview and identity (placing is firmly Ireland or removing us entirely from Ireland) while ignoring all others. If even moderates cannot agree on the need for inclusive labels and phrases, there is simply no agreed, shared foundation on which to build an agreed, shared future.

It is notable that impartial organisations, most obviously the BBC and UTV, do not use either “the north” or “Ulster” for the very reason that they are loaded one way or the other. (For the record, the BBC dropped “the Province” to refer specifically to Northern Ireland some years ago for the same reason.)

Fundamental to this is an underlying problem with Northern Ireland’s still not sufficiently advanced community relations. Overuse, for example, of exclusive symbols by public agencies or councils is in fact illegal, monitored in the interests of inclusivity and fair play by the Equality Commission. Overuse of exclusive phrasing by political parties falls into the exact same area – it is at best carelessly exclusive, and at worst deliberately disrespectful. And telling people to ignore it, however liberally and politely, is just like telling them to ignore symbols.

That isn’t the aforementioned fundamental problem with community relations, however. The fundamental problem is that we remain, no matter how we refer to Northern Ireland, too willing to demand respect and legitimacy for ourselves, and too unwilling to offer that respect to others. Even moderates see fit to ignore the need to show the basic generosity necessary – for example by avoiding overuse of symbols or exclusive terminology – without demanding something in return. Language, like symbols, comes to define “in groups” and “out groups” – and denials of this obvious fact come across as frankly devious.

This is not exclusive (!) to Northern Ireland by any means. Across the UK, for example, use of “Europe” to refer to the Continent can be seen by some as irksome and is a clear hint at British exceptionalism. The predominantly German-speaking Italian province of South Tyrol is referred to in German as “Südtirol” (the rest of “Tirol” is in Austria) but in Italian officially as “Alto Adige” (to avoid the Austrian link; although interestingly since I was there in 2000 apparently many younger Italian speakers in the area now use “Tirolo del Sud” as a marker of regional solidarity). Referring to the Spanish language in Spanish itself as “Español” (from the name of the state) or “Castellano” (from the name of the originating region, and also the one used in the Spanish Constitution) is a marker of preference and grouping; as is the use of “Moldovan” or “Romanian” to refer to the official national language of the Republic of Moldova (which is identical to Romanian but referred to constitutionally merely as the “national language”). There are many more such examples – the point being that language is just as sensitive and symbols. If we are aware of this, we may well choose to use it as a tool to annoy a certain “out group” and emphasise our credentials within a certain “in group”. If we are not aware of it, we probably need to be…

We have a responsibility in our use of language, just as with symbols, to behave sensitively and not to place our fellow citizens in an “out group” (at least, if we are serious about making NI work for all its people). It is time we respected that responsibility – in the north of Ulster and elsewhere…

“At the present time” and other unnecessarily long horrors…

I agree with every one of these…

This list of

This list of “deflating inflated phrases”, originally from South Africa, is circulating the Internet.

Yet they are, to some extent, inevitable. It is a constant feature of language change that words and phrases shorten through time, only to re-lengthen when they become so short as to be easily missed altogether.

Interestingly, in French (derived from Latin) and German (derived from proto-Germanic, spoken at the same time as Latin), this process has applied coincidentally to the very same phrase.

In Classical Latin the common word for “today” was hodie, itself derived from the phrase hoc die (an ablative form; roughly: “with this day”). At the same time, around the birth of Christ, in proto-Germanic we can fairly guess it was hiu tagu (an instrumental form, roughly “by this day”).

Over time hodie became hoje in Portuguese (of obvious derivation); oggi in Italian (which is actually pronounced similarly to Portuguese, even though it looks different); the even further reduced hoy in Spanish; and then, as ever most reduced of all, hui in French.

Likewise hiu tagu became the single modern German word heute, typically now pronounced heut’ (modern Dutch uses vandaag, a complete replacement meaning “of day”, but retains the adjective huidig).

Interestingly, in German, studies have shown that since the War newspapers have increasingly come to use am heutigen Tag (therefore literally “at this-day’s day”) in preference to merely heute. This would appear to be at least as daft an aberration as “at the present time” in place of simply “now” in English.

However, French has done precisely the same thing – indeed it did it earlier and has now formalised it fully. Finding hui inadequate, over time people came to say (and eventually write) “at the day of today” or, of course, aujourd’hui.

Etymologically, therefore, aujourd’hui is nonsensical and unnecessary. Despite this, it matches almost precisely the same coincidental development in German, and it is fully part of the French language at the present time…

The origin of the term “try”

The Rugby World Cup continues to draw in the crowds, with the “bonus point” system adding to the interest because it becomes potentially important to score four “tries”.

So why is it called a “try”?

Essentially the original game of “football”, once it moved from entire towns on to a field, consisted most often (though it varied from town to town and school to school) of two posts placed at either end. The aim was simply to manoeuvre the ball through the posts, initially by almost literally any means, to score a “goal”.

This was, evidently, madness – one French diplomat said that if “football” was the English at play, he would not like to see them at war!

Thus, various clubs and schools came to adopt different restrictions about how the ball may be moved. Eventually, by the mid-Victorian era, many had come to follow the rules adopted by Rugby School said to have originated in 1823, which had various moves outlawed but allowed handling by all players; others followed the rules of an association of schools adopted in London in 1863, which came to allow handling only by one player in his own half. Hence were born Rugby Football (colloquially “rugger”), and Association Football (colloquially “soccer”).

Both codes and all major successor forms of “football” except Aussie Rules eventually adopted a crossbar (which was initially, in fact, merely a piece of tape but later came to be a horizontal pole similar to the vertical ones forming the posts), with a “goal” in Rugby Football and its successor Gridiron codes scored above the bar, and in Association Football below. (Gaelic Football, of course, cunningly allowed both – the scoring value for below the bar settled on three times the value of over the bar just over a century ago, having initially been higher.)

The Rugby code came to have four distinct ways of kicking a “goal”. One was a field kick, straight from the ground in play (ultimately this was effectively replaced by the penalty kick, taken from the ground after a major foul); a second was (and is) a dropped kick, taken from free play; a third was a kick from a mark, a dropped kick taken after a fair catch (fair catches can now only be called inside a team’s own 22, and this method of scoring was formally abolished in any case forty years ago); and a fourth was a placekick taken after touching the ball down (officially “grounding the ball”) in the opposing team’s in-goal area (in line with the touchdown location). Thus, when a team touched the ball down on or over the opponents’ goal line, they were said to have a “try” at goal – noting that initially the goal was only scored if the kick was successful, and the touchdown itself had no scoring value.

Different schools and clubs moved at slightly different speeds in practice, but within decades the unfairness of the worthless “try” became apparent. Thus, a “goal” of any sort became worth five points, but a “try” even without a successful kick was awarded two points (thus, effectively, towards the end of the 19th century a “try” was two points and a “conversion” three, with any other goal worth five).

Ever since, of course, the “try” has increasingly been seen as the most exciting method of scoring, and has thus increased in value to become the main means of adding points (as well as a prominent tiebreaker between teams on equal points in league rankings), as other kicked goals have consequently been reduced in value. This has happened, albeit to varying degrees, in all successor codes – Gridiron and Rugby League as well as Rugby Union. Nevertheless, in the Rugby codes, the name “try” remains, a vestige of when it was in itself worthless!

That is why a “try” is called a “try”.

Why is a “touchdown” in Gridiron called a “touchdown” when you don’t have to touch the ball down? No idea – I’ll leave that to the readership…!

Hypothetical doubt in German and Spanish

Following last month’s article on the subjunctive, a peculiarity I spotted many years ago but was never able to follow up.

As in French (but not Italian), Spanish uses the subjunctive after a verb of opinion used as a negative or interrogative (expressing a doubt, therefore) but not when used as a positive – I use Spanish as the example because the difference is clear in modern speech for all verbs.

Creo que lo tiene la pelota – “I think that he has the ball” [without subjunctive]

No creo que tenga la pelota – “I do not think that he has the ball” [with subjunctive]

There is a peculiar comparison with modern spoken (not written) German. German places the verb second in the clause in main clauses (such as “I think” above), but finally in subordinate clauses (such as “he has the ball”). However, such subordinate clauses must be introduced by a subordinating conjunction (such as “that” above); in certain circumstances in spoken German (as in spoken and written English) this conjunction may be omitted but, if it is, the word order returns to as it would be in a main clause.

Consider, therefore:

Ich glaube, dass er den Ball hat – “I think that he has the ball” [formal, written German – subordinating conjunction and word order used]

One instance where the omission of the conjunction and return to main clause word order would be allowed in spoken German is:

Ich glaube, er hat den Ball – “I think he has the ball” [informal, spoken German – subordinating conjunction and word order omitted]

However, it may not be used if the main clause is negative:

Ich glaube nicht, dass er den Ball hat – “I do not think that he has the ball” [both formal/written and informal/spoken – subordinating conjunction and word order always used]

In the case of clauses dependent on main clauses expressing opinion, this means that spoken German requires subordinate word order in the same circumstances as Spanish requires the subjunctive; but it does not require the subordinate word order where Spanish does not require the subjunctive.

It is as if there is something in the linguistic arrangement which distinguishes automatically between confidence and doubt, and shifts the grammar away from “normal” in the case of confidence (word order or verb forms) to “different” to emphasise doubt (through, in one case, a different word order; and in the other, a different verb form).

I think this is probably a complete coincidence, of course; but I do not think I sure be could…

Ulster should reform languages department, not close it

Ulster University’s decision to close its Modern Lamguages department is not totally ludicrous – and I say that as a committed linguist.

Firstly, as I have written many times before, language teaching in schools is totally inadequate (using techniques which are utterly outdated), meaning that Universities arguably do not have a supply of advanced linguists to make departments worthwhile; secondly, if the fundamental purpose is to learn a language proficiently, this does not require a University course (it really is one for FE colleges); and thirdly, the government’s focus is entirely on “STEM” subjects. In other words, if the University has to save money (and, let us be clear, it is an outrage that it is being asked to), closing its Modern Languages is not a ludicrous thing to do.

This focus on STEM, however, is understandable but slightly flawed. Northern Ireland’s monolingual status has serious consequences – language learning directly improves the potential for trade and exchange of knowledge, and indirectly improves the ability to be culturally aware and tolerant of different ways of doing things. Closing a School of Modern Languages sends out the wrong message, of course – indicating that we are closed to trade and to the wider world. Nevertheless, the solution to our monolingualism is not a School of Modern Languages, but a reformed approach to language learning. University is, in fact, too late to make a real difference here – but Universities could help.

The biggest problem Northern Ireland has faced language-wise in the past decade is not the closure of German at Queen’s or of Modern Languages at Ulster, but the withdrawal of funding for the introduction of languages in primary schools. As with musical instruments, the time to learn languages is early. No successful country, linguistically, leaves it any later than age 8 to start; given our relative lack of exposure to different languages on TV and radio, we would if anything need to be earlier than that.

It is for that reason that Ulster University should perhaps have considered not closing the School entirely, but radically revising its purpose. Universities are research centres, and the way we learn languages in schools is obviously a complete failure. A School of Language Learning, where new techniques could be trialled, would be a valuable contribution to solving that problem – at very little cost, with potentially significant benefits.

The subjunctive – what’s that all about?

Verb forms and combinations can demonstrate a number of things. Most commonly in Western languages they are marked for “tense” (when something occurs), “aspect” (whether something is complete or progressive) and, perhaps most mysteriously for English speakers, “mood”.

“Mood” is tricky, because it can mark a huge range of things depending on the language (and, arguably, underlying culture). In the case of languages closest to English speakers (Germanic languages like German or Dutch, or Latinate languages like French or Spanish), the most common issue is that of the “subjunctive mood”, typically used to express something which is counterfactual, hypothetical or assumptive.

The subjunctive mood is in decline in almost every one of those languages, particularly in spoken use. It is hard to measure precisely, but the problem arises because it has probably declined further in English (and, specifically, British English).

Firstly, the subjunctive does have a common use in all languages as a means of expressing a desire, particularly in set phrases: “Long live the Queen!” is also subjunctive in French (“Vive la reine!”; also commonly “Vive la France!“), Spanish (“¡Viva la reina!”; also commonly “Viva España”), and German (“Hoch lebe die Königin!”) among others, including actually Esperanto (“Vivu la regxino!“).

Secondly, however, its usage, particularly in contemporary speech, varies hugely otherwise. In Spanish and (even more so, perhaps) Italian, it is a constant feature of the daily language, particularly in subordinate clauses (usually introduced in Spanish by que and Italian by che, although not all of these require the subjunctive). The subjunctive is compulsory to indicate objective, often translated by the infinitive (“to be”, “to do”, “to like” etc):

La LFP enviará entrenadores españoles a China para que trabajen en colegios – “The LFP [football league] will send Spanish coaches to China to work in colleges.” [El Periódico, 4 August 2015]

It is also used to indicate desire or obligation:

Espero que vengas a visitarnos – “I hope you come to visit us” [Word Reference, 19 August 2015]

Hay que tú lo hagas – “It is necessary that you do it” [RTVE Text, 18 August 2015]

It can indicate hypothesis, including in very broad terms:

Lo importante es que te gusta a ti – “The important thing is that you like it” [Coca Cola advert, RTVE, February 1998]

It can also mark something which is clearly counterfactual, effectively changing the meaning of an introducing phrase:

Aunque sea bueno, no le seleccionan – “Even if he is good, they don’t select him” [subjunctive]

Aunque es bueno, no le seleccionan – “Even though he is good, they don’t select him” [not subjunctive]

In Spanish, the present subjunctive is also used to indicate uncertainty in the future (other languages often use a future tense here):

Hasta que salga el sol – “Until the sun goes out” [song title, Don Omar, 2012]

Again, there is a distinction in meaning here:

Lo hacemos cuando vienes – “We do it when you come” [i.e. habitually]

Lo haremos cuando vengas – “We’ll do it when you come” [i.e. once, in future]

Away from subordinate clauses, it can also indicate generalisation, again changing the meaning of the introducing word:

Gane quien gane – “Whoever wins, wins” / “I don’t care who wins” [both subjunctive]

Closest to English, there is also a past subjunctive (actually with two different forms used more or less interchangeably, but we’ll not go into that…) used to indicate hypothesis, particularly in conditional clauses:

Si yo fuera rico – “If I were a rich man” [translation of song title]

Numerous verbs are also followed by the subjunctive only in the negative or interrogative (as this expresses a counterfactual situation, whereas the positive does not):

Creo que lo sabes / No creo que lo sepas / ¿Crees que lo sepa yo? – “I believe you know / I don’t believe you know / Do you believe I know?”

Spanish also theoretically has a future subjunctive, although this is now restricted to literary or legal usage (not so in Portuguese, in fact, where it is still heard in speech).

French in theory uses the subjunctive in much the same way as Spanish. However, in daily speech, it often manages without the subjunctive, except for more formal situations or particular phrases.

Obligation takes the subjunctive, even typically in daily speech:

Il faut que tu le fasses – “It is necessary that you do it”

However, desire is less certain:

J’espère que tu viens [or viennes] rendre visite – “I hope you come and visit” [not subjunctive, at least in common parlance – there is uncertainty even among native speakers about such cases]

French typically does distinguish between the positive (factual) and negative (counterfactual), as with Spanish above:

Je crois que tu le sais / Je [ne] crois pas que tu le saches / Crois tu que je sache? – “I believe you know / I don’t believe you know / Do you believe I know?”

Unlike Spanish, French uses the future in clauses with “when”:

Nous le ferrons quand tu arriveras – “We will do it when you come”

German, however, not being Latinate, uses the “subjunctive” (often known as “conjunctive”) is a completely different way, most markedly to express “reported speech”:

Frau Merkel habe besondere Vorteile in der seinerzeitigen DDR genossen – “[It is said that] Ms Merkel enjoyed special privileges in the East Germany of the time / Ms Merkel [reportedly] enjoyed special privileges in the East Germany of the time” [Chronik Berlin, 2005]

There are also particular set usages to indicate something obviously counterfactual:

Er guckte mich an, als käme ich von einem anderen Stern – “He looked at me as if I came [from the moon]”

There are also mixed conditional usages which may or may not be deemed “subjunctive”. However, unlike Spanish, Italian and (formal) French, there is no subjunctive for wish or desire:

Ich hoffe, dass du besuchen kommst – “I hope you come to visit” [no subjunctive]

So, what about English? I touched on it in the second half of this article, which I recommend you read. Ahem, see what I did there? “Read” is in fact subjunctive in that sentence…

The subjunctive is used in English more often than we sometimes believe, but in many cases (such as the last paragraph) its form is the same as it would be otherwise and therefore we do not notice. However, if we change this to “which I recommend she read”, or even “which I recommend be read”, we can see the subjunctive form.

This can be critical. Compare “He insists she pays” with “He insists she pay”; the first means that he is insistent that she (habitually) pays; the second that he was insistent that she pay in a particular instance.

Of course this is, as in French, a formal thing – in modern speech “He insists she pays” is the more likely form with the distinction left to context.

As in German, the subjunctive of desire is largely lost, although there are vestiges in the use of past subjunctive forms after certain verbs or in set phrases (“Wish you were here”, “Would that they had” – both present meaning, actually subjunctives).

Modern English also gets around subjunctives, either by other modal verbs (“I will carry out his recommendations, whatever they may be”) or, arguably, by the infinitive (“I want you to be there”).

So, thirdly, if English largely gets by without the subjunctive, surely languages could just do away with it? It seems this is not so easy. If this were the case, for example, you certainly would not complicate an invented language designed to be regular with a subjunctive. Yet one exists in Esperanto, with usage somewhat akin to French (even if it is seen as more optional than complisory in some instances).

Necesas, ke vi faru gxin – “It is necessary that you do it” [optional subjunctive]

Mi esperas, ke vi venos viziti – “I hope you come to visit” [subjunctive generally not used]

Fundamental distinctions in meaning can be illustrated by the subjunctive, even in Esperanto:

Mi diris al vi, ke vi iros Belfaston – “I told you you would go to Belfast” [not subjunctive, statement of fact]

Mi diris al vi, ke vi iru Belfaston – “I told you to go to Belfast” [subjunctive, statement of command (but possibly not fact)]

In conclusion, the subjunctive mood has wildly varying usages and is in wildly different states of decline in the major European languages. Yet even in English, the world language where that decline is perhaps most marked, it remains in use; and even in Esperanto, an invented language set up to be regular and uncomplicated, it has a clear role.


Why do we pronounce “one” as “won”?

Why do we pronounce “one” and “won” the same way? After all, they are not remotely the same word!

To take the latter first, there is some instability in the pronunciation of the letter <o>, particularly before a nasal (typically <n> or <m>); it is frequently pronounced as if it were <u>. This is partly because it is only recently that (British) English moved to lip rounding on the letter <o> (even old Pathé news clips will show this lacking, as remains the case in American), so <o> and <u> were once more similar. The other reason, bizarrely, is simply orthography – some calligraphers did not like to write <u> before <n> or <m> because it could run together and become unclear, so they switched to <o>. The winning version in Standard Written English was chosen almost at random – hence we have “win-won” but “sing-sung”; and “son” and “sun” are pronounced identically. It was not completely random, etymology also had something to do with it – hence, for example, “London”.

What about “one”, why is it pronounced the same way?

Until the fifteenth century across England, and indeed later in most English-speaking areas, “one” was pronounced as you would expect, to rhyme with “stone” and close to modern southern English “own”. Of course, this remains in related words such as “only”, “(a)lone(ly)” and even in fact “atone”. Modern Scots does pronounce the direct equivalent ane “one” (cf. stane “stone”) as you would expect (Scots actually has a “y-glide” in such circumstances, thus it sounds like “yin”, but this is entirely predictable); and of course Dutch has een (cf. steen “stone”) and German has ein (cf. Stein).

So what happened to make English the lone (ahem) exception?

Well, nobody knows! Some things in language are just mysterious. This is just, well, one…

Ancient Indo-Europeans may have counted in eights

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!


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