Learning to count despite English’s linguistic leftovers
I’ve gotten a lot of dirty looks from my kids helping them learn English. And confusion. And, almost like various stages of grief, denial, as they’d occasionally just decide that Dad must be nuts, because that “correction” doesn’t match any of the other words or phrases they’d already learned. I don’t blame them for these reactions, because English is a mess, and it’s not fun to have to learn a bunch of irregulars just because “that’s the way it is.” Those weird spellings and constructions do sometimes have origins though, and in case of how we deal with the names of numbers, they’re not “the way it is” as much as “the way it was.”
Ten more than what?
As an adult you stop thinking about it, but as kids learn to count things get a bit wonky after “ten.” Why don’t we say onety-one, or at least oneteen? Eleven and twelve just seem to come of of nowhere, and then we switch to teens, and then it over to the much more obvious twenty, twenty-one, etc. Higher numbers are pretty obviously based around the number of 10s and then the number of ones you’re describing. The teens follow a different logic system, but they at least seem to explicitly reference a quantity of 10 plus a smaller number. To be more specific, they actually say “10 more than x,” which used to be -tene in Old English, and -tekhuniz before that in Proto-Germanic. So while fourteen isn’t constructed like most of our names for numbers, at least it’s easier to write than fedwōrtekhuniz.
The leavings of spears
While saying that something is “ten more than four” seems a bit backwards, it’s actually very similar to how we ended up with eleven and twelve. Looking back to Viking battles with Anglo-Saxons, “leavings of spears” was described as daropa laf. That laf, as a leftover, went through a number of pronunciation shifts over the years, including lif and elf. These would then be attached to versions of “one” and “two” in the Old English endleofan and twelf, respectively, which if you say them out loud clearly tie into modern English’s eleven and twelve. But while that helps with pronunciation, those two words basically mean “one left” and “two left.” Why is there no reference to ten anywhere?
Finding the missing ten in the meaning of eleven is where things finally get to the point of “that’s the way it was.” As the mixed origins above indicate, not all numbers were given names at once, and many languages were functional with no word for numbers higher than 10. If that sounds impractical, keep in mind that the mathematical concept for 0 didn’t reach Europe until the 11th century, so while counting 12 ladybugs at the ladybug picnic seems obvious now, these terms are actually the result of centuries of iteration. While Lithuanian held onto the “two-left” construction for their numbers a bit longer, most of English switched over to teens, and then the even more mathematically consistent twenties and thirties (allowing for a few more pronunciation tweaks). However, it seems that eleven and twelve held on because they were the most commonly used terms, and people just didn’t feel like giving them up.
To get even nerdier with this discussion, word usage seems to be a lot like software adoption. Familiarity and ubiquity can be powerful enough forces to avoid updating to a better designed system, even if it means dragging around bugs and other inconsistencies. Not that my kids want to hear that explanation either.
Source: Why Is It 'Eleven, Twelve' Instead of 'Oneteen, Twoteen'? by Arika Okrent, mental_floss