With the exception of zero through ten, most numbers seem to follow a formulaic pattern when written or said aloud: you say the tens place followed by the units place (though this is flipped for the teens). When you were younger and were taught how to count, you could apply this pattern to easily count to 100 and beyond. But you also may have realized there were two numbers that didn’t quite seem to fit the pattern, the outliers eleven and twelve. And now, you may be asking yourself: why do we say eleven and twelve instead of oneteen and twoteen?
To answer that question, we have to go back in time. The words eleven and twelve are derived from the Old English words endleofan and twelf. Going back even further, we’ve found that these words come from the Germanic ainlif and twalif. They are compound words, “ain+lif” and “twa+lif”, with “ain” and “twa” being one and two, respectively. Etymologists believe that “lif” is a root word meaning “to leave.”
So, you can roughly translate ainlif and twalif to being “one left (after ten)” and “two left (after ten).”
But What About Threelif, Fourlif, Etc.?
In looking at why eleven and twelve seem to stray from the rest of the “teens”, we have to again look back in history, when number systems and words for numbers were still being developed.
Think about what number words were probably made first. Do you think humans invented a word for forty-eight first? Probably not. They in all likelihood started more simple. Most early humans probably had no real reason to distinguish between numbers much above ten. Infact, some primitive cultures only had words for the first couple numbers, and “many”.
The words that presumably formed first were the basic numbers up to ten (humans have ten fingers after all, so it makes sense). Overtime though, the numbers eleven and twelve surely came to be used more often in daily life, even before the creation of the established number systems we have today. The number twelve has especially played a significant historic role throughout many cultures, and was seen by many as representing wholeness (twelve months in a year, twelve Olympic Gods, twelve animals in the Chinese horoscope, twelve sons of Odin, twelve labors of Hercules, twelve Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshiped, twelve successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and twelve tribes of Israel, and so on and so on).
Many number systems came to be based on twelve, in large part to its divisibility by many other numbers. Since eleven and twelve were being used so frequently, names for them began to stick, even when other number systems came about.
Look at some other number irregularities. We say twenty, thirty, etc. instead of twoty and threety. It is because we’ve been using these words longer in our everyday lives that these inconsistencies arose. The numbers we needed to use earliest and most frequently are the ones most irregular and that seem to go against any set pattern.
Why Do We Say Eleven and Twelve Instead of Oneteen and Twoteen?
The simple answer is that words for eleven and twelve precede many of our current number systems. They had long been used in our daily lives, and were more useful to us than other numbers. The words we used for eleven and twelve became ingrained in our vernacular, and we continued to use them even when other number systems were created.
Love learning about numbers? You can count on Sporcle to help you out! Try playing a few of these fun Number Quizzes.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.