This article today will be talking about numbers. I know that some of you might be thinking that this is supposed to be an article about English, not maths, but actually, the two are closer than you might think.
The concept of 1 thing or two things has been around even before humans were to give them names, it could even be argued that numbers were around even before the universe itself, but something that only came about with the rise of humans is naming numbers.
One number that seems to break all the rules is eleven. If the English language was consistent, surely it would be called onety one. Today, we’ll be looking at why this isn’t the case. The short answer: If the English language was consistent then 11 would be pronounced “onety one” but it’s not consistent so we don’t, and that’s just the way it is.
Why do we name numbers?
Before we look at why eleven is called eleven, it’s important for us to look at why numbers are called anything at all, let alone what they are.
The numbers from 0-9 are the base numbers from which others numbers are made up of. This allows us to have a clear understanding of how numbers go up, and what number will come up after every number.
Imagine how confusing things would be is 17 was called something like “diddlypoo” and then 18 was “tippyfop”. It would be impossible to count to higher numbers.
Origin of Zero to Nine
Numbers are of course an ancient concept, and the origin of the numbers one to nine can be traced back to our homeland. All of the numbers from one to nine originate from their old English originals. Even the savage Celts knew that numbers were a thing and were able to count. Although what they called numbers were different from what they’re called today.
Zero on the other hand actually comes from French.
That’s the issue with having been invaded by the Romans, the Vikings, the Anglos, the Saxons, and the French. Our language is a mixture of all sorts of languages.
Origin of the Teens
Most of the time when we count up in the tens, it ends in ty (twenty, thirty). But the only exception to this is the teens.
“Teen” comes from the old English word for ten “tene”. Teen just means 10 more than. So by saying “fourteen”, you’re saying “ten more than four”.
There are of course several teen numbers that break some or all of the rules. These are of course eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. And we’ll be getting onto them later in the article.
Thirteen and Fifteen
The first two numbers that break rules that we should take a look at are thirteen and fifteen. If we want to be consistent. Surely it would make more sense to call them “threeteen” and “fiveteen”.
That’s because unlike the other numbers, these haven’t evolved from their old English originals.
Three used to be “thri” and five used to be “fif”.
So the reason why thirteen and fifteen don’t follow the rules is because they haven’t quite caught up to the other numbers just yet. Although, if 13 and 15 are bending the rules, then 11 and 12 are completely smashing them.
Twenty to Ninety
The ty suffix comes from the old English version of ten, and it means ten lots of. So by saying “sixty” you’re saying “six lots of ten”.
You may have noticed that numbers such as twenty, thirty, and fifty don’t sound like “twoty, threety, and fivety”. And as with thirteen and fifteen, this is because they follow the rules of the old English rather than the modern English we speak today.
It seems as if even though language evolves, remnants of the past will always cling onto the present.
Origin of Eleven and Twelve
And now onto why you clicked on the article. Time to talk about eleven and twelve and why they’re not pronounced onety one and twoty two.
As mentioned earlier in the article, the English language steals words from lots of different languages. And one of them is the old German language.
In old German, the number 11 was pronounced “Ainlif” and twelve “Twalif”. These were implemented into the English Language and over time evolved into what we call them today “Eleven” and “Twelve”.
So the reason why 11 and 12 don’t follow the same rules as the other numbers is that they have a completely different origin story.
Why the rule breaks?
This does, of course, beg the question as to “why?”. Why do we have some numbers that bend the rules a bit and other numbers that completely throw them out of the window?
And the reason is, quite simply because we say so. Unlike numbers, language doesn’t have to follow rules of logic, reason, or consistency. The “correct” language is determined by usage.
The reason why 11 is pronounced “eleven” is simply because that’s the rule that society has imposed upon it.
Eleven isn’t “Onety One” because the democracy of language has decided so.
There are actually other languages that follow more consistent rules than English. For example in Azerbaijani 11 is pronounced “on bir” and 22 is pronounced “İyirmi bir”.
In Bosnian 11 is “jedanaest” and 12 is “Dvadeset jedan”.
In Welsh 11 is “Un ar ddeg” and 12 is “Dau ddeg un”.
I have to confess, I’m not a native speaker in any of the languages, so I can’t say that their numbers are always consistent, but it is interesting to think about how we see blatant rule breaks in everyday time, and rarely even think twice about it.
If the English language was consistent then 11 would be pronounced “onety one” but it’s not consistent so we don’t, and that’s just the way it is.
11 comes from the old German “Ainlif”.
The other teen numbers come from the old English word that has come to mean “ten more than” and multiples of ten end in ty which means “ten lots of”.
Numbers such as thirteen and fifteen haven’t evolved as far as other numbers, the same applies for twenty, thirty, and fifteen. But they still follow the same set of rules.
Eleven and Twelve, on the other hand, follow old German rather than old English rules.