Why are French numbers so strange?

par | Août 28, 2017 | Article A1 chapter 1, Articles, Articles A1, Blog | 12 commentaires

You have tried to learn French numbers. And certainly, you’ve managed to memorize them. But still now, you don’t understand one thing: why is it SO strange and complicated?

Well, there is one main reason: history.

Here, I’ll tell you the story of French numbers, made simple.


1: the Romans and the decimal system

The romans (like many Indo-European populations) counted with the decimal system (based on the number 10).

They colonized France around 50 BC and brought with them, their culture, language and their way of counting:

10: DIX 10
20: VINGT 2 X 10
30: TRENTE 3 X 10
40: QUARANTE 4 X 10
50: CINQUANTE 5 X 10
60: SOIXANTE 6 X 10
70: SEPTANTE 7 X 10
80: HUITANTE 8 X 10
90: NONANTE 9 X 10

2: the Celtics and the vigesimal system

But when the Romans arrived in France, they had to cohabitate with other populations that had already been there for ages.

The Gaulois are Celtics populations who were living in France since the 1st millenary BC.

Celts in Europe-fr.svg
Par QuartierLatin1968, The Ogre,  Link

Celts in Europe

    The core Hallstatt territory, expansion before 500 BC
    Maximum Celtic expansion by 270 BC
    Lusitanian, Autrigones, Varduli and Caristi areas of Iberia, “Celticity” uncertain
    The boundaries of the six commonly-recognized ‘Celtic nations’, which remained Celtic speaking throughout the  Middle Ages (viz. Brittany, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland)
    Areas that remain Celtic-speaking today
The Celtics also have an Indo-European origin but were counting with a vicesimal system (based on 20).

That should give something like that:

20: VINGT 20
30: VINGT-DIX 20 + 10
40: DEUX-VINGTS 2 X 20
50: DEUX-VINGT-DIX 2 X 20 + 10
70: TROIS-VINGT-DIX 3 X 20 + 10
90: QUATRE-VINGT-DIX 4 X 20 + 10

Another Theory says that this vigesimal system comes from the population of Denmark and Norway, the Normands, that arrived in Normandie around 900 AC.

3: the hybridization

Even if we are not sure of the origin of the vigesimal system, we can observe that both vigesimal and decimal system were cohabitating during the middle age in France.

It’s only during the 17th century, with the influence of the writers and intellectuals, that the Academy Française decided to choose the actual system, a hybridization of the decimal and vicesimal system.

10 : DIX

20 : VINGT









4: In other French speaking countries

Not all the French speaking countries count that way.

– In Romande Switzerland, They use the complete decimal system.

– In Geneva and Belgium, they use the decimal system except for 80 that they pronounce quatre-vingt (like in France).

– In Quebec and Francophone Africa, they count like in France.

Voilà! I hope you understand a little bit more the way we count in France. You can see that we like complexity ?

To finish, a nice map of the evolution of Indo-European language :