To native speakers of English, the
answer is obvious: the language has individual words for the numbers from one to twelve,
then launches into a combination pattern from thirteen to nineteen. Not overly logical, to tell the
truth, but fortunately the counting becomes regular and predictable from 20 onwards (twenty-one,
…). ‘Teens,’ that much is clear, are people between 13 and 19 years of age.
Is this a universal linguistic
concept? Not at all!
The concept of ‘teens’ is
easy to figure out for Germans, even though a similar term does not exist in their language.
What helps them is that patterns are similar: 1 to 12 (eins to zwölf) are also distinct
words in German, while 13 to 19 (dreizehn to neunzehn) use a numeric construct similar
to the one found in English. Interestingly, the Arabic language also separates the numbers
between 13 and 19 from those between 1 and 12.
But what is a Spaniard to make of this,
whose language knows distinct words for 1 to 15 (uno to quince) and then uses a regular
pattern for all higher numbers (dieciséis = ten-and-six, diecisiete = ten-and-seven,
…)? Even the Roman languages cannot seem to agree among themselves: French mostly follows
the Spanish concept, but for some reason uses distinct words from 1 to 16 (un to seize)
before going regular (dix-sept, dix-huit, …). The Italians chose to side with
neither: building upon a foundation of distinct words for 1 to 10 (uno to dieci), they
use another not-very-logical scheme between 11 and 16 (undici = one-ten to sedici =
six-ten) before going mostly regular (diciasette = ten-seven, …).
The Russian language offers a slightly
more logical twist to this. It counts from 1 to 10 (один to
десять) as others do, next employs a one-ten to nine-ten
scheme (одиннадцать to
which it becomes regular.
Why can’t we all be as logical
as the Chinese or Japanese? Their respective ways of counting, where 11 is ten-one
(十一 resp. jū-ichi) and 85 is eight-times-ten-five
(八十五 resp. hachi-jū-roku), for example, surely seem most
Intuitive or not, the concept of a
‘teen’ must seem rather foreign to native speakers of any of these languages, regardless
of how logical their ways of counting are. Let’s state the obvious here: it is!
But wait, there is no reason to stop
now, given that language-specific counting methods can provide even more interesting insights.
Did you know that Germans, most of whom pride themselves with being oh-so-logical, actually are less
logical when counting in their language? It always put the tens at the end, such that 43 becomes
three-and-fourty (dreiundvierzig) and 325 becomes three-hundred-five-and-twenty
(dreihundertfünfundzwanzig). How strange.
Those of you who learned French
probably know that this language easily tops German in terms of unusualness in this discipline.
While largely regular between 17 and 69, and again from 100 onward, it gets truly interesting
in-between: numbers between 70 and 79 are counted as sixty-ten to sixty-ten-nine
(soixante-dix to soixante-dix-neuf), while those between 80 and 99 are even stranger
(quatre-vingts = four-times-twenty to quatre-vingt-dix-neuf =
four-times-twenty-ten-nine). How’s that for a brain twister?
The Japanese, obviously worried that
their logical counting system might make life too easy, came up with another brilliant
curveball: depending on what it is they are counting, they use different word endings and
occasionally modify the main part of the count word, too. The number eight? Hachi.
Eight (people)? Hachi–nin. Eight (horses)? Hap–piki. Eight
(sheets of paper)? Hachi–mai. Eight (cylinders)? Hap–pon.
Eight (bicycles)? Hachi–dai.
Are you having fun yet?
Let’s face it: the real
insight all this provides should have us do more than merely snicker about the strangeness of it
all. This is not just a numbers game—similar conceptual differences are found across all
aspects of verbal communication. Scientists have found ample evidence of language development
impacting brain structures. In other words, the wiring of our brains is different depending on
our respective native language(s). Making matters more complicated, this brain development
process slows down and comes to a halt when we are (you guessed it) teenagers. Those who learn
another language later in their lives are likely to struggle more, require more time, and face
more misunderstandings when translating into their native one. That is because to their
brains, the foreign-language concepts are, well, foreign.
Are you taking this knowledge
into account when communicating with non-native contacts?