Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The grand mystery of French numbers begins to be unveiled 

A couple of weeks ago I finally found out the first bit of information that gave me an explanation to a question no one I knew could answer. It relates to the incredibly mind-knotting way the French say certain numbers, specifically the ones
in the 90s. In French, if you want to say 95 (which in English, as we all know is the very straightforward and simple ninety (the tens) and the five (the unity)), you have to perform 2, not one, but 2 mathematical operations. The French have managed to come with quatre-vingt-quinze which translates as four times twenty plus fifteen!!

Can you believe that??? And whenever I asked any French person why in the world they said 4 times 20 instead of 80, I would get a puzzled look on their faces since no one had ever asked them the question. It's just one of those things that they are conditioned from birth, so it is a non-mystery to them. But I could not stop being intrigued by it. So, I searched in an enormous etymology dictionary (smaller ones didn't have the entry) and found out what I had previously assumed was a possible explanation, this dates back to something really old, more exactly to a number system that came about in the 12th century and thanks to the great French uncomplicated way of doing things, and their fantastic forward mentality, it has remained until today!!!

I can only imagine how that old number system evolved. First, people in France could only count up to 80. This went on for centuries. ;-) Then one bright farmer in the 12th century noticed he had more than 80 sheep and he couldn't count them!!!! Oh, le bon Dieu!! Seigneur, aidez nous et nos moutons! So he must have gotten the bright idea to, well, just add a heap of numbers after the 80 and there you go, counting all those 99 sheep is no longer a problem because we can say 4 times 20 plus nineteen! Very jiffy, I say.

So here we are in the nano technology and super computer era and the French are still saying 4 times 20 plus 13, 17, 19 or whatever afterwards!!! And it takes me at least a minute to figure which number they are referring to, since my brain gets tangled in hearing this mathematical operational way of saying a simple two-digit number...

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