Counting in French – the Vexing Vicesimal

A lot of people find French numbers confusing. And, let’s face it, they are. Instead of ‘seventy-eight’ you have to say ‘sixty-eighteen’ and since there isn’t a nice, handy equivalent of ‘ninety-nine’, well, you have to go with ‘four-twenties-nineteen’. I’ve acclimatised. In the early days, if I was taking down a phone number or house number or other figure, and I heard ‘soixante’, I’d jump the gun and write down a six, ready to add the next digit, but only to find it was qualified with ‘quinze’, making it seventy-five. By the time I’d scribbled out the 6 and written down the correct number, I’d missed either the next half dozen digits of a phone number or street name. So we’d start all over again. Now I do as the French do. When I hear ‘soixante…’ or ‘quatre-vingts…’ I allow my pen to hover above the page until the final part of the number comes which means no more crossings out and revisions. Much more French and much more efficient.

But what’s the method in the madness of French numbers which at first glance appear completely irrational and overly complicated. It’s historic. It’s grown from the ancient Gaulish system of counting which was in base twenty. It’s the Vicesimal system. The Chinese may have stuck to base ten and only counted using their fingers, but the smart Gauls used their toes too. Maybe it just reflects the fact that they invented shoes after other races did or preferred to wear sandals and so left their toes available for easy counting purposes. It predates the decimal system.

This also explains why schools tend to mark everything out of twenty. This used to bug me at first. Why not ten or one hundred? Wouldn’t these be easier to convert to percentages?  Why always twenty? Now I know.

I was an au pair for a Belgian family many years ago now. They, like all their compatriots, used ‘septante’ and ‘neufante’ for ‘seventy’ and ‘ninety’ respectively. They clung doggedly to ‘quatre-vingts though, however, only going as far as ‘quartre-vingts-neuf’ though. In some ways, perhaps they’re even more confused than the French!

The current French numbering system is a mixture of Vicesimal and Decimal. It’s not totally logical, but don’t tell a French person that. However, perhaps understanding what lies beneath the more perplexing elements of it will make it a little easier to tolerate!


0 Replies to “Counting in French – the Vexing Vicesimal”

  1. Thanks for this very interesting post! Understanding the history and logic behind French numbers should (hopefully!) help soothe my nerves the next time that I’m baffled by the price of fish or whatever I’m buying at the market. Maybe this also explains the recent fashion of shoes/boots that don’t cover the toes.

  2. Thanks for the explanation. I’ve often wondered why the French stuck with a system that didn’t seem very logical. Like you, I’ve now got the hang of waiting to write down the number when I hear ‘quatre-vingts’ until they’ve finished.

  3. I picked up the Japanese counting system far, far quicker than the French, even though theirs is just as different. I think maybe because the French system is the same as ours up to 70 that it freaks me out so much. Like you though, I’m finally coming around.

    1. I tend to wuss out if I’m having to say a phone number or other long number. The French chop them into pairs, but I do them one at a time to avoid the soixante and quatre-vingts nightmares!

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