12 Mind Blowing Number Systems From Other Languages

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.

15 Antiquated Words for 'Happy' We Should Bring Back

Happiness is such a wonderful feeling, why should we only use one word to describe it? In honor of today's International Day of Happiness, why not open up that vocabulary and let the good times roll.


From the late 19th century, meaning “cheerful.”


An expression for “good mood,” used from the late 17th century until the 1930s.


Before humans literally went beyond the moon, this popular phrase from the 1930s means “overjoyed.”


Started out meaning “intoxicated,” but by the 1950s it just meant happy.


As in “tickled pink.”


Also started as a reference to tipsiness, this referred to a general good ol’ time in the 19th century.


In the 19th century, this bouncy term also meant “splendid.”


This 19th century sailor’s slang either referred to the Peruvian port of Callo or acted as a play on the word alcohol. Or both.


From the Latin for “let us rejoice,” this oldie refers to a merry jamboree.


From the Yiddish for “so happy and proud my heart is overflowing.”


This current slang in the UK certainly needs to make a trip across the pond.


A term the Irish use to mean “delirious and excited.” We need to borrow this one, too.


This classic from the 14th century doesn’t get used enough anymore.


This confusing 19th century gem was used to describe someone who was extremely pleased.


From the phrase “to set the cock on the hoop,” meaning open the tap and let the good times flow.

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Pop Culture
Duolingo Is Offering a Free Course in Klingon
Stephen Morton/Getty News Images
Stephen Morton/Getty News Images

For Star Trek fans, the final frontier doesn’t end once the credits roll on a new TV show or movie. The franchise extends way beyond that to include countless conventions, board games, video games, mountains of merchandise, and even a dating website specifically for Trekkies. And if you’re a real die-hard for Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, you can even learn Klingon—one of many fictional languages from the franchise, and by far its most fully-realized.

Now, the popular language-learning website Duolingo is helping people master the guttural beauty of Klingon with a free online course that is currently in a public beta. To start, you can choose to either learn some useful phrases or take an online placement test—though that’s recommended for people who already have some experience in Klingon. The course was crafted with the help of CBS—both Trek and the network are owned by Viacom—as well as “some of the world’s leading Klingon experts,” according to a quote from VentureBeat.

If you’re a novice, Duolingo will start you off with some tips on how the Klingon language works, including its alphabet, capitalization rules, and the fact that there’s really no word for “hello” (apparently, a Klingon won’t waste your time with silly trivialities like greetings).

In an interview with VentureBeat, course creator Felix Malmenbeck said there are only about 30 to 50 people who can actually converse in Klingon, though there are more who can communicate through text. But there’s a chance that number can shoot up with this new course, as Malmenbeck revealed that the site has gotten around 170,000 pre-registrations. This might seem like a lot for a fictional language, but just remember that the site’s course for High Valyrian, a fictional language from Game of Thrones, was viewed by 240,000 eager learners.

Klingon made its debut as a very basic language in 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture and was partly devised by actor James Doohan, who played Scotty. It was further fleshed out in 1984's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and it has since gotten its own dictionary by the linguist Marc Okrand, the man responsible for working on the official language for the movie.

Duolingo’s Klingon course is available now for free, and if you have a Duolingo Plus subscription, you can experience the whole thing without ads and use it while offline. Just remember, be careful who you say hab sosli' Quch* to. It may not end well. 

*It means “Your mother has a smooth forehead.” Trust us, that’s as insulting as it gets.

[h/t VentureBeat]


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