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Danish Numbers: Out-Frenching the French Posted by on Aug 29, 2016 in Uncategorized

If you think French’s “four-twenties-and-thirteen” is a confusing way of saying “ninety-three,” just wait until you see Danish’s terrifying “three-and-fifth-½-times-twenty.”

Itchy Feet: Tres Childish

One of my favorite hobbies is complaining about the French system of counting. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. I think perhaps it’s because French numbers are a perfect representation of what my personal experience with French culture is all about: form over function. Quatrevingt-treize is a beautiful, melodious number that rolls off the back of the tongue and delights the ear. It also makes no sense. “Four twenties and thirteen?” Seriously? What’s wrong with “ninety-three”? Yes, the Swiss and the Belgians have it figured out – they say nonante-trois. But when’s the last time you heard anyone wax poetic about Belgian culture?

Just kidding. But seriously, thanks to knowledgable internet commenters, I’ve learned that although one of the more well-known, French is far from the most baffling numerical system.

That award has to go to Danish.

Now, we at Transparent have you covered when it comes to numbers in Danish from 1-20. And that’s a great start, as long as you never have to count much higher than that. But if ever that dark day ever arrives when you need to order or add up or keep track of more than forty-nine of something, may the lord have mercy on your soul. That’s because starting from fifty, Danish numbers enter a hellish Scandinavian maelstrom of linguistic nightmare. Just look at the word for “fiftieth”: halvtredsindstyvende. If that doesn’t make you want to cower at home with the curtains drawn and drown your sorrows in akvavit, I don’t know what will.

Basically, Danish numbers after fifty combine both a base-20 system of counting (unlike the common base-10) and an abbreviation of old-fashioned expressions for fractions. That’s right, fractions: get excited.

So: “fifty” is halvtreds, which is short for halvtredsindstyve. The -indstyve is left off because the Danes appreciate that a day only has so many hours in it to say numbers, but the full halvtredsindstyve literally translates to “half-thrice-times-twenty.”

What?

Well, you see, the “half-thrice” bit actually refers to halvtredje, an old and no-longer-used way of expressing 2½. For some reason I have yet to understand after researching all around the internet, 2½ is somehow the “third ½.” The “first ½” is simply ½. The “second ½” is 1½, and the “third ½,” halvtredje, is 2½. You figure that one out.

If we accept that little peculiarity, we see that 2.5 x 20 = 50. So “the ‘third half’ times twenty” is fifty: halvtredsindstyve, truncated in everyday speech to halvtreds.

Easy, right? Wrong! That’s just 50. 60 isn’t so bad, as tresindstyve (again, abbreviated in everyday speech to simply tres) is “three-times-twenty,” but the long form for 70 is halvfjerdsindstyve, or “half-quadruple-times-twenty.” Once again, the “half-quadruple” is not half of four but 3½, the “fourth ½,” so 3.5 x 20 = 70. 80 is “four-times-twenty” and ninety is “half-quintuple-times-twenty,” or the “fifth ½” (4½ or 4.5) x 20 = 90. And we haven’t even gotten to the mid-decimal numbers, like 84 or 92 or 73! By now, if you’re anything like me, your brain has leaked out of your ears and is heading south to put as much distance between itself and Denmark, the Land of Horror Numerals.

Obviously, I’m exaggerating here. Most Danes themselves probably don’t know the internal “logic” (or lack thereof) behind their numbering, and once you learn Danish, I’m sure it’s not a big deal.

Or is it, Danish language learners? You tell me, I’m dying to know!

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About the Author:Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Bruce Barrow:

    Just a thought. Halb drei is two-thirty in German (telling the time)….”half before three”. Perhaps they’re related?

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Bruce Barrow Oooh yeah, I’d never considered that possibility before. Interesting! I’ve got my own pet peeve about that whole “halb drei” thing…

      • Jens Grabarske:

        @Malachi Rempen @Malachi Rempen Fun fact: we native speakers get confused about the “halb drei” thing as well, as some dialects use them differently. For example: “halb drei” in Saxony can mean “3:30” instead of “2:30” as in other parts of Germany. They also have “dreiviertel 3” which, depending on the area, means “2:45” or “3:45”. If you travel around Germany, I would recommend a wristwatch…

  2. Johan:

    Half of three ?

  3. Melissa:

    So the half thing. The first half is obviously the first half you encounter after 0, .5. Then the second half is the next number and a half. You would think it would just be 1 (.5+.5), but that’s not a half number. So order of halfs is, half, 1 and half, 2 and a half, 3 and a half, and so on. So say you wanted the 98th half, it would be 99.5.

  4. Jens Grabarske:

    Oh, and concerning the languages. I did a cycle tour through Denmark at one point. I wanted to learn Danish, but was put off by the pronunciation. As Swedish and Danish are pretty much mutually intelligible, I just spoke Swedish and people replied in Danish and everything was fine.

    At one point I met a Danish guy and asked him how far a certain part of my trip was. He said in Danish: “Oh, I hear that you are a Swede, let me give you the kilometers in Swedish numbers…” and then gave me the distance in the fairly normal way in which Swedish numbers work.

    As I hadn’t learned Danish, I wondered what he meant by that comment. I only learned about the horror that is the Danish number system when I was back home. Still grateful that that guy decided to use a decent system for me…

  5. Matthew:

    You say Danish: I raise you traditional North Walian (Welsh). Everything is in 20’s (compare traditonal British English and it’s ‘thrice score and ten’ meaning 70)….the complex parts are the ones in between. Of course, between 11 and 15 (baring 12 deuddeg – it used to follow suit waaaayy back in the annals of time) it’s all x ar ddeg (x on ten). Then you arrive at 15 =pymtheg. 16? Un ar bymtheg (one on 15)…18 is the exception, conveniently being 2×9…so it’s deunaw (literally two nines).

    Armoured with all this, 98 should be apparent: yes…two nines on four score. 99 becomes four on fifteen on four score 🙂

  6. Simon Williams:

    Talking about time, the Dutch also use the same construction for telling the time. So 2:30 is helft drie, and so 2:25 is vijf voor helft drie.
    When it comes to numbers, the Dutch swap the numbers around, 65 is vijfenzestig or five and sixty. But at least the numbering system is consistent.

  7. paul darwent:

    When I was learning Danish, I couldn’t get my head around the numbers at all. One day I found an old teach yourself Danish book in a second hand bookshop. It was from around 1905, the chapters were numbered as described in the article. It all fell into place, made sense and suddenly I could count in Danish


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