Italian number words from eleven to nineteen - history of a bizarre, inconsistent construction



Let's count in Latin from one to twenty:

ūnus/ūna/ūnum, duo/duae/duo, trēs/tria, quattuor, quīnque, sex, septem, octō, novem, decem,

ūndecim, duodecim, tredecim, quattuordecim, quīndecim, sēdecim, septendecim, duodēvīgintī, ūndēvīgintī, vīgintī

As pointed out by symbiotech, "octodecim" and "novemdecim" were also used in Latin, but they didn't survive. On the other hand, as pointed out by martina, "dĕcem (et) sĕptem" was also a common form for "septemdĕcim".

In Attic Greek it was:

ΕΙΣ/ΜΙΑ/ΕΝ (heis/mia/en), ΔΥΟ (dúō), ΤΡΕΙΣ/ΤΡΙΑ (treis/tria), ΤΕΤΤΑΡΕΣ/ΤΕΤΤΑΡΑ (téttares/téttara), ΠΕΝΤΕ (pénte), ΕΞ (héx), ΕΠΤΑ (heptá), ΟΚΤΩ (oktṓ), ΕΝΝΕΑ (ennéa), ΔΕΚΑ (déka),

ΕΝΔΕΚΑ (héndeka), ΔΩΔΕΚΑ (dódeka), ΤΡΕΙΣΚΑΙΔΕΚΑ (treiskaídeka), ΤΕΤΤΑΡΕΣ ΚΑΙ ΔΕΚΑ (téttares kaì déka), ΠΕΝΤΕΚΑΙΔΕΚΑ (pentekaídeka), ΕΚΚΑΙΔΕΚΑ (hekkaídeka), ΕΠΤΑΚΑΙΔΕΚΑ (heptakaídeka), ΟΚΤΩΚΑΙΔΕΚΑ (oktōkaídeka), ΕΝΝΕΑΚΑΙΔΕΚΑ (enneakaídeka), ΕΙΚΟΣΙ(Ν) (eíkosi(n))

Now let's count in Italian

uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto, nove, dieci,

undici, dodici, tredici, quattordici, quindici, sedici, diciassette, diciotto, diciannove, venti.

But numbers from eleven to twenty could also have been, just hypothetically of course (adding accents for clarity's sake):

diciùno, diciaddùe, diciattré, diciacquàttro, diciaccìnque, diciassèi, diciassètte, diciòtto, diciannòve, vénti


undici, dodici, tredici, quattordici, quindici, sedici, settèndici, ottòdici, novèndici, venti.

In Spanish it is:

uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, diez,

once, doce, trece, catorce, quince, dieciseis, diecisiete, dieciocho, diecinueve, veinte

In Portuguese:

um, dois, três, quarto, cinco, seis, sete, oito, nove, dez,

onze, doze, treze, catorze, quinze, dezasseis, dezassete, dezoito, dezanove, vinte

In French:

un, deux,trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix,

onze, douze, treize, quatorze, quinze, seize, dix-sept, dix-huit, dix-neuf, vingt

Following martina's hint here are the number words from one to twenty in Romanian:

unu, doi, trei, patru, cinci, şase, şapte, opt, nouă, zece,

unsprezece, doisprezece, treisprezece, paisprezece, cincisprezece, şaisprezece, şaptesprezece, optsprezece, nouăsprezece, douăzeci

I find Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French constructions for number words bizarre and inconsistent (whereas in Romanian it seems they are perfectly consistent - thanks martina for her hint - as well as in Ancient Greek). Is there any academic work on the history of number words in Latin/Italian/Spanish/Portuguese/French where the origin of number words from eleven to nineteen is tracked down, documented, explained, discussed?


Posted 2013-12-20T11:22:40.203


5What about Romanian?martina 2013-12-20T11:57:05.063

1Apparently Romanian number words from 11 to 19 are perfectly consistent! And yes, I think that would deserve a separate explanation because it would only be reasonable to expect from Romanian number words the same inconsistencies of Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French. – None – 2013-12-20T12:00:08.780

1@randomatlabuser apparently Latin had also "octodecim" and "novemdecim", but they didn't survivesymbiotech 2013-12-20T12:24:07.440


The question is very good and I'm not able to find an answer. Anyway, note here, it says that dĕcem (et) sĕptem, was in Latin the common form for septemdĕcim

martina 2013-12-20T12:35:14.550

2Is this question on topic? It's probably much more suited to []...Sklivvz 2013-12-27T10:31:40.463


@Sklivvz I have tried to ask Linguistics

– None – 2014-01-12T04:58:31.193



I found a similar question, where this is suggested by user CapnPrep as a possible answer:

Octodecim and novendecim/novemdecim do exist, although they are not the preferred forms in Classical Latin. I think the explanation is the same as why one might prefer to say "ten to six, quarter to six" instead of "five fifty, three quarters after five". Or if you're 19 years old,you might prefer to say "I'm almost 20" instead of "I'm in my teens". When you get close to the next round number, it is natural to use it as the new reference point, in anticipation.

My only addition to his answer, since in Latin this happens only with 18, 19 numbers, is that it can be related to the age of maturation, the age when a young man was enrolled in the army. In the days before Augustus this was 16 years, but after his rule the age of enrollment was increased to 18. So maybe this way of mentioning 18 as "20 without 2" was some sort of suggestion "that you are mature enough now", "you are considered a man" etc.


Posted 2013-12-20T11:22:40.203

Reputation: 874

As it does not report any source, I am not really convinced by this answer. However the more I read it the more I think that it is an interesting hint anyway, and it has been the only one also, that's why I have "accepted" it. – None – 2014-02-19T21:04:59.087


My guess here is simple: the more a word is used in commmon parlance, the more it can violate rules--look at the conjugations for "be" and "go"--a less common verb couldn't support irregularity. "Thrive" may not be common enough to support the irregular past participle "thriven".
The rules for numbers 20-29, 30-39, etc., all have the formation of the first digit (venti/trenta/etc) and then the second digit. While the teens in Latin were consistent as a set, they were irregular with respect to other large numbers.

11 and 12 are common enough to support irregularity in any language.

For 15 and 14, they were common enough to support irregularity in Spain and Italy, but higher sums didn't have enough commonality, so people fell-back to the rule for most large numbers: first digit first, second digit second.

There is no hard-and-fast rule to determne when a word goes under the commonality threshold, so it might be different in different regions.

Dave A

Posted 2013-12-20T11:22:40.203

Reputation: 1


Don't forget to say that digits didn't exist in writing in Europe until the 10th century. And let's not make anyone believe that "first digit first, second digit second" is a general rule. In German it's the other way round, for example, and in French, contrary to what you would suppose, things get quite a bit complicated between 70 and 99.

Walter Tross 2015-08-16T20:54:41.787