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Why is thirteen but not threeteen?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Daffodil100, May 29, 2013.

  1. Daffodil100

    Daffodil100 Senior Member

    In Chinese, it is very regular to constitute other numerals after 10. In Persian, numerals from 30,40, 50, 60, 70 to 100, from 11-20 are irregular. I wonder why about the irregularity. Maybe it would help me to understand from eliciting English 13

    I wonder why it is thirteen for 13 intead of threeteen when people coined a new word. Why did they make the spelling irregular?
    Last edited: May 29, 2013
  2. asanga Junior Member

    13 was regular in Old English þreotīene/þreotene, & only became irregular in Middle English through metathesis. I guess it changed by analogy to the final -r in fourteen. Also, "threeteen" was (and remains, although the Great Vowel Shift has changed the quality of the vowels) a strong spondee (two equally stressed long syllables), whereas in counting from 13-20 in English, the natural tendency is to recite in clipped trochees (stressed closed syllable followed by unstressed): "THIR-teen, FOUR-teen, FIF-teen, SIX-teen, SEV'N-teen, EIGHT-teen, NINE-teen, TWEN-ty". Middle English shortened vowels before clusters of 2 or more consonants, so the vowel shortened to /ɛ/, which eventually merged into /ɜ/ due to the fern-fir-fur merger before coda -r.

    The metathesis is attested in the 15th ct. in England, but already in the 13th ct. in Middle Dutch dertien. Perhaps English was influenced by Dutch, or the metathesis took place independently for similar reasons in both places. Neither German nor the Scandinavian languages experienced it.

    All Indo-European languages have irregularities in their numbers, and it's clear that the "Indo-Europeans" did not have a single counting system. Perhaps the most complicated are the modern Indo-Aryan languages: it's impossible to guess what any number between 1-99 will be.
  3. Daffodil100

    Daffodil100 Senior Member

    Hats off to your superior knowledge of the language.:thumbsup: I am very impressed though English is not your mother tongue, you are very proficient in it and other Indo-European languages I guess from your above comment.

    Thank you very much for your help.
  4. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    With this bit of your otherwise excellent explanation I disagree. Raising of /e:/ to /i:/ existed already in ME before the metathesis and the subsequent shortening (-> MED). The spelling thirteen should therefore correspond to a late ME/early ModE pronunciation [θɪrte:n] which then, after /r/ became an approximant underwent the the -ir, -er, -ur merger: (OE) [θre:ti:n] > (ME) [θri:te:n] > [θɪrte:n] > (modE) [θɪɹti:n] > [θɝti:n] and in non-rhotic dialects finally [θɜ:ti:n].
  5. asanga Junior Member

    Thanks, I was actually doubtful about the exact process by which the first vowel became short, but wanted to give some explanation why metathesis would fit my "trochaic recitation" theory. BTW, is this theory generally accepted, or just my speculation?
  6. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I am not sure either. I only wanted to draw your attention to the fact that the transition was not /e:r/>/ɛr/>/ɝ/ but /e:r/>/i:r/>/ɪr/>/ɝ/. I don't know why but it seems that the syllable rime /-i:r/ was avoided. Compare e.g. ME sire /si:rə/ which retained the long vowel in the two-syllable version (modern rhotic reflex sire /saɪəɹ/) but underwent shortening in the one-syllable version of the word (modern rhotic reflex sir /sɝ/).
  7. sotos Senior Member

    The irregularity of counting 11-20 in english may be an immitation of the same irregularity in Greek, where the 1, 2, ... 9 comes first and the "deca" second. In new Gr. the irregularity persist only in 11 (en-deca) and 12 (do-deca), but for the rest we say "deca ...".
    I suppose the early northern and western Europeans (non-Romans, non-Greeks, the so-called "barbarians" :) ) barely used arithmetics above 12 before they meet Romans, as they didn't have coins, state bureaucracy, sciences etc.
  8. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Except that this is not an irregularity in Germanic languages which are "small Endian" languages. The historical way of saying 43 in English is þreo and feowertig (three and four tens), like German dreiundvierzig.

    But this is not the topic of the thread. The question is about why ME thritene became thirteen rather than *threeteen.
    Last edited: May 31, 2013
  9. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    The "barbarians" could count at least up to 10 000 long time before the Mycenean time, when all were barbarians.
    By the way, Romans regarded Greeks as "cultivated barbarians".

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