At least the Danes know how to count

Even though Danish is impossible for me to pronounce, I do appreciate their stubborn resistance to decimalization. The number 71 is (I hope I get this right) "en og halvfjerdsindstyve", literally, "one and half-four-times-twenty", or more commonly, just "en og halvfjerds". (Those familiar with other Germanic languages recognize "half-four" as meaning "three and a half".)

(I hope the Danes out there realize that my previous remarks about Danish were all in fun. I'm just fascinated with languages, especially those in the Germanic branch.)

Comments (17)
  1. Michael C. says:

    Hobbits do, too – Bilbo’s eleventy-one years old, remember. ;)

  2. R says:

    French is similar, if I remember correctly 70 is soixante dix (60 10) and 90 if quatre vingt dix (4 20 10).


  3. You should take a look at the Danish school grading system. That’s one very weird system. Take a look at it here ->

  4. Mike Dunn says:

    But if you go to other countries such as Ireland, "half four" means 4:30. As in, "meet me in the lobby at half four."

    I once asked about that phrase on another board, and depending on the country it may mean 4:30 or 3:30.

  5. Yeah, half four in Swedish would mean 3:30 (because you’re half-way to 4 from 3), but we only use it when talking about time (unlike the Danes). Half four in Irish sounds like an abbreviation for half past four.

    After studying some East-Asian languages (Thai and Chinese), the simplicity in just saying 10-5 (for 15) or 5-10 (for 50) makes me want to use it in Swedish and English as well.

    I remember some years back it was said that the Chinese students were so much better at maths (than westerners) just because the counting system was easier. I wonder if that makes the Danes even worse at maths?

  6. asdf says:

    People commonly read the numbers from left to right like "five oh" for 50 and "one five" for 15 in English. 10-5 and 5-10 just sounds too unintuitive.

  7. Søren says:

    ‘en og halvfjerdsindstyve’

    is a very old way of saying numbers in Denmark and is most often used in trading – especially when you want to ‘stress’ the value.

    When we need to be correct with number saying (on checks for instance) we use the other ‘way’: syvtien (syv-ti-en -> seven-ten-one).

    In every day tongue we use the common way: ‘en og halvfjerds’.

    This is of course common Danish (Rigsdansk) – if you venture into the countryside you will encounter other systems. Even though we are only a little over 5 million in population, and span nothing more than a bread crumb on a world map, we still have dialects used everyday, which are quite impossible to understand for non-dialected Danes. If we were to have a general vote on the subject, I think most younger Danes would just as much scrap the language and use English instead.

  8. Søren Sandmann (another Søren) says:

    Andreas, "halv fire" is 3.30 in Danish too, and contemporary Danish doesn’t really use the construction anywhere else.

    The etymology of "halvfjerdsindstyve" (halvfjerde sinds tyve) is fairly specialized knowledge, and while "halvfjerdsindstyve" may not be completely dead yet, it is clearly being replaced with "halvfjerds".

    Both "halvfjerde" (three and a half) and "sinds" (times) on their own are long dead in contemporary Danish.

  9. Alex says:

    In Romanian 11 to 19 is ‘one to ten’ … ‘nine to ten’ – intuitive.

  10. > People commonly read the numbers from left to right like "five oh" for 50 and "one five" for 15 in English.

    Fifteen is hardly intuitive (5-10), besides in English fifty and fifteen sounds quite similar if you’re not used to the Germanic sounds. I mean it’s much more (mathematically) intuitive to say X (times) 10 (plus) Y.

  11. AlisdairM says:

    "I remember some years back it was said that the Chinese students were so much better at maths (than westerners) just because the counting system was easier. I wonder if that makes the Danes even worse at maths?"

    My vote goes to the first country to adopt duo-decimal <g> I’m sure learning math would be much easier in base 12, once you get past the ‘counting on your fingers’ stage. Probably too late for anyone to take the jump now though (although if we can teach reading through phonics…)

  12. Mike Dunn says:

    hmm, the Mandarin number system isn’t radically different from English.

    shi 10

    er shi 20

    san shi 30

    bai 100

    er bai 200

    san bai 300

    qian 1000

    ? 10000 (I forget the word for this one, can’t find it in my dictionary)

    yi 100 million

    You just take those number words and aggultinate them just like in English

    si qian er bai jiu shi qi

    4 thousand 2 hundred 9 ten 7


    Although in informal speech, you’re likely to hear just "si er jui qi" meaning "four two nine seven".

  13. No, it’s not radically different, but different enough for one to get a better grasp on the relationship between the numbers. Besides it was a long time ago this was said (~15 yrs) and I may remember it incorrectly.

    Anyway the word for 10000 in Mandarin is wàn.

  14. Yonky says:

    Counting madness everywhere … what about ‘four scores and seven’ years ago ?

  15. Martin Liversage says:

    Well, speaking of Danes and counting there’s another funny point to make.

    In English you have million (10^6) followed by billion (10^9) and then trillion (10^12) etc., but in Danish (and probably other languages) it is million (10^6), milliard (10^9), billion (10^12), billiard (10^15) etc. So in a way it is easier for us Danes to name really large numbers.

    How would you say septilliard (10^45) in English? Of course you could always trump this by a googol or perhaps even the elusive fantasillion.

    Often journalist and other people not interested in such mathematical details gets it completely wrong when translating big numbers from English to Danish. So if the US military budget is $400 billion ($4*10^11) they just use the same number in Danish increasing the budget figure to an even more insane number ($4*10^14).

  16. Raymond Chen says:

    Multipliers beyond (American) trillion have yet to appear in common usage. (But just wait a while; I’m sure our national debt will hit the next multiplier sooner or later.)

    Nobody really uses the fancy words like "septillion"; the only people who commonly use numbers that large are scientists, who are content to use scientific notation.

    I believe Britain switched from European "billion = 1 million million" to the American "billion = 1 thousand million".

    Ironically, the current American system was based on the French system, and then the French changed their system to match the British, and now the British changed their system to match the Americans… Perhaps it’s time for the Americans to change to match the Germans?

  17. keithmo says:

    Just adding a little to the mix: In Polish, 4:30 is "wpol do pietej", literally "one half (hour) to five".

    The Polish number system is fascinatingly complex. In addition to the usual "singular" and "plural", there are actually two types of plural: 2 to 4 of something, and 5 or more of something. Consider:

    One apple = jablko (nominative singular)

    Two apples = dwa jablka (nominative plural)

    Five apples = piec jablek (genitive plural)

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