Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 15, 2018

Let’s Count in Old English to Eleven and Twelve

In the beginning — and for a long time afterwards — counting was simple, according to what anthropologists can tell us. Early human cultures seem to have had words representing concepts for “one,” “more than one” (meaning something like the English word “few”) and something like “a whole lot.”

Then things got complicated. Humans organized themselves not just into families, clans and tribes, but villages, towns and cities. They started growing food instead of hunting it and making things instead of using found objects like sticks and rocks. Once they’d grown enough food, acquired a certain number of tools or pots, or needed to keep track of whose was what, they needed to count them.

Along the way, we progressed from counting on our fingers to keeping “tallies:” notches or marks that tracked things like cattle or the number of days in the lunar cycle. Somewhere between 3400 and 3100 B.C., humans invented accountancy; some clever Mesopotamian came up with the idea of symbolic numerals, then there was arithmetic and … well, here we are.

This gets complicated. Perhaps there will come a day when I actually study the history of numbering systems, but this is not that day.

Numbers and Language

Instead, I want to talk about the fact that numerals don’t just signify values, they also have names. One of the primary lessons in any language study is learning to count. Here in English and other languages with common Indo-European roots, we get a bit of a break, because we have related names for numbers. In English, Spanish, Italian, French and German we get One, unouno, une, ein; two, dosdue, deux, zwei; all directly descended from Latin unus and duo or related back in earlier Indo-European. Easy.

Things are good until we exceed the number of things we can count on our fingers. Then comes “ten and one more.” Messy. The Romans were tidy people. They literally said, essentially, “one-and-ten:” undecim, then kept going with duodecim, tredecim, etc.

Once the Romans left the scene, though, the rest of us have become untidy. Italian eleven is close: undici. French strays: onze. The Spanish are about to throw a number of one-offs at us, but hang more or less with the French: once. German? Elf. If that’s not confusing enough, consider English: “eleven.” What?

It doesn’t get any simpler as we work through the teens. The Romans themselves continued systematically with quattuordecim, etc., until they hit eighteen. Unaccountably (pun!) they decided to count backwards from twenty with 18=duodeviginti, 19=undeviginti: “two before 20,” “one before 20.” Who wants to do that? No one. Only the Romans did that. Thanks be to Jove.

Somewhere in the sequence from 11 to 19, every western European language except Italian introduces some messy, unique words, at least for 11 and 12. The Italians improve on their Latin forebears, consistently counting “something-plus-ten” from undici all the way to diciannove — 19.  Spanish doesn’t start counting in teens until 16. The French don’t start until 17. The Germans, our English progenitors, start with us back at 13.

But what about “eleven” and elf? Is there any reason for those oddities?

Old English, Frisian, Old Norse and the Rest

To state the obvious, present-day English is a mish-mash of vocabulary from a number of Germanic languages, — several of them archaic — French and Latin, as well as loan words from innumerable other sources. Our numbers, though, show their Germanic heritage. Here’s a chart showing numbers one through three and ten through thirteen (the point at which the Germanic languages systematically start saying “something-and-ten”) as well as twenty, in several modern Germanic languages, along with Old English.

German language number chart 2

The similarities are obvious. Look at those columns for eleven and twelve. They resemble each other to some recognizable degree. If you think about it, the elevens all have a similar “E” sound and an element with a “V” or “F” (the “F” in Old English endleofon was pronounced “V,” making it sound more similar to modern “eleven.” Twegen was pronounced very like the word “twain,” still in use.).

Linguists don’t unanimously agree, but the most plausible theory is that the “eleven” and “twelve” words represent “one left (after ten)” and “two left (after ten).” Common words in Old Norse, Old Germanic and the other archaic languages was something like laf or lif, which means, consistently, in all of them, “left” or “left over.”

The modern language versions of those words have been changed by centuries of use — collapsed, shortened — but the proto-German would have been, in full, eins-lif, zwei-lif; Old English an-lafan, twegen-lafan, etc. Elf, zwölf, “eleven” and “twelve” are the result after a millennium or so of linguistic wear and tear.

In a later post, we’ll find out why we don’t count, “eighty, ninety, tenty, eleventy” (or maybe we used to!). Stay tuned. News at endleofon.

I’ve omitted diacritical marks and unique antique characters from the Old English words. My web composing tool doesn’t support them.

© Brad Nixon 2018. I found helpful if convoluted comments on this subject at this link for



  1. When I was at school in the UK we used the old imperial measures and currency. There were 12 shillings in a pound. In the middle we converted to European metric. Then I moved to the USA….help me!


    • Don’t know what to tell you. We were supposed to have converted to the metric system here decades ago, but … well, that went nowhere. I did okay a long time ago with shillings, but I’ll never in my life sort out farthings, crowns and quid.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Now I’m wondering whether the ‘four-and-twenty’ that described the blackbirds baked in that pie represented a numbering throwback to an earlier time, or only a poetic way of describing the birds’ number.

    Something else that came to mind was the use of ‘elevensies’ and ‘twelvesies’ when playing jacks as a kid. We’d work our way up from onesies and twosies, but it never went beyond twelvesies. There weren’t anything thirteensies. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Could well be. I’m over my head in the history of number systems. Even the Sumerians had dozens of numbering systems — every scribe developed his own. And plenty of cultures have come up with base 60, base 12, and all sorts of others. We have “dozen,” “score” and other terminology possibly related to other systems of counting, and French, notably (I read this in researching for the post) has a few similar survivals. In addition to using 10 fingers to count in base 10, one can use the thumb to successively count the 3 joints of each of the 4 fingers, and there you are, counting in base 12! Thanks for the ideas. Were there world enough and time ….


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