French numbers: septante, huitante, octante, nonante / soixante-dix, quatre-vingts, quatre-vingt-dix

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by semiller, Oct 25, 2004.

  1. semiller Senior Member

    DFW, Texas
    I'm sure that this question has been asked many times, but I obvious don't know the answer. What is soixante-dix, quatre-vingts, and quatre-vingt-dix used in France while septante, octante/huitante, and nonante used in Switzerland and Belgium. No offense to those from France out there, but the Belgian and Swiss system is much more logical and much easier for foreigners to learn. Is there a particular history and cultural context behind this? Merci à tous à l'avance. :)

    Moderator note: This discussion was split and merged from various locations on the French language forums, and transferred to EHL. This EHL thread is about the history of the usage of septante/octante/huitante/nonante v.s. soixante-dix/quatre-vingts/quatre-vingt-dix: What did people say in the past? Why did they count that way? How has usage evolved? Are there parallels with (possibly archaic) counting systems in other languages? etc.

    If you are interested in regional variations in modern usage, or if you want to know how it comes across when you use e.g., septante in a country where soixante-dix is standard, then please see one of the following threads on the French forums.

    septante, huitante, octante, nonante / soixante-dix, quatre-vingts, quatre-vingt-dix - modern and regional usage - FR-EN Vocab
    septante, huitante, octante, nonante / soixante-dix, quatre-vingts, quatre-vingt-dix - Français Seulement

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 27, 2011
  2. Benjy

    Benjy Senior Member

    Milton Keynes, UK
    English - English
    a ton of french people have told me that it has something to do with the war in 1870 (before which they had the same system as the swiss..*apparentley*) between the french and germans but i could never bring myself to believe it.
  3. fleuriste-du-mal Senior Member

    US - English
    It's a very strange thing. In Littré's dictionary (1876?) he notes that septante, etc, is still used in the Midi and will hopefully come back into general usage. In a Larousse I have from 1930, it still gives soixante-dix, etc, as popular but wrong. Why persist in a ridiculous contruction? English has plenty of its own of course. We do it because it's done. And if we did things because they made sense we would all be metric by now wouldn't we?
  4. CrazyFroggy

    CrazyFroggy Senior Member

    Septante, octante, nonante

    Sorry, I'm too lazy to translate....
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 27, 2011
  5. Bruce Trainor New Member

    Courtenay BC Canada

    I am using "Notes sur les Archives de Notre Dame de Beaufort" par M. Jean Langevin, Pretre First edition, printed in Quebec in 1860, for some genealogical research. Father Charles Amador Martin conducted two batisms in 1673 and dated them as follows: L'an six cent septante et trois..... and the second

    ..."de l'an mil six cent soixante et treize...

    So it seems that at least in 1673 either use was acceptable.

    Just thought I would pass this on.

  6. wildan1

    wildan1 Moderando ma non troppo (French-English, CC Mod)


    One of Abraham Lincoln's most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address, begins, "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty..." I wonder if Lincoln knew French?

    I now realize it would be a great way to introduce the French approach to counting to American kids, who do generally find it rough after they pass soixante-neuf... But probably they would have studied Lincoln's speech in History or English class.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 14, 2011
  7. J.F. de TROYES Senior Member

    In the middle-age numbers from "deux-vingts", "trois-vingt"... up to "dix-huit -vingts" were used in France; so a famous hospital in Paris is always called "Hôpital des Quinze-Vingts", because the king St Louis built it to accommodate 300 knights who came back blind from the Crusades. Molière still uses "six-vingts" (=120) in his play "L'Avare" in the 17th century, but I think it was already old-fashioned; "septante", huitante", "nonante" were replaced in France by "soixante-dix"... between the 12nd and th 14th century. So both systems probably coexisted for a long time.
  8. ChiMike Senior Member

    Chicago USA
    USA, English
    No. Lincoln knew the Bible in the King James Version:

    Psalms 90

    10. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

    (The sense of Lincoln's statement being, of course, that the fathers had all passed away and work was left undone.)

    What work?

    Exodus 7
    5. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them.
    6. And Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded them, so did they.
    7. And Moses was fourscore years old, and Aaron fourscore and three years old, when they spake unto Pharaoh.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 14, 2011
  9. georgert

    georgert Member

    Steamboat Springs, CO
    USA English
    Does anyone know the etymology of the French numbers, soixante-dix, quatre-vingt and quatre-vingt-dix? Compared to English, where each group of 10 numbers from one to one-hundred has their own prefix: seventy..., eighty... and ninety...., French is so different with an additive formation of 60+10 for soixante-dix, multiplicative formation of 4x20 for quatre-vingt, and a combination of multiplication and addition for numbers in the nineties, 4x20+10 making quatre-vingt-dix.
  10. Punky Zoé

    Punky Zoé Senior Member

    France - français
    I do recognize that's weird, but I don't know why it is... I just can add that in Belgium and in Switzerland they say septante for soixante-dix, huitante for quatre-vingt and nonante for quatre-vingt-dix. They far more logical than we do ! :rolleyes: (see here)
  11. hosec Senior Member

    españa (ab)

    Creo que tiene algo que ver con la forma de contar de los pueblos celtas prerromanos, que no lo hacían sobre la base del 10, sino sobre la del 20.

  12. Lugubert Senior Member

    Some thoughts without research: A few languages use(d) the score (20) as the basic unit. Danish numerals are not too different from the French, but use "only halfway towards this score" instead of "additionally ten". Etymologically full forms to include bracketed parts: 50 halvtreds(indstyve): (-0.5+3)x20, 60 treds(indstyve) (3x20), 70 halvfjerds(indstyve) (-0.5+4)x20 - instead of Fr. 60+10, 80 firs(indstyve) (4x20), 90 halvfems(indstyve) (-0,5+5)x20 instead of Fr. 4x20+10.
  13. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    That's a very good starting point. Unfortunately, I can't copy it all, but here you can read something about the etymology of the French numbers at §575, article III. Let me summarize the most important points:
    • Ancient French still had se(p)tante, oitante, later octante, and nonate from Latin septuaginta, octoginta, and nonaginta, respectively.
    • However, along with these, French also used soixante et dix, quatre-vingt, and quatre-vingt et dix, where the last two are based on the vigesimal system as opposed to the Latin decimal one. The first one (soixante et dix) is called "analytic expression of setante" on that page.
    • These two systems were kept through the Middle Age, where they even used to say trente et deux, vingt et douze, quarante et trois, deux vingts et trois, cinq cinquante et huit, sept vingts et dix-huit (examples from the page given).
    • Old manuscripts were usually written in the vigesimal system, so the page 138 was written as VI.XX.XVIII (six vingts et dix-huit).
    • In the 17th century, they still used both six-vingts and cent vingt, quinze-vingts and trois cents. Here's an example of the ancient use.
    • The numerals septante, octante, and nonate survived all the time; they are not a newer analogy to other Romance languages. See also here.
    Hope it helps. :)
  14. SwissPete

    SwissPete Senior Member

    94044 USA
    Français (CH), AE (California)
    A little historical background, which of course must be taken with a grain of salt :D . It appears that some king of France was facing his 70th birthday, but it was just too much for him. So he decreed that he would be soixante-dix. See what you can do when you are a king :) ? Now I know that the Swiss never had kings, so it would not have become popular in Switzerland; as for the Belgians, I don't know...
    the Belgians stuck with quatre-vingts...

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 15, 2011
  15. LMorland

    LMorland Senior Member

    Back in Berkeley for the time being.
    American living in France
    Dear SwissPete,

    Sorry to douse your grain of salt, but the reason behind the French numbers being so difficult (for Anglophones, at least) after 69 is due to the fact that the French are Celts!

    And the significance of that statement lies in the fact that Celts counted in 20s, not in 10s (that is, they used their toes as well as their fingers).

    Before Napoleon, the practice of counting in 20s was much more widespread, and a vestige can be found in the name of the famous Hôpital d'Ophtalmologie des XV-XX in Paris. It owes its name to Louis IX (Saint Louis), who set up a residence for 300 (15 x 20) blind persons near the Louvre during his reign (in the 13th century, that is). This Residence Saint-Louis still exists today (now located in the 12th arrondissement, behind the Opéra Bastille), and the clinic that came to be attached to it during the Renaissance grew into the eye hospital that cares for patients from throughout the hexagon and beyond.
  16. tilt

    tilt Senior Member

    Nord-Isère, France
    French French
    This captivating explanation makes so much sense that even English language was influenced in such a way by the Celts.
    "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation..." said Lincoln. What a strange way to measure time for a French mind! And yet, when you think about it, four score and seven is nothing but... quatre-vingt-sept. :cool:
  17. broglet

    broglet Senior Member

    English - England
    ... and for even more completeness, a 20-based number system is not entirely dead in the UK. We still refer to the biblical lifespan as being 'three-score years and ten' (which would be the equivalent of trois-vingts-dix!)
  18. avok

    avok Banned

    I also think that might be due to the influence of the Celtic tongues in the area. But I cannot give a link or something.
  19. Joannes Senior Member

    Belgian Dutch
    Huitante isn't used in Belgium. Septante and nonante are.
  20. Lugubert Senior Member

    But octante is.
  21. Aoyama Senior Member

    川崎市、巴里 (黎)
    français Clodoaldien
    More then the etymology of numeration, it is rather a matter of usage. This has already been discussed here, somewhere, I forgot where ...
    In simple terms, there are THREE basic numeration systems, all linked with the FINGERS (digitus in Latin which gives digit = number). All humans use fingers to count.
    The decimal base, because of the 10 fingers.
    The duodecimal base , because of the 12 spaces between the phalanges of the four fingers, the thumb being used to count each hand, one hand will then be equal to 12. This way of counting (very old) is still used in the Indian peninsula.
    The vicesimal base , (20, cf vingt, vice-), because of both fingers and toes. This way of counting is older than the decimal numeration. It was used in Gaul and in the Celtic world in ancient times.
    Traces of this can be found in old units : 20 sous to a franc, 20 shillings to a pound, 20 ounces to a pound (weight) ... But 12 inches to a foot ...
    The French school system has long used 20 as a way to mark examinations : 10/20 being a passing grade, 12/20, 14/20 etc.

    Huitante is used in some parts of the Jura and Switzerland, octante, even otante, are also used locally (dialects).
  22. Lugubert Senior Member

    Haven't time right now to dig into that one, but it sure looks interesting! Do you have any references? It reminds me, though, of a friend who claimed that sheep herders in Wales counted one, two, three, four, many, because they had to keep their hands in their pockets because of the cold, and pointed with their thumbs at one finger at a time, and were lost if there were more items than the four fingers...
  23. Aoyama Senior Member

    川崎市、巴里 (黎)
    français Clodoaldien
    One source is the two volumes of "Histoire des Nombres". I'll be back.
    Here I am : the book is in fact : Histoire universelle des chiffres by Georges IFRAH .
    English version available (maybe in Swedish too), with other books on the same subject by the author, who (a doctor) spent is life researching the matter.
  24. Maroseika Moderator

    I can hardly imagine how one can use toes for counting. It's not too easy to bend them. especially bend separately from each other.
    I remember another version: vicesimal system is based also on the fingers, but each fingers is used twice - as straight and as half bent.
    Straight finger means digit from 1 to 10, half bent one - from 11 to 20 or v.v.
  25. Aoyama Senior Member

    川崎市、巴里 (黎)
    français Clodoaldien
    Right, unless you're in the circus business ...
    But what is true is that numbers are all related to body parts, especially fingers and toes, but also hands etc.
    2,5,10,12,20 are all figures related to body parts. From there you also get multiples, depending on combinations (12,24,60).
    7 is an exception, it comes from shabbat/lashevet in Hebrew, meaning to rest .
    Samedi in French is derived from sabedi (m=b) -cf sabato, sabado-, one could question the link between shabbat, sheva (7 in Hebrew), sept, hepta etc.
  26. Joannes Senior Member

    Belgian Dutch
    I've only heard quatre-vingts tbh.
  27. raptor

    raptor Senior Member

    BC, Canada
    Canada, English
    From what I heard, 12 (months in a year; inches in a foot; constellations in the equitorial band) is from the old deities, Greek I think, but stemming from older Mesopotamian.
    The Mesopotamian culture predominantly used a system of 6, 6*10 (60 [seconds; minutes]), 6*10*6 (360), 6*10*6*10 (3600), etc, which was based in astronomy. 6*12 = 72 years for the sun to rise one degree off the first measurement. 6*360 = 2160 years for one 'great year' (for the sun to complete one cycle of rising in each constellation). 6 is also familiar as the number of days in creation 'myths.'
    360 was especially important it seems, for 360 years was one 'sha' (unit for measuring times 'before the flood' and lives of deities etc), as well as how many degrees there are in a circle.

    But I digress...

    Does anyone know of other cultures who use base 6?

    My 2¢
  28. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    We do, when we measure time in minutes and seconds, or when we measure angles in degrees. We inherited this system from the Babylonians. :)

    The vigesimal (base 20) system of French, however, has no relation to the sexagesimal system of the Babylonians.
  29. Adolfo De Coene Member

    Mallorca Spain
    Belgium (English, Spanish, French, Dutch)
    Just to put my little grain of salt. In Euskera, the basque language, supposedly one of the oldest or pre-celtic languages surviving, the numbers 40, 60, 80 are all derived from 20.
  30. Aoyama Senior Member

    川崎市、巴里 (黎)
    français Clodoaldien
    Very interesting. Could you give the numbers ?
  31. DOM78

    DOM78 Senior Member

    Plaisir, near Versailles
    France ; français
    Yes, please do, Adolfo, I am highly interested too ! Thank you !
  32. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I found the Basque names for the numbers here:

    It does have a structural similarity with the French system, which I've added alongside it.
  33. DOM78

    DOM78 Senior Member

    Plaisir, near Versailles
    France ; français
    Outsider, thank you so much for this utmost interesting link !
    Bonne journée.
  34. Aoyama Senior Member

    川崎市、巴里 (黎)
    français Clodoaldien
    What would we do without you Outsider ! And that's NOT irony.
    This being said, (but that may set us a bit off-topic), I think this way of counting has some similarities with Welsh or Irish and Scottish , which it seems, dear Outsider, you MUST have some smatterings (or more).
    Does it ?
  35. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    There are indeed similarities with the traditional counting system of Welsh (I'm not sure about Irish). I think that it would be very difficult to tell whether the Celts borrowed the vigesimal counting system from the ancestors of the Basques, or vice-versa. French seems to have inherited it from the Celts.
  36. Adolfo De Coene Member

    Mallorca Spain
    Belgium (English, Spanish, French, Dutch)
    The numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 are bat, bi, hiru, lau
    and is eta
    20 is hogei
    10 is hamar
    70 is three twenty and ten, hiru hogei eta hamar
    Note that the basque language has several dialects and forms of writing.
  37. Nizo Senior Member

    Note the number 87 in the first line of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address (1863):

    Four score and seven years ago...

    The word score was used in the past to mean 20. I don't know how common this was or what the origin is. Just thought I'd mention it! :D
  38. Aoyama Senior Member

    川崎市、巴里 (黎)
    français Clodoaldien
    Obrigado Outsider. We're progressing .
    For Score , it is also true. That shows that you don't need to be an acrobat to use the vigesimal counting system (numeration)...
  39. Lugubert Senior Member

    I love confusing (do I really, though?) people by counting in scores and dozens.

    Traditionally, eggs were counted in scores in Sweden. Nowadays, its standardized cartons of, say, 6 or 18. Dull.

    When I was young (yes, there was such a time), the diary shop sold cream in "measures". We (well, some of us) had to be taught in school that a "measure" really meant a decilitre, aka 100 ml.

    We had a saying equivalent to the English "Baker's dozen". Not necessarily getting exactly 13 and paying for 12, the "påbröd" ('on-bread') referred to getting the amount of baker's products you paid for, and yet another bonus one.
  40. J.F. de TROYES Senior Member

    Whodunit rightly says the vigesimal system was widespread in Old French ; “septante”, “oitante” ( “rebuilt” “octante” by scholars ), “nonante” were rather literary forms, more common in Gaelic non- (or: less ) speaking areas, namely in Eastern France. “Octante” was generally replaced by the popular form “Huitante" .

    Interesting indeed. In France we also know the equivalent of the "baker's dozen" when saying "treize à la douzaine" ( 13 only paid for 12) and it refers to eggs usually counted in scores and generally sold nowadays in 6 or 12 unit cartons.

    I looked up numbers in Breton , being unaware of Celtic languages, and unsurprisingly they are very similar to Welsh ones ; you can find them here. Some examples :

    20 ugent
    40 daou-ugent ( deux-vingt)
    60 tri-ugent (trois-vingt)
    70 dek ha tri-ugent ( dix et trois-vingt)
    80 pevar-ugent (quatre-vingt )
    90 dek ha pevar-ugent (dix et quatre-vingt

    As for Basque being influenced by Gaelic (or later French ) or vice versa I have big doubts, as I don’t think both languages borrowed anything important from each other ( but different opinions would be welcome :) ) and I suppose the vigesimal system can be found in non-I.E languages. Maybe a matter of chance !
  41. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    20 based counting (score=20) was "normal" in English, too. I don't know exactly when it ceased to be common but probably not so long ago.

    In the king James Bible you find 70 as "three scrore and ten" and the OED (edited in the late 19th/early 20th c.) still defines the word hundred as "five score".
  42. Lugubert Senior Member

    And more!

    King James Bible
    And Moses was fourscore years old, and Aaron fourscore and three years old, when they spake unto Pharaoh.
    American Standard Version
    And Moses was fourscore years old, and Aaron fourscore and three years old, when they spake unto Pharaoh.

    Almost 50 000 hits for "fourscore years". And that's only a beginning of "...score years", like in FDR, in his Address at the Dedication of the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, Hannibal, Mo.
    September 4th, 1936

    [quote]It is with earnest American pride and with a glory in American tradition that I enjoy this happy privilege today—joining in this tribute to one who impressed himself upon the lives of youth everywhere all through the last fourscore years and ten.[/quote]
  43. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)

    The topic is "French numbers".
    In this thread we can allow comparisons with languages as Breton, Welsh, Basque and English for quite obvious reasons. Nevertheless, the focus in this thread should be on French.

    However, people who wish to discuss the vigesimal (or any other) system in other languages are kindly asked to open a new thread.


    Moderator EHL
  44. francois_auffret Banned

    Lahore, Pakistan
    France, French
    A fact has not been mentioned in all the threads. Thanks to Aoyama for partially mentioning it. I am hinting at the Gaulish / Celtic substratum of in French. Gaul, a Celtic language (Brythonic branch), was the language which was replaced by vulgar latin in the wake of the incorporation of Gaul into the Roman Empire. Although no linguist would ever deny that fact, very few of them can really measure the impact of the Gaulish language on French, because this language is almost entirely unknown.
    A celtic brythonic language although survived in France today: the Breton language. This language has preserved a number of archaic celtic features, such as The vicesimal base in counting:

    1 _ Unan
    2 _ Daou
    3 _ Tri
    4 _ Pevar
    5 _ Pemp
    6 _ C'hwec'h
    10 _ Dek
    20 _ Ugent
    30 _ Tregont
    40 _ Daou-ugent (or: Two-twenty)
    60 _ Tri-ugent (or Three-twenty)
    80 _ Pevar-ugent (or Four-twenty)

    An this is standard Breton, which means that this is common to all dialects and the Breton language doesn't have any other form for Forty, Sixty, Eighty.... In some dialects this system goes further

    120 _ c'hwec'h ugent (or: Six-Twenty)
    140 _ seizh-ugent (or: Seven-Twenty)

    Knowing this, I have always thought myself that this 'weird' system in French was coming from the celtic roots of the language and especially of its speakers (the substratum).

    Hope this has been of any use
  45. Aoyama Senior Member

    川崎市、巴里 (黎)
    français Clodoaldien
    What is "weird" is not so much the system itself (once again, using fingers is the basis of counting for all humans all over the world, cf digit ~ digital /doigt [digitus], here it's fingers and toes, foot fingers ), the weird thing is that each number of the vigesimal suite defy the rules :
    soixante et onze (like ving et un etc)
    but quatre-vingt-un (no ET)
    quatre-vingt-deux (no liaison as in vingt-deux and following, where the t sounds and is linked to the next number "vingt-t-trois" etc)
    quatre-vingt-onze (no ET)
    not speaking about the rule with the s (quatre-vingts) ...
  46. Meadows4 New Member

    I notice that the French form quatre-vingt etc, looks very similar to the old English form where 80 would be expressed as fourscore, seventy as threescore and ten etc.

    Quatre-vingt-dix = fourscore and ten?
    Perhaps the French and English were counting in multiples of twenty, and the Swiss and Belgians just simplified it.
  47. tilt

    tilt Senior Member

    Nord-Isère, France
    French French
    They simplified it, or kept this habit from some other antique language since, as far as I know, counting in base twenty in French (and probably in old English) comes from the Celts.

    (I'm fairly sure this sentence is totally odd. Any suggestion or correction in my PM would be welcome!)
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2011
  48. Lacuzon

    Lacuzon Senior Member

    French - France

    En tant que francophone de France, j'ai toujours trouvé étrange que nous utilisions encore soixante-dix, quatre-vingts et quatre-vingt-dix à la place se septante, huitante et nonante ; surtout depuis l'instauration du système métrique. L'usage n'est certes pas aisé à changer mais je n'ai aucun problème à comprendre ni à compter avec septante, huitante et nonante.

    Quelqu'un saurait-il à partir de quand cet usage est entré en fonction en Suisse et en Belgique ?

    Je me rappelle qu'à l'école les deux formes m'ont été évoquées mais ce n'est pas le cas pour mes enfants.
  49. Calina18

    Calina18 Senior Member

    francophone Québécois d'origine belge
    Il semble que ce soit prendre le problème à l'envers et que la forme décimale, plus ancienne, ait cédé progressivement sa place à la forme en vingt en France à partir des XVe et XVIe siècle (sous toute réserve : possiblement à cause de l'usage commercial de pièces de vingt sous). C'est une hypothèse raisonnable puisqu'une bonne part du vocabulaire wallon est en fait de l'ancien français ou en est issu. J'admets cependant que les sources semblent contradictoires puisque la forme quatre-vingt remonterait aux Celtes selon certains.

    Je préférerai toujours octante à huitante, ne dit-on pas déjà octave, octet, octogone, octobre, octogénaire, octopode. Or, je ne connais pas de mots en huit à part huitain, huitaine et huitième.
  50. LMorland

    LMorland Senior Member

    Back in Berkeley for the time being.
    American living in France
    That's certainly my understanding, although I'd never heard a good hypothesis until yours, just now, about why they resisted the onslaught of the decimal system.

    Nice post! :)

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