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Nonplussed by French numbers? C'est comme ça!

Gain insight into the perplexing French compound words for numbers between 70 and 99

“It is like some kind of cruel joke played on language learners”

One of the most bafflingly illogical quirks of the French language – to many an Anglophone’s ear, anyway – and one which never really makes sense even after years of either studying or speaking French, are the tricky compound words for numbers between 70 and 99.

From soixante-dix (which translates into English as ‘sixty-ten’, for 70) via quatre-vingt (‘four twenty’, meaning 80) then up to quatre-vingt-dix (‘four twenty-ten’, 90) – and all the numbers in-between – it is like some kind of cruel joke being played on poor language learners. 

Even your Language Noter has mild palpitations when hurriedly noting down a mobile phone number (usually dictated in five pairs of two numbers) that contain the likes of 76 (soixante-seize, or sixty-sixteen), 94 (quatre-vingt-quatorze, or four-twenty-fourteen). 

The inevitable follow-up plea 

‘Vous pourriez répéter plus lentement, s'il vous plaît?’ is the inevitable follow-up plea as one tries to ‘do the maths’ at the same time as furiously scribbling.

Language noters in extremis, the Académie Française, says that while the decimal (counting in denominations of ten) system words for 70, 80 and 90 (septante, octante, nonante) exist in its official dictionaries – these words are also used in parts of Switzerland and Belgium, France retains remnants of a method of counting in twenties: “This system, called ‘vicésimal’, was used by the Celts and the Normans, and it is possible that one or the other of these introduced it into Gaul.”

It could be worse – it was only at the end of the Middle Ages that the French used 30, 40, 50, etc instead of just the base twenties. So there is no way around it. As the French also say, c'est comme ça.

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