When as a naive 8th-grader I first trudged my long and arduous way through J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I understood “eleventy-one” (111) to be a charming neologism on the part of the author—meant to be a quirk either of Bilbo Baggins’ speech or of Hobbit-language as a whole.

In fact, this usage is a borrowing from Old English, where the -ty suffix (formerly -tig, as it still appears in Dutch) can be appended to any number all the way up to 12:

  • tīen – 10
  • twēntig – 20
  • þrītig – 30
  • fēowertig – 40
  • fīftig – 50
  • sixtig – 60
  • (hund)seofontig – 70
  • (hund)eahtatig – 80
  • (hund)nigontig – 90
  • (hund)tēontig (lit. ‘tenty’) – 100
  • (hund)endlefontig (lit. ‘eleventy’) – 110
  • (hund)twelftig (lit. ‘twelvety’) – 120

For multiples of 10 between 70 and 120, the prefix hund- lit. ‘hundred’ could be added for emphasis; but keep in mind that this prefix does not in this case mean ‘hundred.’ It only signifies a large number:

Se sumor hafaþ hundnygontig daga … Se winter hæfaþ tū and hundnigontig daga.

The summer has 90 days … The winter has 2-and-90 days. (Shrine 83.33; 146.7)

The old Germanic counting system was essentially a syncretism of base-10 and base-12 features, and had several “big” numbers that could be counted to:

  • 10 × 10 = 100 (one [short] hundred)
  • 10 × 12 = 120 (long hundred; short gross)
  • 12 × 12 = 144 (one gross)

The significance of 12 as a counting base in Germanic parallel to base-10 is also manifested in the fact that the words for 11, 12 are formed differently from 13–19:

  • eleven < *ain-lib- lit. ‘one left (after a full count of 10)’
  • twelve < *twai-lib- lit. ‘two left (after a full count of 10)’
  • thirteen, etc. < *þrī-tehun- lit. ‘three (and) 10’

A base-20 system also had currency around ancient Europe, which was primarily associated with the Celtic peoples. It accounts for many of the idiosyncrasies of the modern Gaelic (Irish and Scottish), Welsh, and French (via Gaulish) counting systems. But that will be the subject of a future post!

(Featured image by Joe Gilronan)


One thought on “Eleventy-one

  1. That hund- prefix is actually a remnant of the PIE decade suffix. Its history went something like this:

    kʷétwr-h₁ḱmth₂, penkʷé-h₁ḱmth₂, swéks-h₁ḱmth₂, septḿ-h₁ḱmth₂, h₃eḱtōw-h₁ḱmth₂
    Sound changes into PGmc:
    fedurhund, fimfēhund, sehshund, sebunhund, ahtōuhund
    The long *ē from ‘50’ became generalized to the higher decades:
    fedurhund, fimfēhund, sehsēhund, sebuntēhund, ahtōutēhund
    The lower decades were remodelled:
    fedurtigiwiz, fimftigiwiz, sehsēhund, sebuntēhund, ahtōutēhund
    The final syllable moved to the beginning of the sext word, and ‘60’ was regularized:
    fedurtigiwiz, fimftigiwiz, sehstigiwiz, hundsebuntē, hundahtōutē
    Sound changes into OE:
    fēowertig, fīftig, sixtig, hundseofonta, hundeahtata
    The suffix -ta was replaced by the -tig from the lower decades:
    fēowertig, fīftig, sixtig, hundseofontig, hundeahtatig


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