Counting in French (Or, Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered)

number illo2

I’m in a long queue at Monoprix Nation, which is the biggest in Paris, and overwhelming on a slow day. But this is a Saturday, last call to buy food for the weekend, and it’s nigh on dinner time. Everyone is rushing about pell-mell, pushing, eager to get home—and I’m growing anxious. The closer I inch to the cashier, the greater my anxiety. I’m already regretting coming here; I know I’m going to overpay for everything, but that’s not what’s gnawing at my gut. Very soon, it’ll be my turn to pay, and that cashier will tell me how much I owe…in French. I know exactly how it will go down: she’ll mumble the total much too quickly; I’ll ask her to repeat it as if I can’t hear her over the din—a useless exercise as it rarely brings clarity—then, impatient in the crush of rush hour, she will sigh heavily, resigned, turn the screen toward me so I can view the numbers. My humiliation will be complete, topped only by the roll of the cashier’s eyes, which will be seconded by the eyes of those on line behind me: “Stupid Americaine.”

It’s painful, counting in French. There was a time when I could, and easily, but that was when my mind was new and more accepting. Since then, I find myself unable to retain French numbers. As soon as I start to get the hang of them, I have to return to New York where they are promptly forgotten. But it’s not really my fault. It’s France’s fault. The confounding numbering system they insist upon eschews all logic—the exact opposite of what numbers should be. And as my mind favors logical systems, it appears to continually and systematically reject France’s method of counting.

French numbers go against the grain of most Latin-based languages, employing few of the patterns the others follow, so your Italian and Spanish will be of little help. The French are special; they require you do math in your head in order to understand their numbers. Uneducated? Too difficult for you? Tant pis.

The confounding numbering system they insist upon eschews all logic

Let me attempt to walk you through the minefield my mind traverses every time I try to count in French: Starting off between 1-20, you’re in the clear, which lulls you into a false sense of security. By the time you get to 60, you’re feeling pretty cocky. Sixty, by the way, is soixante, which is fair enough, since 40 is quarante, and 50: cinquante. You can clearly see the root of the number and the ending, “-ante.” Then you come upon 70. Septante, you assume, blithely tap dancing near an active mine. Sure, in a normal world, septante makes sense—sept for seven, plus “-ante.” But this isn’t the normal world; this is France, where it’s soixante-dix, or sixty-ten. Ka-boom! You’ve just lost a limb, poor dear. Seventy-one is soixante-onze, meaning sixty-eleven; seventy-two, soixante-douze or sixty-twelve, and so on.

Think you got that figured out? Ok, brave soul, take a shot at 80. Everything in your being wants it to be huitante but you’re way past hoping on that one, so you use 70 as your guide and come up with soixante-vingt (sixty-twenty). Feeling lucky? Desolée, mon ami! There goes another limb. Remember, this is the country that created tennis and its bewildering scoring system. In what universe is it normal to go from 15 to 30 then 40? In a universe where eighty is quatre-vingts or four twenties. Ninety? Quatre-vingt-dix (four twenties-ten), but maybe by now, you guessed that one. Reward yourself with an Advil for that splitting headache you now have. By the way, that’s not from doing math, that’s from your brain—like that of Mr. Spock—attempting to process, then expelling, an illogical concept.

I have ceased trying to make sense of the French numbering system, or figuring the reason behind it. Perhaps it was the king’s way of ensuring the poor folk couldn’t figure how much they were being ripped off, but if so, that would have been my first priority in the revolution:

  1. Simplify numbers
  2. Storm Bastille
  3. Use simpler numbers to count guillotined heads of inventors of complicated numbering system

Yet, the French seem content with their numbers. Another mystery of the mind français. They like to overly complicate things: elaborate cooking methods; circuitous bureaucracy; ridged protocols. I once had a Parisian friend direct me to take three Métro trains—traveling from the Left Bank to the Right Bank and back to the Left Bank—to get to a destination I could have easily reached via one line in only four stops. It defies logic, but you have to accept it as part of the package. Sometimes, when it comes to the French way of doing things, it just doesn’t add up the way you think it should.

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9 responses to “Counting in French (Or, Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered)

  1. I am so with you on this!!! Counting is murder for me, it makes no sense! Usually I pay by ATM card when I shop in an attempt to avoid the counting, because I NEVER understand. One of the last times I paid by card at my local Franprix it wouldn’t run through the machine. So I asked her to try it again. No dice. I had just used it so I KNOW it worked. But there she sat, unwilling to help me or run it again while five other people stood in line behind me, annoyed. Thank goodness I had just enough cash to cover my purchases. I am convinced that cashiers at supermarches in France are the surliest people of all. My refrigerator is too small which is why I am there all the time, if it was American-sized you can be sure I’d stock up just so I could avoid that miserable place! I don’t know if I’ll ever get the hang of counting, but nice to know I’m not alone!

  2. Thanks for this column. Now I know I’m not alone; over the years, my confusion over French counting has been getting worse. When I was Eighteen after two years of High School French, I was OK. Now I’m in my Sixties, and I need to see the display on the register or have the merchant scribble the numerals on a pad.
    Love the French? Toujours.
    Understand them? Jamais.

  3. Lisa, your commentary on the French numbering system is hilarious! And completely true, of course. If you ever find someone to explain the rationale behind it, perhaps he or she can also explain why, when a French book is placed face up on a table, the title on the spine is upside-down.

    • Oh my GOD the upside down spine thing drives me nuts. Impossible to stack books. I think it’s all of Europe where they like it to read from bottom to top when it’s vertical. I think in England, too, but I need confirm.

  4. Hey ! I’m discovering this blog after the nolock thing! Enjoying it so far – I’m a Parisian myself but used to live in other countries and I can relate to your experiences 🙂

    I just wanted to add a suggestion if you want to not be taken as a “stupide américaine”. You may want to experiment going with septante and huitante, in which case they might take you for a Belgian visitor. True, they probably won’t be any kinder, but then I guess they’ve got a reputation to maintain.
    Fun fact : to add to the general mayhem of numbers, old swiss francophones may still use “octante” for 80.

    As for my fellow Frenchmen, though 70 and 80 aren’t a problem to any of them – you’d be surprised to find out how few can actually tell when vingt and cent take the plural form and when they don’t.

  5. Hoo hoo, great idea, Clem! I get a bit further with this on every trip. When here in the States, I count reps on my cardioglide up to cent, and am careful to visualize the number while saying the French number – i. e. quatre-vingt-un (visualize 81) etc. Have been doing this since 2008. It IS getting easier. And John Schnick, I am 70 so it can be done!


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