CLOSE
Original image

12 Mind Blowing Number Systems From Other Languages

Original image

Today is a big day for lovers of the number 12, and no one loves 12s more than the members of the Dozenal Society. The Dozenal Society advocates for ditching the base-10 system we use for counting in favor of a base-12 system. Because 12 is cleanly divisible by more factors than 10 is (1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12 vs. 1, 2, 5 and 10), such a system would neaten up our mathematical lives in various ways. But a dozenal system would require us to change our number words so that, for example, what we know as 20 would mean 24 (2x12), 30 would mean 36, and so on. Does that blow your mind a little too much? Well there are all sorts of weird things that languages can do with number words. Here are 12 of them.

1. Oksapmin, base-27 body part counting

Photo Courtesy of Austronesian Counting

The Oksapmin people of New Guinea have a base-27 counting system. The words for numbers are the words for the 27 body parts they use for counting, starting at the thumb of one hand, going up to the nose, then down the other side of the body to the pinky of the other hand, as shown in the drawing. 'One' is tip^na (thumb), 6 is dopa (wrist), 12 is nata (ear), 16 is tan-nata (ear on the other side), all the way to 27, or tan-h^th^ta (pinky on the other side).

2. Tzotzil, base-20 body part counting

Tzotzil, a Mayan language spoken in Mexico, has a vigesimal, or base-20, counting system. Why might a base-20 system come about? Fingers and toes! For numbers above 20, you refer to the digits of the next full man (vinik). Twenty-one is jun scha'vinik (first digit of the second man), 42 is chib yoxvinik (second digit of the third man), and 70 is lajuneb chanvinik (tenth digit of the fourth man).

3. Yoruba, base-20 with subtraction

Yoruba, a Niger-Congo language spoken in West Africa, also has a base-20 system, but it is complicated by the fact that for each 10 numbers you advance, you add for the digits 1-4 and subtract for the digits 5-9. Fourteen (??rinlá) is 10+4 while 17 (eétàdílógún) is 20-3. So, combining base-20 and subtraction means 77 is m?tadil?g?rin, or (20x4)-3.

4. Traditional Welsh, base-20 with a pivot at 15

Though modern Welsh uses base-10 numbers, the traditional system was base-20, with the added twist of using 15 as a reference point. Once you advance by 15 (pymtheg) you add units to that number. So 16 is un ar bymtheg (one on 15), 36 is un ar bymtheg ar hugain (one on 15 on 20), and so on.

5. Alamblak, numbers built from 1, 2, 5, and 20

In Alamblak, a language of Papua New Guinea, there are only words for 1, 2, 5, and 20, and all other numbers are built out of those. So 14 is (5x2)+2+2, or tir hosfi hosfihosf, and 59 is (20x2)+(5x(2+1))+(2+2) or yima hosfi tir hosfirpati hosfihosf.

6. Ndom, base-6

Ndom, another language of Papua New Guinea, has a base-6, or senary number system. It has basic words for 6, 18, and 36 (mer, tondor, nif) and other numbers are built with reference to those. The number 25 is tondor abo mer abo sas (18+6+1), and 90 is nif thef abo tondor ((36x2)+18).

7. Huli, base-15

The Papua New Guinea language Huli uses a base-15, or pentadecimal system. Numbers which are multiples of 15 are simple words. Where the English word for 225 is quite long, the Huli word is ngui ngui, or 15 15. However 80 in Huli is ngui dau, ngui waragane-gonaga duria ((15x5)+the 5th member of the 6th 15).

8. Bukiyip, base-3 and base-4 together

In Bukiyip, another Papua New Guinea language also known as Mountain Arapesh, there are two counting systems, and which one you use depends on what you are counting. Coconuts, days, and fish are counted in base-3. Betel nuts, bananas, and shields are counted in base-4. The word anauwip means 6 in the base-3 system and 24 in the base-4 system!

9. Supyire, numbers built from 1, 5, 10, 20, 80, and 400

Supyire, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Mali has basic number words for 1, 5, 10, 20, 80 and 400, and builds the rest of the numbers from those. The word for 600 is kàmpwòò ná ?kwuu shuuní ná bééshùùnnì, or 400+(80x2)+(20x2)

10. Danish, forms some multiples of ten with fractions

Danish counting looks pretty familiar until you get to 50, and then things get weird with fractions. The number 50 is halvtreds, a shortening of halv tred sinds tyve ("half third times 20" or 2½x20). The number 70 is 3½x20, and 90 is 4½x20.

11. French, mix of base-10 and base-20

French uses base-10 counting until 70, at which point it transitions to a mixture with base-20. The number 70 is soixante-dix (60+10), 80 is quatre-vingts (4x20), and 90 is quatre-vingts-dix ((4x20)+10).

12. Nimbia, base-12

Even though, as the dozenalists claim, 12 is the best base mathematically, there are relatively few base-12 systems found in the world's languages. In Nimbia, a dialect of the Gwandara language of Nigeria, multiples of 12 are the basic number words around which everything else is built. The number 29 is gume bi ni biyar ((12x2)+5), and 95 is gume bo'o ni kwada ((12x7)+11).

You can see more number systems here. Many of the more exotic ones are dying out. David K. Harrison's book When Languages Die explains how we lose "an important window into human cognition, problem-solving, and adaptation" when these number systems disappear.

Original image
Rebecca O'Connell
arrow
Words
What's the Longest Word in the World? Here are 12 of Them, By Category
Original image
Rebecca O'Connell

Antidisestablishmentarianism, everyone’s favorite agglutinative, entered the pop culture lexicon on August 17, 1955, when Gloria Lockerman, a 12-year-old girl from Baltimore, correctly spelled it on The $64,000 Question as millions of people watched from their living rooms. At 28 letters, the word—which is defined as a 19th-century British political movement that opposes proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England—is still regarded as the longest non-medical, non-coined, nontechnical word in the English language, yet it keeps some robust company. Here are some examples of the longest words by category.

1. METHIONYLTHREONYLTHREONYGLUTAMINYLARGINYL … ISOLEUCINE 

Note the ellipses. All told, the full chemical name for the human protein titin is 189,819 letters, and takes about three-and-a-half hours to pronounce. The problem with including chemical names is that there’s essentially no limit to how long they can be. For example, naming a single strand of DNA, with its millions and millions of repeating base pairs, could eventually tab out at well over 1 billion letters.

2. LOPADOTEMACHOSELACHOGALEOKRANIOLEIPSAN …P TERYGON

The longest word ever to appear in literature comes from Aristophanes’ play, Assemblywomen, published in 391 BC. The Greek word tallies 171 letters, but translates to 183 in English. This mouthful refers to a fictional fricassee comprised of rotted dogfish head, wrasse, wood pigeon, and the roasted head of a dabchick, among other culinary morsels. 

3. PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS

At 45 letters, this is the longest word you’ll find in a major dictionary. An inflated version of silicosis, this is the full scientific name for a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs owing to the inhalation of very fine silica dust. Despite its inclusion in the dictionary, it’s generally considered superfluous, having been coined simply to claim the title of the longest English word.

4. PARASTRATIOSPHECOMYIA STRATIOSPHECOMYIOIDES 

The longest accepted binomial construction, at 42 letters, is a species of soldier fly native to Thailand. With a lifespan of five to eight days, it’s unlikely one has ever survived long enough to hear it pronounced correctly.

5. PSEUDOPSEUDOHYPOPARATHYROIDISM

This 30-letter thyroid disorder is the longest non-coined word to appear in a major dictionary.

6. FLOCCINAUCINIHILIPILIFICATION

By virtue of having one more letter than antidisestablishmentarianism, this is the longest non-technical English word. A mash-up of five Latin roots, it refers to the act of describing something as having little or no value. While it made the cut in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster volumes refuse to recognize it, chalking up its existence to little more than linguistic ephemera.

7. SUBDERMATOGLYPHIC

At 17 characters, this is the longest accepted isogram, a word in which every letter is used only once, and refers to the underlying dermal matrix that determines the pattern formed by the whorls, arches, and ridges of our fingerprints. 

8. SQUIRRELLED

Though the more commonly accepted American English version carries only one L, both Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries recognize this alternate spelling and condone its one syllable pronunciation (think “world”), making it the longest non-coined monosyllabic English word at 11 letters.

9. ABSTENTIOUS

One who doesn’t indulge in excesses, especially food and drink; at 11 letters this is the longest word to use all five vowels in order exactly once.

10. ROTAVATOR 

A type of soil tiller, the longest non-coined palindromic word included in an English dictionary tallies nine letters. Detartrated, 11 letters, appears in some chemical glossaries, but is generally considered too arcane to qualify.

11. and 12. CWTCH, EUOUAE

The longest words to appear in a major dictionary comprised entirely of either vowels or consonants. A Cwtch, or crwth, is from the Welsh word for a hiding place. Euouae, a medieval musical term, is technically a mnemonic, but has been accepted as a word in itself. 

Original image
iStock
arrow
Words
12 Things Called ‘French’ In English and Whether They're Actually French
Original image
iStock

Happy Bastille Day! To celebrate this French holiday, let’s take a look at some of the things we call "French" in English that may not be French at all.

1. FRENCH TOAST

They don’t eat French toast in France. There, it’s called pain perdu ("lost bread," because it’s what you do with stale bread) or pain doré (golden bread). In the 17th century French toast was a term used for any kind of bread soaked and then griddled: In a 1660 citation, it refers to bread soaked in wine with sugar and orange and then cooked.

2. FRENCH VANILLA

Vanilla is a bean from a tropical plant not grown in France, so what’s so French about French vanilla? French vanilla was originally not a term for a type of vanilla, but a type of vanilla ice cream, one made using a French technique with an eggy, custard base. It’s since detached from ice cream and become a flavor with a certain rich profile.

3. FRENCH DRESSING

Originally the phrase French dressing referred to the type of dressing people might actually eat in France: oil, vinegar, herbs, maybe a little mustard. But somehow during the early 20th century it came to be the name for a pinkish-red, ketchup-added version that’s totally American.

4. FRENCH PRESS

iStock

In France, the French press coffeemaker, a pot for steeping coffee grounds with a plunger for filtering them out, is called a cafetière à piston or just a bodum after the most common brand. It may have been invented in France, but the first patent for one was taken out by an Italian in 1929. The style of coffee became popular in France in the 1950s, and was later referred to by American journalists as "French-press style coffee."

5. FRENCH KISS

The term French kiss, for kissing with tongue, came into English during World War I when soldiers brought the phrase—and perhaps the kissing style—back from the war with them. French had long been used as a common adjective for various naughty, sexually explicit things like French letters (condoms), French postcards (naked pictures), and French pox (VD). In French, to kiss with the tongue is rouler un patin, “roll a skate” (having to do with gliding?), but in Québec they do say frencher.

6. FRENCH HORN

In French, a French horn is a cor d’harmonie or just cor, a name given to the looping, tubed hunting horns that were made in France in the 17th century. French became to the way to distinguish it from other horn types, like the German or Viennese horn, which had different types of tubes and valves.

7. FRENCH FRIES

The phrase French fries evolved in North America at the end of the 19th century out of the longer “French fried potatoes.” The dish is said to be more properly Belgian than French, but it was introduced to America by Thomas Jefferson after he brought a recipe back from France. In French they are simply pommes frites, fried potatoes.

8. FRENCH MANICURE

iStock

The French manicure, a pinkish, nude nail with a bright, whitened tip, was apparently invented in Hollywood in the 1970s. It began to be called a French manicure after the look made it to fashion runways. The style isn’t as popular in France, but women there do tend toward a groomed look with a natural color. In France, the term has been borrowed in from English: It's called la French manucure.

9. FRENCH BRAID

The term French braid (or French plait in British English) has been around since the 1870s, but the braid style itself, where hair is gathered gradually from the sides of the head over the course of braiding, has been around for thousands of years, according to archeological artifacts. It may have become associated with France simply for being seen as high fashion and French being equated with stylishness. In French, they also call this specific style of braid a French braid, or tresse française.

10. FRENCH TWIST

The vertically rolled and tucked French twist hairdo also came to be in the 19th century, and was also associated with French high fashion. In French it is called a chignon banane for its long, vertical shape.

11. FRENCH MAID

Housemaids in 19th-century France did wear black and white uniforms—though they were not quite as skimpy as the French maid costumes you see today. The French maid became a trope comic character in theater and opera, and the costume, along with other titillating characteristics, came to define what we now think of as the classic French maid.

12. FRENCH BREAD

iStock

These days French bread has come to stand for any white bread with a vaguely baguette-like shape, whether or not it has a traditional, crusty exterior. It has been used as a term in English as far back as the 15th century to distinguish it from other, coarser types of bread.

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios