Here’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.
These 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’.