Saturday, January 30, 2016

Polysyllabic Numbers – Erich

Numbers are a necessity in a world with commerce. Of course, a number is an incredible abstraction, an idea that three cats and three cantaloupes share a common characteristic, their cardinality. And then giving that characteristic the name of three.

But beyond the idea of numbers, their use for transactions makes them part of everyday conversation. We go out and buy something to eat in Fes or Marrakech or Cape Town or Windhoek, and people expect to be paid. And we are willing to pay, we just need to know how much it is.

In South Africa and Namibia, this was made easier by the fact that they speak English. Their numbers are the same as ours.

Here in Morocco, most people speak Arabic, but many also speak French. In places where many tourists are found, there is often someone who speaks French (and sometimes someone who speaks English.) Now, I am not great with French, but I know enough (as do Alrica and Syarra) that so far we are getting by.

Numbers come up often. I'm good with un, deux, trois, etc. all the way up to vingt (twenty). After that isn't so bad, but I start to get lost with the words for forty, or six hundred, and larger numbers like that. Still, people can give me the values one digit at a time sept quatre huit – ah, yes, 748. I'm with you. Or, some of them have a little calculator and they add up the prices on it and then just show me the screen of the calculator. No problem.

But numbers when spoken in Arabic are a very different prospect. So here at the Riad Mikou where we are staying in Fes, one of the employees spent some time teaching me the numbers, how they are pronounced, and even how they are spelled in Arabic.

It's interesting to me. In English, most common numbers are only one syllable, making them easier to say. The first time you hit a two syllable natural number is seven. (Note: I said natural number, so don't throw zero in my face!) And then three syllables isn't until eleven and four syllables at twenty-seven. (Hey, those all end in even. Hmm!)

In French you have un, deux, trois, quatre (which is arguably two syllables or arguably one and a half syllables), cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix. The first two syllable number without argument is quatorze, fourteen. Three syllables is at dix et sept, seventeen.

Spanish begins right off the bat with uno. Though sometimes un is used in sentences (the number is the article). You hit two syllables again at quatro, four. Nueve is nine and that's three syllables. (Whoa! Quatro = four = two squared and has two syllables. Nueve = nine = three squared and has three syllables!)

But in Arabic, monosyllabic numbers are almost unheard of. (First, there is an irony that monosyllabic requires so many syllables to say.) But back to numbers with one syllable, there is one, which is two.

Here are the numbers, as they are pronounced in Arabic. Of course, this isn't their correct spelling, since they don't even use our alphabet. I'm just trying to get the sounds out.
1 = Wa-hd (starting with two syllables!)
2 = Zhoozh (That is the soft j sound like je in French of the “si” in vision in English)
3 = T'lata (already at three syllables)
4 = Arbaa
5 = Hamssa
6 = Ssita
7 = Sabaa
8 = Tamania (yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have reached four syllables, and we aren't yet up to the number ten.)
9 = Tissaa
10 = Ashara

I don't know how to count past that. But the point is that in Arabic, they like to enjoy their numbers. They aren't just trying to rush through them. They let their tongues roll over the many syllables. Numbers are more than just a means to an end. They are poetry!

So enjoy the majesty of numbers no matter how many languages you say them in, be that wa-hd, zhooozh, t'lata, or many more.


  1. I always like your math posts. This is actually a very interesting topic to me. I heard some time ago that our ability to perform math in our heads actually had something to do with the length of time that you would speak the numbers you are working with. In this same example it was noted that Chinese high math aptitude might have to do with the short sounds for each of their numbers. All are monosyllabic (unless you count the inflection as an extra syllable). In French, as I a sure you know it's is a bit more odd, there is no word for Seventy, Eighty or Ninety. Ninety Five would actually be Quatre-vingt quinze, or Four Twenties Fifteen! Maybe 80 is recent to English too, after all we all know about the infamous start of the Gettysburg Address: Four Score and Seven Years ago....

  2. One more thing: I think the first 3 syllable French number would be 21: vingt et un. Oddly the et is only used with the 1 following. So 17 is Dix-sept, and 22 is vingt-deux.

    1. Thanks for the correction, Bryan. I too love math posts, but I suppose that's obvious since I'm the one who makes them.