Anyone who has ever learned a foreign language will find certain aspects of the learned language amusing. Perhaps it’s the concept of gender applied to inanimate objects – why is a table feminine? But one of the weirdest things I’ve seen is that the French words for 70, 80 and 90 are sixty-ten, four-twenties and four-twenties-ten. What?
Normally numbers have a pattern. If you know the word for four, you can probably recognise the word for four in 14, 40 and 400. But this doesn’t apply quite so much in French. Here’s how French works:
4 = quarte 40 = quarante
5 = cinq 50 = cinquante
6 = six 60 = soixante
7 = sept 70 is not septante; it’s soixante-dix or 60-10
8 = huit 80 is not huitante; it’s quatre-vingts 4-20s
9 = neuve 90 = is not neuvante or nonante; it’s quatre-vingt-dix 4-20-10
To any person learning French, it’s quite obvious when you get to these numbers that the words are sixty-ten, four-twenties, four-twenties-ten.
But here’s the crazy thing.
I’ve mentioned this twice to French people and they don’t understand. In fact, this never occurred to them. They don’t see “four-twenties-ten”, they see “ninety”. And it’s amazing to see their faces when they repeat quatre-vingt-dix to themselves in its separate parts and realise that “ninety”, it is in fact three separate words: four-twenties-ten.
(A side note, the French tend to mock other French speaking countries who, for the sake of sense, do use the words septante, huitante, nonante.)
I’ve tried doing some research into the origin of this strange number structure, and it’s something to do with a base 20 system of numbers, called vigesimal, which I jokingly thought might be linked to the human body – being the standard number of fingers and toes. But it very well could be based on that. It turns out the vigesimal system appears in several languages across the world, not just French.
This 20-system also exists in English – as evidenced in the Gettysburg address “four score and seven years ago…” (I don’t know that anyone still refers to twenty as a score? “Give me a score of doughnuts.” Would people know what you were talking about? Hmm.) Score is an old Norse word – farmers used to keep track of their sheep flocks by making a “skor” on a stick. This Norse word probably made its way into English via the Vikings.
The thing I love about learning a language is the insight it gives you into a country’s culture. What do you deduce about the four-twenties-ten of France compared to the ninety of French-speaking Belgium?
This week’s Covid update: As of today, you are now allowed to go inside and socialise – theatres, cinemas, restaurants, yoga studios and pubs are all reopening. However this comes against the news that the Indian variant of Covid-19 is spreading rapidly in the town of Bolton in Lancashire. It’s been reported that many of the people who have contracted the Indian variant in Bolton were actually eligible for the vaccine but had decided for whatever reason not to take it. Does it make sense to open the doors when there is a highly contagious variant loose in the country? Probably not, but doors are opening anyway. I’m wondering whether we should go out one night in the week to support our favourite local pub but I’m not in any kind of hurry to do this. Not just from fear of the virus – it’s predicted to rain pretty much this whole week so I’m not feeling much inclined to leave the house at all.
But I will do at least twice – on Thursday I have finally made an appointment for a haircut. My first in… well, quite a few months. Haircuts have been possible for a month now but as ever I’m completely disorganised about personal matters. And in the grand scheme of things, doctor and dentist were much higher up my “must do” schedule. And on Friday I am booked to go into the office again. Someone has already booked my favourite desk so I have to sit somewhere different. I’m curious to see how much busier public transport will look now we are in “doors open” mode.
Two weeks today and #1000wordsofsummer starts. I planned to get re-engaged with my works-in-progress in the weeks leading up to this but I haven’t so far. In fact, what I am doing is adding more notes to novel ideas that are not even fully formed yet. Why am I so distracted? Will I be able to pull my attention back in and focus on completing what I’ve already started? Stay tuned…
This week I’ve been reading three books in rotation – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell for Book Club (although I’m not sure when the meeting is. It could be tomorrow. I should check this); Moby Dick by Herman Melville and I’m liking it’s olde worlde language and beautiful descriptions so far but I’m quite early on in the story – the ship hasn’t even left the harbour yet; and more novel research in Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Iain MacGregor.
I mentioned an article on languishing a few weeks ago – so now to balance things out, here’s an article on flourishing. If you feel you could do with more flourish in your life, here’s a short summary of the article – (1) find those moments or small things worth savouring – a good cup of coffee, the snuggly feeling of a warm blanket, completing a corner of the jigsaw, the smell of hot bread from the bakery. Savour these good things, these things that bring you joy. (2) Gratitude. Yes I know. I tried it too. And then I stopped. But the article helpfully says “A gratitude practice should not be a burden” which it always felt a little bit to me. So if you feel guilty about not finding time every day for gratitude practice, don’t do it daily, do it weekly. (3) Do good / acts of kindness. Yes, you may be doing these things to make yourself feel better rather than from a place of altruism, but do you think the beneficiary of your kind acts cares about that? (4) Connection – find your community. Let people know you see them. It may be chatting to someone on the bus or the guy at the café; or maybe you’ve lost some of your community through lockdowns this past year – maybe now is the time to look at getting back into that. (5) Find purpose in everyday routines. This is probably something I could pay more attention to, especially the routines I want to be part of my everyday. The article suggests finding meaning even in tasks such as cleaning the kitchen or doing laundry. These are not things I want to be part of my everyday. (6) Try something new. Buy a different vegetable to cook. Walk down a different street. “…test out a free language learning app like Duolingo” Maybe you could learn French? After all I’ve already given you a brief introduction to it earlier.
Whether you’re flourishing or languishing or somewhere in between, I hope your week is more ninety than four-twenties-ten.