The Beauty of Chinese Numbers

29 Jul 2014

The beauty of Chinese numbers is that they are consistent. You learn the rules, and they just work. Even if you try to get flippant and say 一十 for “10” instead of just regular old , no one’s going to get upset.

The consistent beauty of Chinese numbers is made all the more obvious by the relative skankiness of numbers in English. I noticed this because my daughter (now somewhere between 2½ and 3 years old) has pretty much mastered all the numbers to 100 in Chinese, but the teens in English continue to stump her. She can count to 20 no problem, but if you ask her to read a random two-digit number that starts with “1” in English, that’s where the trouble starts. If she’s speaking Chinese, she can read either Arabic numerals or Chinese characters all the way to 100, but doing it in English trips her up especially for the range 11-20. She’s actually much better in the 60-90 range, because they’re regular.

If English numbers were totally regular like Chinese, we’d see these little gems (pretty much all of which my daughter has tried to pull off at one time or another):

Just numbers!

– 10 = Onety
– 11 = Onety-one
– 12 = Onety-two
– 13 = Onety-three
– 14 = Onety-four
– 15 = Onety-five
– 16 = Onety-six
– 17 = Onety-seven
– 18 = Onety-eight
– 19 = Onety-nine
– 20 = Twoty
– 30 = Threety
– 50 = Fivety

Somehow I missed it my whole life, but one of the things that makes the names of the teens so bizarre (aside from the inexplicable “eleven” and “twelve”), is that the digits are represented backwards, only for these 7 numbers. When you see “36” and read it “thirty-six,” the “thirty” corresponds to the 3 on the left, and the 6 to the “six” on the right. So you’re reading the number, digit by digit, left to right. But for numbers like 14, 15, and 16, not only do they sound like 40, 50, and 60, but the order of the syllables better matches 40, 50, and 60 as well. And both the “-ty” and the “-teen” from those numbers originally represented “10,” right? These pairs are essentially pronounced as if they were the same numbers! Confusing as hell. I feel for my daughter.

Fortunately kids don’t realize they have good reason to be frustrated, and just jeep on truckin’.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Spanish is the same as English until you get to sixteen, where it turns logical: dieciseis = ten-and-six, and so on. But the prefix for twenty always bothered me, “ven”? I should look it up…

    • “But the prefix for twenty always bothered me, “ven”? I should look it up…”

      In French it’s vingt, so I’m going to blame Latin.

      Quickly thinking about it, the European languages all seem to be universally troublesome with numbers. French gets my vote for being the worst, what with 70 (unless you’re Belgian or Swiss) being sixty-ten (soixante dix), 71 being sixty-eleven (soixante et onze), eighty being four-twenty (quatre vingt), 90 being four-twenty-ten (quatre vingt dix)…

      • Yeah, French is a good ’un, Chris, but my vote goes to Danish with 56 being “six-and-half-third” and 67 being “seven-and-three.” A lot of cultures of Eurasiafrica and the Americas use the base 20 numeral system. (Surprisingly, upon discovery by the Europeans, not all Australian nations found it necessary to be able to count up to 20.) Note in this context that French « doigt » can mean both finger (doigt de la main = “finger-doigt”) and toe (doigt de pied = “foot-doigt”), so there are altogether 20 doigts.

  2. This is why China doesn’t have the concept of “teenagers”. All the baggage associated with it – simply assumed to be true by Americans – such as teenage rebellion and such, doesn’t exist. People aged 13-19 in China are simply people, without any special abilities attributed to them because of a quirk of language.

    • True, Chinese doesn’t have ‘teenagers’, but China does have ‘少年’ and ‘青年’, and my Chinese friends and colleagues are just as prone to whingeing about the youth of today as anybody else. Whorfianism is still nonsense.

    • That phase happens in the early 20s here. Well, at least in my city it does.

  3. I never noticed the backwards teen numeral thing!

    Not to mention the fact that we count by units of ten (ten ones = one ten, ten tens = one hundred, ten hundreds = one thousand) up until we get to ten thousand, and then for some reason we switch to counting by units of 1000 (one thousand thousand = one million, one thousand million = one billion, etc).

  4. I learned to teach my Chinese friends to better distinguish between (for example) forty and fourteen by writing them in a sort of English pinyin:

    14 = fǒr-teèn
    40 = fòr-tee

    Note that the second syllable in 40 is a neutral tone. I think a lot of English learners default to thinking that the “n” at the end of 14 is the big difference between the pair, when bigger factor is actually the point of emphasis: 2nd syllable in 14, 1st syllable in 40.

    • Benjamin,

      That’s a good point, and one that difference in emphasis is one I also take care to emphasize when I help my daughter get those numbers straight.

      Using the tone marks is a cool trick!

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