French 102: Why do your numbers have to be so complicated? – an open letter to the people of France

French numbers can be tricky. Photo by Rob Garratt
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Dear the people of France,

I’d like to begin by saying I’m a big fan of your country – your people, your films, your food, and your language.

I like your language so much, in fact, I’m actually trying to learn in. And I have just one small niggle – what on earth is going on with your numbers?

It all makes sense up until about 69 (from un to soixante-neuf). And then all logic goes flying straight out the window.

Or, as my teacher so delicately put it, “the person who came up with this, I think he was [intoxicated].”

Whoever this guy was, he kept a hold on things at first. Un, deux, trois – sure (1, 2, 3).

Onze, douze, treize – gotcha (11, 12, 13).

Vingt, trente, quarante, cinquante and soixante, (30, 40, 50 and 60) all present and accounted for.

But then at 70, this guy (or femme?) ran out of steam. Why think up a new word? We'll just do some sums... 60 + 10 = 70.... so let's call it it "sixty-ten" – soixante-dix.

Okay. But what next? 71? "I've got it!," he slurred "sixty-and-eleven". Soixante-et-onze. Then soixante-douze soixante-treize, et cetra...

Unconventional, but it kind of works.

But then he got to 80. The muddied mind really starts to settle here. Soixante-vingt, ("sixty-twenty") perhaps?

No. Because that would be far to simple. To make sure only university educated foreigners can avoid being swindled at the local supermarché, let’s shake things up here, and move from basic addition to the realms of multiplication.

Let's call 80 quatre-vingt – "four-twenty" – because 4 x 20 = 80.

Hmmmm. Couldn’t he have just come up with a new word?

From here, things get increasingly oblique. 81? Qautre-vingt-une, "four-twenty-one". (Surely that should that be 84? Nevermind. Got it. I think).

And 90? "Four-twenty-ten" he slurred. Quatre-vingt-dix. Then quatre-vingt-onze, quatre-vongt-douze... ("four-twenty-eleven, four-twenty-twelve").

By 97 the sums get absurd – quatre-vingt-dix-sept. Mathematically, by this stage you actually need brackets to make these sums make any sense – (4 x 20) + 10 + 7 = 97.

And just to make things even more confusing, the rule where you say "somethhing-and-one" (but only for one, mind, so it's vingt-et-un, but vingt-deux, with no et). Well let's stop that at 80. So it's soixante-et-un but quatre-vingt-un (pas et). Why? Because we just feel like.

It’s a relief when we reach cent (100). And then it all starts again.

And don’t even get me started on big numbers. In English, the year of my birth is a breeze at five-syllables – nine-teen-eigh-ty-five.

In french? Eight. Un-mille-neuf-cent-qua-tre-vingt-cinq.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this hard. Really.

French-speaking Belgians were smart enough to realise this, coining really-very-much-simpler terms for 70 (septante) and 90 (nonante). You folk just don't appear to use them.

So, people of France, I ask you kindly once more, why do your numbers have to be so hard?

Your sincerely,

A struggling student

Rob Garratt is studying beginner's French at Alliance Française Dubai, a non-profit language and cultural institution established in 1982 which teaches French to more than 2,500 students every year. Find out more at www.afdubai.org.