Thir house teen

ParkvallHere’s something I would have added to chapter 35 of Lingo if only I had known it at the time. According to Swedish linguist Mikael Parkvall, several Celtic languages have discontinous numerals. The example he mentions is from Irish: while the word for 13 is trí déag, ‘13 houses’ is trí theach déag, with the word for ‘house’ in the middle. ‘Thir house teen’ would be a clumsy rendering in English. These Celtic complications are not entirely unique, Parkvall adds: several African and indigenous American languages display similar phenomena. If you like this sort of thing, get your hands on a copy of his book Limits of language, as it’s full of nuggets like this.

While checking Parkvall’s claim about Irish, I stumbled upon another numerical curiosity. Finnish has two ways of expressing certain numbers, Croatian linguist Jadranka Gvozdanović writes in her Indo-European numerals. 28, for instance: the usual word is kaksikymmentäkahdeksan, made up of twenty (kaksikymmentä) and eight (kahdeksan) – a compound unremarkable for all but its length. However, there’s an alternative way of saying 28, namely kahdeksan kolmatta, and while it’s much less common, a Google search does turn up more than two score and ten contemporary uses. ‘Eight’ (kahdeksan) comes first this time, followed by kolmatta, literally ‘of the third’. So now 28 is analysed not as 20 plus 8, but as 8 of the third ten, with the first and second tens assumed.

ten to eightThese two approaches to the number 28 are somewhat reminiscent of our own two ways of telling the time. When we read the clock on the left as ‘seven fifty’, we take the past full hour as our reference. When we say ‘ten to eight’, on the other hand (not the clock hand!), we are anticipating the next full hour. That’s similar, I think, to the Finns’ calling 28 ‘eight of the third’.

6 thoughts on “Thir house teen

  1. It has suddenly dawned on me that when we express “2.5 hours” as “two hours and a half”, which I think is not unusual, we make English fractions discontinuous, too.


  2. The section on ’28’ in Finnish reminds me of the way some German speakers tell time. ‘Dreiviertel neun’ (three quarters of nine) is quarter to nine, or eight forty-five.


    • You are right, it is similar. I remember once saying zwei Drittel sechs (‘two thirds [of] six’) instead of zwanzig vor sechs (‘twenty to six’), but all I got was blank looks. Apparently this drieviertel formula is just that, a fixed form, not something that German speakers consciously analyse or recognise as ‘three quarters of the next hour’.
      By the way, equally similar is the Dutch word anderhalf for ‘one and a half’, which literally says ‘second half’, implying ‘the first entirely and the second only half’. Words on the same pattern used to exist with higher figures (derdehalf, ‘third half’, i.e. 2,5; vierdehalf, fourth half, hence 3,5), but they’ve fallen out of use.


  3. Dear Gaston,

    Celtic numbers make for fascinating reading. As a Welsh native speaker, I can tell you that things are very, very interesting in this area. (Let’s also leave aside your problems with mutations that you encountered in Lingo … just for now. But I’ll gladly come back to them if you wish later!)

    A few pointers then. These compound (and traditional) numbers in Celtic are usually the ones based on the vigesimal (base 20) system. A newer, base 10 also exists. In both cases however, to say that we say ‘three houses ten’ (or ‘ten three houses’) is wrong … we actually use the singular to count ‘three house ten’ or ‘ten three house’. (If we do use the plural then it’s the equivalent of ‘thirteen of houses.’

    Further items of interest: There are remnants of bases in 5, 9 and uniquely in I-E 15 in Welsh. 18 can be said as ‘two nine’, ‘three on ten and five’ and ‘eighteen’ by bilingual Welsh people. (If you are Breton it’s also ‘three six.’).

    Instances of 99 as the equivalent of 4 + 10 + 5 + 4 x 20, as well as 100 – 1 and 9 x10 + 9 also occur in Welsh.

    2, 3 and 4 (and their compounds) all have feminine forms.

    Ordinals are based on 20.

    Any further info you require – please ask.


    • Thank you, Sion! I’ve corrected the translation.
      In the Breton chapter in Lingo, I mention some of the complications that are so familiar to you, though certainly not all of them. Great stuff!


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