What is the origin of the numbers' names (uno, duo etc)?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by sotos, Sep 4, 2012.

  1. sotos Senior Member

    Is anybody aware of any study on the origins of the IE numbers' names? For example, why 2 is named "duo, δύο, two"? Why 8 is "octo"?
    It is reasonable to assume that at an early stage of language and numbering, people would associate numbers with some objects (and of course with their fingers). With this working assumption I can remotely relate the "pente - funf - five" to the root meaning "fist" (pugna, πυξ) and it would be a wild guess that the middle finger, the number 3, being the longer was metaphorically associated with the "tree".
    What we know about this?
  2. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    There are hundreds of books and articles on this subject. A good start would be: Gvozdanović, J. (ed.), Indo-European Numerals. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs 57, 1992 (943 p.).
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2012
  3. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    Nothing is known for sure. None of the numerals can be traced to other words. But in short, just on those points you've made, yes people have plausibly speculated that *okto contained the same dual ending as *dwo, and that the roots of 'five' and 'fist' are connected. However, the [t] in English 'tree' comes from earlier [d] by Grimm's law (as in 'dryad', from the Greek, or 'Druid'), so it can't be related to the original [t] of *treyes "three".
  4. sotos Senior Member

    Thanks. If I combine the above two posts, I might conclude that there are hundreds of books about nothing!

    But I suppose that the hundreds of books are mostly about the origins of the numerical symbols and the counting system, not about the names of the numerals.

    The Gr. "drys" (oak) is cognate to the "tree" and to the Gr. dory (lance, wooden pole), still plausible as a symbol for the mid finger and number 3.
    Before I read any of the hundreds of books, I could imagine that the no. 2 (dyo, duo) may come from the root meaning "point to, in-di-cate", obviously related to the pointer finger. Interesting that about octo, but what about tettara/quatro?
  5. Treaty Senior Member

    Moderator note: Threads merged.


    Numbers 1 to 10 are the basic identical vocabulary of a language family (with a decimal system). I wonder where they came from. Just focusing on IE languages, what did penkwe mean in PIE? It is imaginable that it was related to fingers: the handiest "five" in nature. What about other numbers? Is deca/dasa/ten related to hands/giving/creating?

    My main question is:
    What were the objects(or deeds) that gave their names to numbers in PIE? (Is this a right assumption to think numbers' names are rooted in some tangible things?)

    Secondly, are the same objects the sources for numbers in other languages, e.g. Semitic family?

    Thanks in advance,
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 5, 2013
  6. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    I'm not sure if the underlying meaning behind the numbers can be determined. It may too deeply rooted in IE antiquity. It's like trying to determine the semantics behind words for mother and father. Such words and numbers are from very remote times: the earliest stage of IE.
  7. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    As far as I can remember, *penkwe is the only one where there's any kind of plausible origin: it does look like IE words for finger and fist. The -o ending of *okto looks like a dual, so just possibly it was the dual of the kw-t- consonants of "four", but that ignores the initial o- and requires way too much compression and throwing away to be plausible.

    In fact I can't think of any language or group (mentally reviewing Semitic, Swahili, Japanese, Malay, Basque, Finno-Ugric . . .) where any of the basic numbers have visible etymologies. There may be the odd coincidence in the odd one. For example, the Turkish for 50 is elli and Turkish doesn't normally have double consonants, and el means "hand", so that's suggestive.

    Note after threads merged: Ah, I thought I remembered talking about this before.
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2013
  8. rbrunner Senior Member

    German - Switzerland
    I don't have any speculation to add about root words for numbers, but the following thought: Humans have speech for several 10,000 years now, probably. So going back a very small number of millennia from modern languages to PIE is by no means sure to bring us substantially nearer to the "true" roots of those number words.

    Maybe PIE speaking people indeed coined some new number words themselves 6, 7 or 8 thousand years ago, based on words for tangible things, but then maybe not because they used number words that were itself already a few thousand years old - who knows?

    On the other hand, one could argue that although speech is much older than PIE, numbers are not. Maybe humans first learned to count and use numbers just around the time that PIE arose, so they had to come up with new words. But how would science determine when exactly (give or take a millennium) numbers were invented?
  9. Treaty Senior Member


    What did human need numbers for? For keeping track of trade or number of their domestic animals? Or estimating the power of enemy/prey? Or for religious purposes? Maybe a reason that numbers' names differ in languages is because the need for them is much younger than the hypothetical separation of languages.

    Anyway, what do you think of ideas below:

    two : dhei : to see ( Latin: idea, video; Pers. di[d]n) refers to two eyes. bi (double/again) : video, voir, Pers bin- (to see)
    three : treg : as mentioned by sotos comes from tree, based on the ψ shape of a tree.
    four : kwetwor : may be related to four-leg animals (related to strength and stability) : like in tauro (bull) or stauro (strong)
    five : fist, paw
    eight : oktu : two out (from ten) like ex-two. Or two fours?
    nine : one less (than ten), or (ten) without one: related to one (however the PIE root for one seems to lack "n" sound) or "n" sound for "without", "negative".
    ten : dekm hand?, to give, to produce, to have (PIE tek (Greek tekhne), a wide range of II words starting with [dæ] meaning hand, give, have, make,...)
  10. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    As Entangledbank wrote in #3, tree and three do not start with the same phoneme and there is no explanation in sight.
  11. xari Member

    I read somewhere something about indoeuropean numbers that really confused me. This person claimed that IE words for 9 were very similar to IE words for "new" due to it being at some point the "new number" (PT: nove/novo, DE: neun/neu, FR: neuf/neuf). But how does it make sense when most human beings are born with ten fingers, wouldn't that ensure that 1-10 is the minimum counting range people would come up with? Shouldn't then the "new number" be 11?

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