Problems with French Numbers – Numberphile

Problems with French Numbers – Numberphile

PAUL SMITH: And then when they
get to 70, that’s where the big problems start, because the
French haven’t invented a word for 70. BRADY HARAN: I always assume the
one thing that is kind of international is numbers,
mathematics. That’s the one thing that
is the same everywhere. You’re about to ruin
this, aren’t you? PAUL SMITH: Yes, I am. One thing that you learn when
you’re studying a foreign language is that counting
systems are very different. And, in fact, it’s one of the
ways that you can tell if somebody’s a really good speaker
of a foreign language. You can really tell what their
real mother tongue is when they start counting, because
even if somebody operates, you know, an English person living
in France, when they start counting to themselves, they’ll
probably count to themselves in English. They’re our closest neighbors,
so you’d have thought that maybe they’d count in
the same way as us. But one of the things that I
have to keep repeating to my students is that, in fact,
the French don’t count in the same way. And they use numbers in very
different ways in a whole range of different everyday
environments. Let me give you some examples. So the French– well, what do
we do in England when we’re counting numbers? We give numbers, the first 12
numbers when we’re counting, we give them individual names. So we go 1 to 12. And then we slip into a thing
where we go 13, 14, which is kind of 3 and 10, 4 and
10, and so forth. The French start off in a
slightly different way. They go a bit further. Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq,
six, sept, huit, neuf, dix, onze, douze, treize, quatorze,
quinze, seize. And then they go for our 17,
dix-sept, 10-7; dix-huit, 10-8; dix-neuf, 10-9; and
then vingt for 20. It’s very similar, the
counting system after that, to English. So they go on to 20, as
I said was vingt. Then they go to 30, trente. Quarante for 40. Cinquante for 50. Soixante for 60. And then when they get to 70,
that’s where the big problems start, because the
French haven’t invented a word for 70. Instead what they do is they
count to 60 and add 10. So whereas we go to 60 and then
go to 70, a French person goes to 60, but then goes to 60
plus 10, because they say soixante-dix. Soixante-dix is 70 in French. Soixante-dix literally means
60-10, but it means 70. Oh, they know what
the number 70 is. They don’t sort of do
this plus business. And a French person, when they
hear you say soixante-dix, they don’t think, oh,
that’s 60 and 10. They see 70. So the mental picture that is
conjured by the sound of soixante-dix is still 70,
the same as we would. And then they continue by
instead of say– they haven’t invented a word, for
example, for 71. So that’s soixante et onze,
literally 60 and 11. It’s rather odd with these
ones that they say soixante et onze– “et” is the word for “and”– because when they get to 72,
they just say soixante-douze. Soixante-douze, 60-12. And it’s only when we’re dealing
with ones that they use the “et.” But it gets even more confusing
from the English point of view, because you
think, OK, so we’ve got 60-10, that’s 70. Soixante et onze,
soixante-douze, soixante-treize,
soixante-quatorze, soixante-quinze,
soixante-seize, soixante-dix-sept,
soixante-dix-huit, soixante-dix-neuf. What do they do when
they get to 80? Surely they’ve got
a word for 80. Well, no. Because the French, when they
get to that number, they say quatre-vingts, which
means 4 20s. Well, that’s what it means,
4 20s, literally. The French, of course, when they
hear quatre-vingts, see 80 in their minds. And then they go
quatre-vingt-un, 4 20s, 1. 4 20s, 2. BRADY HARAN: Not 4 20s and 1? PAUL SMITH: No. They’d just be– ah. The reason they don’t say 4 20s
and 1 is because it’s too many words. So there’s also a style issue
here, because, you know, the French love their style. But what they do do then, and
this is the other weird thing, when they get to 90, they still
haven’t even thought of another word for 90 or
a decent word for 90. So what do they say? They say quatre-vingt-dix,
4 20s, 10. And then when they get
to 91, they say quatre-vingt-onze, 4 20s, 11. 92 is quatre-vingt-douze. 93 is quatre-vingt-treize. 94 is quatre-vingt-quatorze. 95, quatre-vingt-quinze. And so it goes, until
they get up to 100. And they have invented
a word for 100. So 100 is cent. One of the big problems, of
course, with this kind of numbering system is when you’re
listening to somebody giving you a phone number,
because if I could just explain– let me think of an English
phone number. So you might have 0115, so
that’s your Nottingham code. Then you’d have 962 would be the
subcode for the exchange. And then the individual
number would be 5782. And in English, we would read
out all of the numbers, 0-1-1-5, or we might say
0-double 1-5, 962, 5782. BRADY HARAN: This isn’t a real
number, by the way, is it? PAUL SMITH: No, no. I just made that one up. OK. So that’s an example of an
English telephone number. But in France, they do it
completely differently. They will take the numbers and
they will say they will actually distinguish the
numbers 62, 58, 49, 27. And when you ask somebody for
their phone number, they will tell you that it is
62, 58, 49, 27. They won’t say– BRADY HARAN: They’ll do that
for all numbers, will they? PAUL SMITH: They’ll do that
for all telephone numbers. They won’t say 625-849-27. And this causes not big
problems, but if you’re on the telephone to a client in France
who wants your mobile number and you’re used to giving
your mobile number in the way the English do and then
you try to do it to the French, they find that very
difficult to cope with. And it works in the
other direction. My students are endlessly
telling me about the problems they had copying down
telephone numbers. And of course, the really big
problems start when you get to numbers that start with
a 6, with a 7, with an 8, and with a 9. So it’s a problem, because
if you’re English and you hear soixante– let’s remember that numbers,
what we would call 60 to 69, start with the word soixante. But so do numbers 70 to 79. Let’s say that your friend
starts saying “my number is”– I’ll say it in French,
“mon numero, c’est soixante” you start– you do that. And then they say “et onze” and
you have to go back and correct it, because it’s not
soixante at all, it’s 71. But the other thing that the
French do with numbers while we’re on the subject, that’s the
French for “10 point 69.” Let’s say that that’s the world
record for the women’s 100 meters dash in
the Olympics. Now you can see that’s very
different from the way that we would write it in English. It’s also very different from
the way that we would say it. There we’ve got a
decimal point. And the French are
using a comma. But they also say
it differently. In English we say “10 point 69,”
because we separate the tenths and the hundredths. But the French would
say “10 comma 69.” So you have to listen
now very carefully. If you’re watching a French
sports commentary, for example, if you’re watching the
Olympic Games in France and you’re trying to catch the
time, you have to listen out for not 10 point 69, but “dix
virgule soixante-neuf,” “10 comma 69.” So once again,
you’ve got this issue of numbers being grouped
together. And that’s something the
French do all the time. They don’t separate individual
numbers out. They group them and
use their name. The word the French use for a
comma is “virgule.” And they use that in grammar as they
use it in numbers as well. So when a French person reads
out this time, then they will say “dix virgule”– comma– “soixante-neuf.” BRADY HARAN: To a French person,
is that “10 point 695” or is that 10,695? PAUL SMITH: It’s 10,
virgule, 695. So it would be “dix virgule six
cent quatre-vingt-quinze.” That would be the way
they express it. BRADY HARAN: How would a French
person write 10,695? PAUL SMITH: Well, they would
either just do that– and very often they
leave a space. In a French textbook you might
find there’s a space between the thousands and the 695. Or occasionally, this is going
to confuse you, just occasionally they’ll do that. 10,000, full stop, 6-9-5. So in fact, you could say that
the French and the English do exactly the opposite thing. And you could argue that it’s
just to confuse each other and it’s deliberate. Well, I don’t have a problem
with it, but it has caused problems in the past. There was a rather unfortunate
case in a French hospital a few years ago where there
was a serious– too large a dose of something
was administered to patients simply because of a misreading
of a decimal point for this, or a comma not being read
the right way round. So it can be a big problem
in technical translation. Technical translators need to
be absolutely sure that they get it right, because
otherwise it can go very, very wrong. BRADY HARAN: If you’d like to
hear a bit more about French numbers, including why it’s
impossible to score 20 out of 20 in France, check out another
video we’ve got here on “Numberphile.” Or if you’d
just like to hear more about languages in general from people
like Paul and others, check out another channel I’ve
got called “Words of the World.” It’s got all sorts of
fascinating videos about things like California
or biscuit or vodka. There’s loads of videos on there
already and there’s new ones going on every week,
so maybe subscribe.


  1. In Circassian (a North-West Caucasian language), it goes similar to English until 30. Then it gets crazy.
    30 = 20 +10
    40 = 20×2
    50 = 100/2
    60 = 20×3
    70 = 20×3 + 10
    80 = 20×4
    90 = 20×4 + 10

  2. I am afraid that this gentleman has not understood the French way of counting and the historical reasons why we (French people)  use  60-10 ,  4-20,   4-20-10.- first, his statement about the  " equivalent of english seventy  was not invented by French people " is wrong . In French, after the numbers trente /quarante / cinquante / soixante, we do have septante / octante / nonante , equivalent to seventy /eighty / ninety.
    These septante / octante / nonante  are still used by French speaking people in Belgium and Switzerland.- so while the French language provides these septante / octante / nonante , during the middle age, the French people created, and decided to use in their daily life,  the numbers  60-10, 4-20, and 4-20-10  – the reason was …. because it was SIMPLER.- this gentleman is British, and he should remember the time when in UK   1 £ = 20 s   and 1 s = 12 d  ;   this was also the monetary system in France, from Charlemagne till the 1789 Revolution.- when you live with such a monetary  system (1 £ = 20 s  , in French 'système vicésimal' ) ,
     and that you have to make daily calculation without paper or without computer    – 20 s    it is easy, you know that it is 1£   –  40 s   it is still easy, you know it is 2 £ 
       –  60 s   it is still easy, you know it is 3 £ 
       –  but when the number becomes larger, mental computation is more difficult,
          and you create an easy and clever way of computing :

          for 70 s, if you say it  60-10, you know by itself that this is 3 £ 10 s
          for 80 s, if you say it  4-20, you know by itself that this is 4 £      for 90 s, if you say it  4-20-10, you know by itself that this is 4 £ 10 s      for 99 s, if you say it  4-20-19, you know by itself that this is 4 £ 19 s .
     – some facts : I can refer to Financial and Tax documents dated 1500, where 80 is writen 4-20, and 100 is written 5-20, and 140 is written  7-20 , … etc
    In Paris, we still have an hospital named " les quinze-vingt "  " the 15-20 "  created  by St Louis king of France in 1260 to host 300 blind people In Breton (the language of Britanny) , based on the same need for easy counting of money,
    they applied the ' vicésimal ' logic on all numbers :
         for 40 s, Breton say 2-20      for 60 s, Breton say 3-20I hope this clarify the subject.

  3. Regarding the regularized terms septante, octante, and nonante discussed by others below, I first noticed those in the 16th century language of Nostradamus.

  4. English used to be similar. Think three score and ten for 70 or four score for 80. Also when I was young it was common to hear for example, five and twenty for 25 ,in the German way.

  5. The Swiss French have, it's just here in France that we have a unique system….vive la difference! C'est tres belle!

  6. I have to correct the teacher about seventy; In France they say sixty-ten, it's fair, but in francophone era numerous people say "septante" (which is the exact transliteration for seventy and so on for "octante", eighty and "nonante", ninety)

  7. Another point about french mathematics: How many Fields medals have french mathematicians won since this award exists? Just asking 🙂

  8. But they have "invented" a word for 70 is just different to English. The Danush way of counting is also different, but that dosen't mean they have words for numbers.

  9. Yes we do. It's called Soixante-Dix. Maybe it's a combination of 2 other words, but in the end that's the word for 70. And we also have septante. So we don't have "no word", we have 2. Maybe I'm just too used to it, but it just feels like soixante-dix is its own word by now.

  10. Dans certaines régions, et peut être en Belgique, "soixante" se disait "trois-vingt" il n'y a pas si longtemps… un vieil héritage qui perdure.

  11. the reason french surendered is that it was their 70th batle and they didn't have a word for 70 and their brains exploded

  12. Chinese 1 一 2 二 3 三 4 四· 5 五 6 六 7 七 8 八 9 九 10 十

    32 三十二

    100 百 300 三百 as easy and logical as that.

  13. Bonjour mes chers amis de l'atlantique et de la Manche je tiens à vous dire que nous les français nous adooooorons faire chier le monde bisous <3

  14. You're wrong. We have septante for 70, octante or huitante for 80 and nonante for 90. Those words exist but are not used throughout french countries. Maybe you do talk about it in the rest of your film but I stopped after that statement

  15. The french they have invented a word for 70 (septante), for 80 (huitante) and 90 (nonante), but they stop using them.
    But if you go to Switzerland, they still use them, and not only when speaking: also when writing!
    Same in Belgium and Quebec.

  16. That's nothing compared to how the numbers in Basque:
    10 = hamar
    20 = hogei
    30 = hogeitamar (hogei + hamar)
    40 = berrogei (2 hogei)
    50 = berrogeitamar (2 hogei + hamar)
    60 = hirurogei (3 hogei)
    70 = hirurogeitamar (3 hogei + hamar)
    80 = laurogei (4 hogei)
    90 = laurogeitamar (4 hogei + hamar)
    99 = laurogeita hemeretzi (4 hogei + hamar + bederatzi)


  18. And those French also use meters instead of yards or inches and kilograms instead of pounds or stones. Really weird, isn't it?Or.. eh…

  19. Phone numbers in France are listed that way but in Quebec,Canada, we say them just like in english, but in french. We dont group them.

  20. True story, I stopped learning franch when I reached the numbers and I said no way babay figure out your numbers then come back to me

  21. In dutch (in Belgium) we do kind of the same. Grouping of phone numbers, using a comma where a point would be used in english, but we do have words for 70, 80 and 90 that we use in all dutch speaking regions.
    Altough we group our phone numbers, you won't be looked at weird if you split them up. The perks of being a smaller language and needing to adept I would think

  22. Ironically in South Africa we use comma instead of point at school, even though colloquially everyone says point. It's quite odd.

  23. You think counting in French is hard, try Japanese where the words you use vary according to what kind of object you are counting

  24. Here in America, regarding giving telephone numbers, we can either separate out the numbers or sometimes for the part of the number that has 4 digits we might say: 49 and then 68, instead of 4, 9, 6, 8. But we accept it either way without a problem.

  25. Man I never believe that be real lol. Septante, huitante, and nonante are quite similar to others latin languages(spanish/portuguese – my mother tongue)and uses the same logic.

  26. Et octante ( huitante pour les suisses ) , septante , nonante ?

    Donc trente, quarante, cinquante soixante, septante, huitante, nonante, etc …

  27. As a French native I don't have any problem with these numbers, it's just a question of repeating like any other language
    Also all these Belgian / Swiss numbers aren't real, they just are a conspiracy against our magnificent language mixing laziness and weird complexity !

  28. For curiosity sake, who's french canadian here? I found some of that stuff just as confusing and novel as an english person!

  29. "and then when they go to 70 that's where the big problem starts and Carl asks if you're going to finish that cwuasaunt"

  30. This video is not true, or incomplete : In french we have the words 'septante' for 70, 'huitante' for 80, and 'nonante' for 90, but in France historically the custom was to count by 10 or 20 from the XVIth century, prefering 'soixante-dix' etc, but these words were kept in Belgium and Switzerland.
    After, concerning the fact of counting the phone number not individually, it is a custom, like about many subjects in every country, do not judge english language like an universal and ultimate reference.

  31. The explaination for "Soixante et onze" (71), is that French is a latin language which requires a separation between vowels. "Soixante" ends with a vowel and "Onze" starts with one.

    French also went from Celtics which had a 20-based numeric system. Which explains the lack of seventy

  32. I would ask why French people use these weird numbers but tbf doing that is like asking Americans to spell color with a u or switch over to the metric system

  33. But how does a French person say the number 10,695871285937? Do they list the digits then, like it is done in English (and for example also in German)?

  34. It's funny how you almost blame "french people" for it, dude i never chose to count that way, that how i learned it ! 😀
    I've worked on the phone a lot (and i had to write a lot of phones numbers) i learned to way to ear the full number before writting it.

  35. so these morons hate all other languages but probably count to 80 in english ….?! Hitler would have solved this problem!

  36. I lived in France for 2 years and I flat out refused to conform to their logicless system. I stuck with the Swiss system (Belgium use quatre vingt). When people asked me "pour quoi tu utilise le système Belgique? ", I'd simply reply "parce-que logique". (Because logic)
    This is one of many reasons why the majority of people in the world don't speak French and English instead.
    Nice croissants though.

  37. I don't get the confusion here.
    I've understood that it meant 60+10 since I was a toddler.
    Maybe because it's my maternal tongue, but honestly, it makes perfect sense.

  38. a "." in writing is a full stop, an ending of a sentence. Thus using it to differentiate between a number and its fraction makes sense. Likewise a "," is simply a pause, thus indicating the separation of large numbers into discrete groupings for better understanding. 28,400,884.01 is 28 (million), 400 (thousand), 884 (stop). and 1/100.

  39. Interesting to me is 100 being either one hundred and hundred. I don't know why but I confuse it with 101 (hundred and one) XD. Why is ten houndred one thousand it makes sense mathematicly but why? Plus, in Germany you'd say "Neunundvierzig" which means "nine and fourty" thus fourty nine meaning you read the number so to say from right to left.

  40. I still don't get how 60+10=70 is a problem?? Are English people that bad at maths?^^ Guess that's why most Fields Medals came from France^^

  41. Should have let Germany take France in 1914…WW2 and the Nazis never happen and this garbage numbers system goes away…haha

  42. Me: can a french person count to 1000?

    French person= oui (yes)


    French person gets to 70

    French person: Je me rends (i surrender)

  43. Our number system is simple:
    1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 100, 1000

    Teen numbers are made with a suffix means "on ten":
    1on10, 2on10, 3on10, 4on10, 5on10, 6on10, 7on10, 8on10, 9on10

    And 20 to 90 are made in the same way minus the "on" bit:
    2-10, 3-10, 4-10, 5-10, 6-10, 7-10, 8-10, 9-10

    And for instance 21 to 29 would be the same plus 1 to 9:
    2-10-1, 2-10-2, 2-10-3, 2-10-4, 2-10-5, 2-10-6, 2-10-7, 2-10-8, 2-10-9

    We also don't prefix 100 and 1000 with 1 like English speakers do. Why say 1-100 when 100 is obviously a single 100. It would be like saying 1-10 instead of just 10. Which of course is ridiculous but 1-100, 1-1000 and 1-1000000 are fine, but 1-10 isn't.

  44. Apparently in Belgium and Switzerland, they do have their own versons for 70, 80 & 90 but I have no idea what they are because I’m French Canadian.

  45. I think French people should ditch their fracese for a more useful IDO linguo… a little effort and it will became the 2nd world commonly globally spread language for everyone instead of anglotoxic English time to time meaning and chews …

  46. I remember in the first semester of ?French I took? I kept wondering when we were going to learn numbers. Eventually, when I reached numbers, I said, "Oh."

  47. (I'm used to post my comment in english but i'm affraid to have a limited vocabulary, hope translator don't fail me :v)
    En prenant du recul sur la façon classique de compter en France, telle que l'on apprend à l'école, c'est vrai que les 70, 80, 90 deviennent très vite compliqués à comprendre, même entre français quand on doit communiquer une suite de chiffre à l'oral (car chez nous on a l'habitude de coupler les nombres, mauvaise habitude peut-être ?), l'on doit laisser un petit moment de silence entre (exemple) 60 & 15 pour ne pas que l'a personne de l'autre côté comprenne "75" par erreur.
    Le coup des virgules pour l'écriture décimale et le point pour les milliers, c'est vrai que comparé à la notation anglaise, la confusion est inévitable, j'ignore comment on a pu arriver à une telle opposition dans l'écriture.
    Après il existe des termes spécifiques concernant les 70, 80 et 90 mais je dois admettre ne l'entendre que lorsque je parle à des belges ou plus rarement, à des suisses.
    C'est bien dommage qu'on ai pas encore adopté les termes qu'ils emploient, ça réglerait quelques confusions dans notre propre méthode d'expression.
    (if you're not french and if you wanna reply, i can read english kindda "simple", i know some trick like " 'd ", ' 'll ", "wanna", "gonna" etc, i'll reply back in english if my knowledge allow it !)

  48. All seems overly complicated. Surely most languages use the english system? We do count in base 10, after all. It only makes sense for a language to do it this way, if they use base 10.

  49. Actually the French words septente, octente, and nonente mean 70, 80, and 90… They're not used in France, but are archaic words

  50. Only where the French revolution occurred. Not in Switzerland neither in Belgium, in those countries 70 septante 80 huitante 90 nonante.

  51. Anyway, nice that we teached you the decimal system, otherwise you still would live in the Middle Age.
    What you you forgot to say : normally, in French we normallu use the "liaisons", and say for example : cent-t-euros (100€), but deux-cents-z-euros (200€).
    But, due to the total lack of culture of the journalists, who were terribly afraid that people would make fun of them, those "liaisons" were quicly skipped and forgotten, so now nearly everybody, especially the young, would say : "cent heuros, deux cents heuros" (and "vingt heuros"), which sounds simply horrible to any civilized French ear (it's called a hiatus).
    But so does progress go on…

  52. … And in german, two digit numbers are pronounced with the second digit first and the first digit last. 14 is called fourteen in english et cetera, and all our numbers work like this.
    Despite eleven and twelve, they have special names like yours.

  53. Well the best way to learn numbers in French is NOT to think what they really mean. Learn them by heart just like you would if you were learning a non-indoeuropean language. It's not as hard as it seems :))

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