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My girlfriend told me that the phrase "You can count on me" exists also in French, with the same meaning and as a literal translation

to count on s.o. => to rely on s.o.

In German, it is also the same

auf jmd. zählen => sich auf jmd. verlassen

I find it rather unusual that the same phrase can be literally translated between three different languages.

(I've found an explanation that says that "zählen" and "rechnen" were used synonymous in the dark ages and probably meant that someone is a constant on which you can rely, he doesn't change his "value" in the calculation.)

So my question is: What it is the origin of the phrase? Is it a common origin in German or English that found its way to the other languages? Or is the origin to be found much earlier, maybe in Latin?

  • It's the same in Dutch you say: op iemand kunnen rekenen and French, compter sur quelqu'un. I'm from Belgium so I speak Dutch and French. I also wanted to know where it comes from, all I know now it's the same in French, Dutch, German, Englisch and Russian! – user9018 Jul 25 '14 at 19:40
  • Same in Spanish.....I count on you is Cuento con ustedes. Interesting that so many languages use this saying. Maybe it means I count you as a friend and supporter. – rooseveltnut Nov 15 '14 at 3:27
  • Idioms are not entirely arbitrary, in fact they are remarkably consistent with various simple, overarching metaphors (read Metaphors we live by if you're interested). Therefore, cross-language idioms are much more common than they would be by pure chance, even when not genetically related. – Kilian Foth Jan 24 '15 at 12:56
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    It's same in persian too. .می‌تونی روی من حساب کنی (می‌تونی = You can) (count = حساب کنی) (on = روی) (me = من) – Matin A Jun 6 '19 at 13:48
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This is not yet a full answer therefore I make it community wiki. I just want to share my ideas. Perhaps it's helpful.

As you know, both German and English are West Germanic languages. French, however, is a Romance language. So, you're presumably wondering why languages with different roots share a meaning. Well, to make it worse I guess Russian, a Slavic language, does have the same idiom, too.

My knowledge of Russian is too little so I can only come up with an example for "mit etw. rechnen". Perhaps someone can help me with an "auf etw. zählen" example. (@RegDwight?)

Я рассчитываю что ты сего́дня ве́чером придёт. (Ich rechne damit, dass du heute Abend kommst.)

I said, those languages don't share the roots. But going far, far back in history, all languages share the same root, though.

Of the twenty languages with the largest numbers of native speakers according to SIL Ethnologue, twelve are Indo-European: Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, German, Marathi, French, Italian, Punjabi, and Urdu, accounting for over 1.7 billion native speakers. Wiki

I highlighted the languages I mentioned before.

Since it's unlikely that all languages made the same development in recent times we can assume that this idiom is very old.

My guess is - but didn't found any sources - that the origin is the bible.

I tried to find some interesting hints in dictionaries about origin but nothing helpful here.

As a summary, here's what I collected:

Middle English (as a noun): from Old French counte (noun), counter (verb), from the verb computare 'calculate' (see compute) Oxford Dictionaries

Origin of COUNT Middle English, from Anglo-French cunter, counter, from Latin computare, from com- + putare to consider Merriam Webster

First Known Use: 14th century

1642 T. Fuller Holy State iii. xxiii. 218 There is lesse honesty, wisdome, and money in men then is counted on. OED - cited in chat

zählen Vb. ‘eine Anzahl feststellen, gelten, mit jmdm. rechnen, sich auf jmdn. verlassen’, ahd. zellen (8. Jh.), mhd. zel(e)n, zellen DWDS

Balzac, noch immer auf den Tod und die Millionen des Herrn von Hanski zählend, lügt tapfer weiter — St. Zweig Balzac 342

besonders häufig in neuerer sprache auf einen oder etwas zählen, einen oder etwas bei rechnung, bestimmung, voraussicht eines künftigen sicher veranschlagen, im wechsel mit auf einen oder etwas rechnen Grimmsche Wörterbuch

vgl. th. 8, sp. 354: zählst du so gewisz auf deinen genius? Klinger 5, 312; auf dich ist gezählt Göthe 12, 66 Weim.; das hab ich euch nie gesagt, dasz ich unter der hiesigen garnison meine vögel habe, auf die ich zählen kann, wie auf meine höllenfahrt

Other sources like Wiktionary, The American Heritage Dictionary, or MacMillan Dictionary do not add any essential content.

My knowledge of Russian and French is too little to read monolingual dictionaries of those languages to get more information about its origin.

This is all I get yet. Hope it helps though.

  • Ich finde die Argumentation etwas holprig. Wenn die Bibel der gemeinsame Ursprung wäre, die in Altgriechisch verfasst wurde, welches ebenfalls eine indogermanische Sprache ist, soweit ich weiß, dann müssten sich die Sprachen (Ur-?)Germanisch, Englisch, Französisch, Spanisch usw. ja erst später aus dem Altgriechisch entwickelt haben, was mir bei allem Unwissen über die Sprachentwicklung doch schlicht falsch zu sein scheint. Ein zweiter Punkt: In der Bibel kommt sicher das griechische Wort für Mutter vor. Macht das die Bibel zur Wurzel des Wortes Mutter? Sicher nicht. Die Bibel benutzt … – user unknown Jun 6 '19 at 19:29
  • … einfach den Begriff, der natürlich älteren Ursprungs ist. Ob sich die Sprachen dann früher oder später getrennt haben wären dann belanglos. Jetzt fällt mir ein, dass die Bibel ja auch das AT umfasst, ursprünglich in Hebräisch verfasst? Vom Christentum auch ins Griechische übersetzt? Ich denke, dass vor allem im einfachen Volk bis in die Vormoderne rechnen und zählen zusammenfielen. Die Rechenverfahren zur Addition mehrerer Terme, zur Multiplikation und Division waren alle nicht gebräuchlich, solange man nicht die von den Arabern aus Indien importierte 0 kannte und die Schulpflicht eingef. w. – user unknown Jun 6 '19 at 19:38
  • Außerdem ist das Argument, das geteilte Idiome ausschließlich aus der Ursprungssprache hervorgehen, etwas schwach. Einflussreiche Werke (die Bibel würde durchaus zählen) können durch wörtliche Übersetzung in andere Sprachen durchaus Idiome übertragen. – Sebastian Redl Jun 7 '19 at 13:23
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Observations

  1. The fact that so many languages use the same word that is used to say to count to express also to count on someone/something indicates that the relationship is not accidental and quite universal.

  2. It's also old a as this phenomenon is observed among Romance (e.g., French, Spanish), Germanic (e.g., Dutch, English, German), Slavic (e.g., Russian) and even Indo-Iranian (e.g., Persian) languages. These are languages that have evolved independently for a long time.

Biblical expression?

Highly unlikely. Why would the speakers of any language feel the need to adopt such an expression? It's nothing that should have been lacking, nor is it as prominent as amen or pater noster. And why should people in regions where Christianity had never been relevant (Persia) do so?

Alternative: Proto-Indo-European

In my opinion, this double usage must have been already present in a common ancestral language: Proto-Indo-European, about 3000 BCE. At that time the people must have seen some link While I didn't find any etymological explanation, which explains how the words developed over the past millenia, I found the following about the French word compter in the 12th century (at cnrtl.fr):

1115-30 cunter « comprendre (quelqu'un) dans un dénombrement

This means to include (someone) in a count (or maybe group). This explanation refers to a time that is still millenia too late, but might provide the relevant idea. So, if I count (on) someone, it could have implied that I expected them to be readily geared at some place to join a hunting (or raiding) party.

Note: If you found this question interesting, you might also want to visit Why do Russians call their women expensive (“дорогая”)?

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