How did the French end up with their ‘crazy’ numbers?

How did the French end up with their 'crazy' numbers?
Photo: Morebyless/Flickr
From 'four twenty ten nine' to 'sixty ten' we look at how France ended up with its bizarre numbering system, and why it will never change.

Any non-native French person learning the language will agree that one of the trickiest things to get to grips with is the number system.

It might be smooth sailing until you get to sixty-nine, but then funny things start to happen because they don't have a separate word for seventy, or eighty, or even ninety for that matter.

Even the most proficient French speaker will relate to that all-too-familiar moment where you freeze as you jot down a phone number or have to scribble out few digits because what you thought was sixty something turned out to be 72.

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With French, it isn’t just about being good at the language, in order to get to grips with these higher numbers it seems you need to be good at mental maths too… Take 77 for example, or rather, ‘sixty-ten-seven’ as it would be said in French. And it gets worse. Ninety-nine translates to 'four-twenty-ten-nine' or quatre-vingt-dix-neuf.

Can you imagine the life of salesman trying to flog discount TVs for €99.99?

To make things more difficult, large numbers in French are generally spoken as a whole rather than broken down into digits. So a Peugeot 206 is 'two oh six' in English but deux cent six in French.

If you live in Val d'Oise (95) you will need to say quatre-vingt quinze for your département number, rather than cheating and saying neuf cinq (the exeption to this rule is le neuf trois).

Phone numbers in France are said in pairs, so someone might tell you their number is zero six, trente-et-un, quatre-vingt-dix etc.

The Local's readers regularly show their frustration with French numbers.

“When the French say numbers to me my ears just shut down! It is denial I know,” said one reader.

One reader said the system was “specially designed to puzzle foreigners”. 

Another reader admits that; “ Still after five years I have to stop and think about it”. 

The fact the joke below has been shared thousands of times on Facebook suggests there is an issue here.

Our troubles are made all the more frustrating given that in other French-speaking countries, the system follows a more logical pattern (logical to us, anyway).

Switzerland uses ‘septante' for 70, ‘octante’ or ‘huitante’ for 80 and ‘nonante’ for 90. In some parts of Belgium, some of these are used too. 

So why didn't the French think of this?

Historically, there is more than one method for counting. There is the method that us Anglophones know, which comes from the Romans and is called base ten. This means that everything is based on multiples of ten. 

In French too, we see this, up until the seventies when, as we've said, things go weird. Then in comes the “vigesimal system” which used the base 20, hence quatre-vingt-quatre (84).

This is supposedly as they used their feet as well as their hands to count. Fingers and toes included, you get twenty. 

Many believe it ended up in French due to the influence of the Celts in France, whose languages use the base 20 system. While others say it was the Viking influence and point to the fact that Danish numbers also works on the base 20 “vigesimal system”.

One good example of this is the Paris hospital called l’Hôpital des Quinze-Vingts (The Hospital of fifteen-twenty). The hospital was so named because it housed 300 beds and 300 is 15 times 20. Perfectly logical when you put it like that.

But why then, didn’t they just stick to one?

READ ALSO: Ten ways France should make learning French easier

Well the story goes that when the Roman invaders came to France, they tried to impose their language and methods on the French but they weren’t entirely successful.

There was a short period during the Middle Ages when the roman versions ‘septante’, ‘huitante’ and ‘nonante’ looked like they were going to stick but then tradition partially prevailed for the French and they managed to reclaim their ancient ways of saying eighty (quatre-vingt) to ninety-nine (quatre-vingt-dix-neuf).

No doubt French learners would love it if the language guardians at the Academie Francaise decided to ditch the fingers and toes system and adopt the Swiss French number system, but we have to remember that most French people don't have an issue with their numbers.

Gilles Montrichard, from ABA English Academy said there was “no need to change something that causes no problems for French people”. 

And criticise as we might, the idea of counting in twenties actually used to be part of the English language too. 

Think back to Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address and you may remember how without realising, we know ‘score’ to mean twenty:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty…”

To translate, ‘Four score and seven’, means four-twenty and seven, in other words, 4 x 20 + 7 (87) –  on exactly the same principle as the French!

So maybe it isn’t such a crazy system after all.

After all, as another reader of The Local points out, the system is “great for children learning multiplication”. So maybe there is an up side.

It seems that unfortunately it's just one of those things we are going to have to put up with in life.

By Hattie Ditton

Member comments

  1. I teach my students to learn by heart: their date of birth. Their phone numbers and address, etc. They even learn their family members main info related to numbers: miracle o miracle most of them are good with French numbers now.

  2. At one time, during the many years I lived in Belgium, my telephone number was
    010 22 76 97. (Sorry if somebody else has that number now.) If I’d been living in France, I would have refused it! But then I think of how easily we Brits don’t hesitate between 18 and 80, 19 and 90, so no writing down 99 as 80+19. Enough to deny you French nationality! My French accountant was bemused when I made him slow down on long numbers until I pointed out that what was 99 to him was 4×20+10+9. He’d never thought of it like that.

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