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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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

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.

How did the French end up with their 'crazy' numbers?
Photo: Morebyless/Flickr

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.

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. 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.

  2. 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.

    http://www.FrenchwithSimone.com

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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