Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Elevens and Twelves

After having awakened in the middle of the night, one of us (who shall remain nameless) started thinking about etymology while trying to get to sleep. We have some great ideas in that state, but we never want to turn on the light and write them down as we're afraid it will awaken us even more and we'll never get back to sleep. So these brilliant ideas are usually gone by the next morning. However, for some reason, the question of the etymology of eleven and twelve stuck. Why those words decided to present themselves at that early hour of the morning, though, is a mystery! It was nowhere near 11:00 or 12:00 when the words were occupying the mind of the one of us who was awake (it was closer to 3:00 or 4:00 am!).

What's up with eleven and twelve? They bear little resemblance to their brothers and sisters thirteen through nineteen. The etymological constructions of the latter are pretty obvious: a single digit number (excluding zero, one or two) plus ten. So thirteen is "three [and] ten". Nineteen is "nine [and] ten". If we look at twelve, we can see the two component in the tw-. But what is the rest of it? -Elve? Are we talking the Sylvan Folk here? No. And look at eleven. It is quite similar to -elve, eh?

We should not be surprised that most English number words come from Germanic roots. The Germanic numbers share similarities with Romance numbers as both German and Romance languages have a common ancestor, called Indo-European. As regular readers of TOWFI know, Indo-European is a collection of hypothetical root words reconstructed, simply speaking, from the commonalities among the Indo-European languages. English one and Spanish uno, both meaning "one," are similar because they both derive from the hypothetical Indo-European oino- "one".

Oino- turns up in eleven, believe it or not. It is thought that eleven is composed of oino- plus the element -lif-. Etymologists are not quite sure where the latter comes from. It is found in most of the Germanic languages as part of their words for eleven. Some derive -lif- from a hypothetical Germanic root leiq or leip which mean "to leave, to remain". Huh? Well, if you put the two elements, oino- and -lif- together, you have "one left" or "one remaining". If you've got eleven walnuts, when you've counted ten of them, you have one left. We all know that many human societies use base-ten counting systems because humans have ten fingers. In fact, all of the English number words between and including thirteen and twenty contain references to "ten" (the -teen element, of course, which is -ty in the case of twenty). So it should not be surprising to find that eleven contains a reference to ten, even if it is an unspoken one.

Twelve's etymology is similar. It is composed of the Germanic elements twa- "two" and lib- or lif-, thought to be related to the leiq and leip elements mentioned above, and all likely being related to the Germanic liban "to leave". Bs and Vs get substituted for one another now and again in the Germanic languages, so keeping that in mind, you should be able to see how similar liban and leave are. Anyhow, this means that twelve is, etymologically, "two left [after counting to ten]".

Speaking of elevens and twelves, it's between 11:00 pm and 12:00 am here, so it's time to sign off!

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