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Latin languages, as well as English, speak numbers from left to right, in the same direction in which they are written, e.g. forty-two, quarante-deux, but in German, you write from left to right but speak numbers from right to left, in the opposite direction, e.g. zweiundvierzig "two-and-forty". What is the origin of this way of speaking numbers?


I want to clarify that "backwards" should not be understood in a disparaging sense, but rather as "opposite to the common direction in which we read, i.e. left-to-right".

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Siehe auch :-) – splattne Aug 12 '12 at 7:02
That's just not true. It's fourteen, not ten-four in English, so that's no German specialty. German is just more consistent in the usage. So I admit the "forward" way would be more helpful, I'm glad we are not using the French system; quatre-vingt-dix-neuf still makes my head hurt. – John Smithers Aug 12 '12 at 14:00
By the way in older English books you'll find the numbers written the other way around, too (e.g. four and twenty). At least for certain ranges... – musiKk Aug 12 '12 at 18:14
Even German kids have trouble with it, my daughter (last year of Kindergarten) for example keeps saying fünfundzwanzig for 52. – Alexander Rühl Aug 15 '12 at 10:52
Sitting here transcribing old German birth, death, and marriage records from the late 1800s, I often encounter numbers written as "eintausend achthundert sechzig und vier," usw. Language is so fluid and usage so unpredictable that it's very difficult to say "why" any given linguistic feature arises or is suppressed. I must say I was surprised to see these frequent exceptions to the modern rule. – user9319 Aug 26 '14 at 22:31

6 Answers 6

up vote 24 down vote accepted

The question, why German numbers are "backwards" is naive in many ways.

Spoken language was in existence before written language. Many numerals existing today were created long before reading was practised, so if there is any direction in a language at all, German does not "read" "backwards", it speaks "backwards".

But then, very likely numerals are not named with regard to direction at all, but for the logic behind counting. In Breton, the number eighteen has the name tri-ouch "three (times) six" – I cannot discern any direction in this numeral. In Finnish, eighteen is called kah-deksan-toista "two (from) ten (in the) second (ten)". The logic seems to be to view the decades and then say how far into which decade we are. Again, there is no reading direction implied in the number name. Similar to this Finnish logic, Old Norse used a counting system not based on tens, but on dozens and multiples of the divisors of twelve (e.g. 60 = "Schock" in German). "364 days" in Old Norse is fiora dagar ens fiortha hundraths "four days into the fourth hundred (= 120)". (Please note that "hundred" once meant 120.) I don't claim to understand the logic behind "einundzwanzig", but the question might be to understand the thinking behind numerals and find out about historic counting systems, not about reading direction.

In Old English, a language descended from Germanic dialects, numerals where "backwards", too: fēowertīene "four-teen", ān and twentiġ "one and twenty" etc., and you can still find remnants of an old vigesimal (base 20) counting system, e.g. "score" for 20.

There are many more languages that speak or read (some of) their numbers "backwards", among them Greek, Latin (both directions possible), Celtic languages etc., and of course languages that actually read right to left like Arabic, where our written numbers come from. The question could be rephrased as: Why does English read their numbers in the wrong direction? Because obviously the "backwards" way is older and may even be more widespread (there are thousands of languages and we don't know how they count; why should English be the norm from which to judge numerals?).

Our current number symbols were brought into Western culture from India, via Arabia. They reached Italy in 1200, Germany in 1500. In the 1500s, when the first books on mathematics appeared in German, there was some argument among scholars, if the number names should be adapted to the direction of writing and reading. Luther, whose Bible translation was the basis for the creation of a common German language (prior to Luther, there was no High German only a number of mutually hard to understand German dialects), decided to retain the traditional number names (i.e. "backwards"), contrary to other authors who proposed "zwanzigeins", in accordance with the writing direction of the new numbers.

Reference for the last paragraph: "Warum wir Zahlen von hinten nach vorne lesen und warum das nicht so bleiben muss", in: Gerritzen, Hauenschild, KIimmeskamp, Voigt (Eds.), Zwanzigeins, Bochum: 2008, Brockmeyer, and there the section "Das Stellenwertsystem und Jakob Köbel" on pages 23 and 24. (view on Google Books)

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Thank you for your intriguing answer. Do you have any reference for the argument among scholars? – Jonas Aug 30 '12 at 1:25
My information comes from Lothar Gerritzen, "Warum wir Zahlen von hinten nach vorne lesen und warum das nicht so bleiben muss", in: Gerritzen, Hauenschild, KIimmeskamp, Voigt (Eds.), Zwanzigeins, Bochum: 2008, Brockmeyer, and there the section "Das Stellenwertsystem und Jakob Köbel" on pages 23 and 24. Unfortunately Gerritzen does not give any sources, so you'd have to do your own research from there. Here it is on Google Books: – user1914 Aug 30 '12 at 6:53
Thank you for the reference. – Jonas Aug 30 '12 at 11:24

Indeed, good question ;) As long we only switched the spelling of the 10 and 1 series (zweiundvierzig) but not the hundred and thousands (2100 => zweitausend einhundert) I expect it is related to the Arabic and somewhere in the past, it was adapted the wrong way?!

Unless you are really familiar with the way words and numbers are written in the Arabic language, it is very likely you would read the numbers backwards because when writing in this language you write from right to left.

In addition to reversing the numbers to form numbers from 21 - 99, when you read these numbers you inset the word "wa" between the numbers. Wa means and in Arabic to when reading 53, which actually looks like 35, you would say three and fifty.

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But then, why we do not read 1234 as "vier und dreißig und zweihundert und tausend", but switch the direction, starting from left and then continue from right. Why only numbers from 13 to 99? Why do English have 13-19 same as German. They both do have the same origin but somewhere the development of the language is subtle different. – Em1 Aug 14 '12 at 7:37
The guys in the past never bought more than 99 eggs at once?! ;D Explanation is given for me on this site too., see edit above – Aug 14 '12 at 7:51
I reckon it is because numbers >= 100 are subject to multiplication vier-hundert = 4 times hundred, and hence to avoid confusion with the additive way of saying things (104 would be vier-und-hundert) they need to be upfront – hroptatyr Aug 14 '12 at 12:05
I guess it's just a convention that proved practical over time. You must not forget that people didnt even use hundreds and thousands up until a few decades ago: 60 was five dozen, and 12 dozen was one gros, etc. and people always used the number upfront and the "unit" (dozen, gros, etc.) behind it. – hroptatyr Aug 15 '12 at 7:52
Arabic numbers arrived in Germany and England after 1500. At that time, both English and German scholars contemplated changing the speaking of numerals to follow reading direction. English scholars decided to switch from "one and twenty" to "twenty one", while Luther, in opposition to the proposals by other German scholars who recommended reading numerals from left to right, retained the traditional right-to-left direction that was once common in all Germanic dialects in his Bible translation, which was the foundation for High German. So, the fault for German's conservatism is Luther's. – user1914 Aug 30 '12 at 11:25

Language is a living beast. It changes over time. It's not always logical. It's not always consistent. Sometimes historical concepts hang on, although they no longer seem to make sense now. Take English spelling and pronunciation, for example. Tough stuff.

Conventions about reading out numbers aloud are along the same lines. The numerical concepts are in your head. The language just gives voice to them, but does not change the maths.

two-and-forty or forty-two are exactly the same.

Just speculating now, but maybe the concept or "zwei-und-vierzig" evolved when people were not very veered with numbers and maths and had to use their fingers to keep track of where they were. Tens in one hand and ones in the other (yes, you can do 10 numbers with just one hand. It's easy. Ping me for details). So, in one region it got common to say "fourty-(and)-two" and in another region it got common to say "two-and-forty". Same difference.

Language is not an exact science.

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+1 I believe you are speculating right! Just watch little children while they are learning how to count with numbers between 10-99. – Ali Aug 18 '12 at 10:28

I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the history of numbers and their use in language.

In older English texts, you'll find a lot of numbers reversed in the same way as German numbers: the best known example being "four and twenty blackbirds". Verein zwanzigeins points out that English switched to using "twenty four" instead of "four and twenty" in the 16th century.

I suspect that when people started using decimal places, it wasn't immediately obvious that the most significant digit should be stated first, in newspaper-article "most important facts first" fashion.

It's also worth pointing out that we write numbers "backwards" with respect to Arabic: that is, in Arabic, numbers are written (right to left) with the least significant digit first: so 152 was originally written right-to-left as "two and five tens and one hundred".

I suspect Arabic numbers were not reversed for left-to-right languages more to avoid confusion as to which direction a number was written in, rather than any particular logic, so the fact that left-to-right languages put the most significant digit first is more of an accident than something that happened by design.

Of course, English speakers eventually decided that in speech, we should consistently put the most significant digit first (and this is also done in modern spoken Arabic with no strange reversals as in German).

If I were to venture a guess myself as to why German hasn't made the same transition, I'd guess it's because numbers like 25 are compound nouns in German: one writes "fünfundzwanzig" and says "fünfunzwanzig", not "fünf und zwanzig", so they're in a sense similar to the numbers 13-19, it's better to think of each of them as a single entity, not a sequence of two numbers.

That said, as someone who for several years frequently reversed the last two digits of telephone numbers as a result of studying German, I certainly wouldn't mind if Verein zwanzigeins succeeded in their crusade to modernize German numbers. It should be possible, given that Norwegian underwent a similar reform in the 1950s.

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If you read a bit of Charles Dickens, you'll still find the same "backwards" numbers. – gnasher729 Aug 27 '14 at 9:55

English used to have the "ones" number come first; "four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie." Not to mention in 13, 14, 15, etc.

So it was ENGLISH that reversed the order and put the 10s number before the ones number, probably because England was a more commercially sophisticated country, earlier.

German is not "backward" in this regard.

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I saw that several times in novels by Charles Dickens – The_Fritz Aug 26 '12 at 15:59

Another point I'd like to add is: Where do numbers come from?

I think it can be argued that the first usage of numbers in languages in general (before the time of German or even Germanic) would be counting, for example counting your children, your sheep, how many apples you picked and so on.

In counting, the obvious increment is 1, and the most important part of the number you're currently at is not the 10, but the 1, because the 10 is staying the same for quite a while. Then you can count like:

ein(undzwanzig), zwei(undzwanzig), drei(undzwanzig),...

putting the stress on the first syllable and mumbling the rest. That is maybe also why these systems seem to change from top to bottom, i.e. starting at the large numbers and still not being complete for the small ones (one-and-twenty still being in use in the 18th century, and sixteen up until today).

From this it is also clear why this system never made it into the larger numbers: Who seriously wants to count to 238?

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