To all of you out there who think strange languages are great, get this: Breton has one of the weirdest counting systems ever!

How do I count to ten?

1: unan /yna~n/
2: daou /daU/
3: tri /tri:/
4: pevar /pEvar/
5: pemp /pEmp/
6: c'hwec'h /CwEC/
7: seizh /sEis/
8: eizh /Eis/
9: nav /naU/
10: dek /dek/

That was pretty normal!

Breton belongs to the celtic family of languages. Although it has come into close (some would say over-intimate) contact with French, it has retained all of the wonderful oddities which characterise celtic languages while even lending some of them to French. Much of this strangeness is also linked to Breton pronunciation which is complex, involving hardening and softening of terminal consonants depending on the following word and various mutations which are triggered by many different words and rules.

Firstly, and as you might expect, numbers up to twenty are pretty irregular:

11: unnek /2nEk/
12: daouzek /daUzEk/
13: trizek /trizEk/
14: pevarzek /pEvarzEk/
15: pemzek /pEmzEk/
16: c'hwezek /CwEzEk/
17: seitek /sEitEk/
18: triwec'h /triwEC/
19: naontek /no~ntEk/
20: ugent /y:gEnt/

Subsequent numbers composed of two figures start with the units and then link them to the tens. The natural way of doing this is with and, ha, giving a perfectly reasonable 34: pevar ha tregont (/"pEvar a "trEgo~nt/). The twenties do this with over instead, 27: seizh warn-ugent (/"sEiz warn "y:gEnt/).

As we shall see, Breton adds complexity through strange ways of composing multiples of ten, several feminine numbers and numbers which cause mutations. To crown it all, when numbers are actually used in a sentence (where they will most likely be modifiying a noun), the noun is always singular and is inserted between the units and the tens (note that the plural of kazh, cat is kazhier):
pemp kazh ha tregont /pEmp kaz a trego~nt/ five cat and thirty.

Could Breton be responsible for the way the french say quatre-vingt?

Yes. As you may know, the French counting system has its own share of weirdness: they say sixty-eleven for 71, four-twenty for 80 and four-twenty-seventeen for 97. All this comes from Breton which does this in an even more extreme fashion:

18: triwec'h litterally three-six. There exists an archaic form which litterally means two-nine
40: daou-ugent two-twenty
50: hanter-kant /"ha~ntEr ka~nt/ half-hundred
60: tri-ugent three-twenty
70: dek ha tri-ugent ten and three-twenty
80: pevar-ugent four-twenty
90: dek ha pevar ugent ten and four-twenty
100: kant

And these mutations give them super-linguistic power?

The breton mutation system is so complex that it would take a very large node to explain it. Fortunately, the actual mutations are your ordinary Welsh, Celtic or Sindarin, it's when they are triggered that is long and convoluted. Even more fortunately, the numbers interact in a reasonably sane way with the mutations. Here's what happens:


200: daou c'hant /daU xa~nt/
300: tri c'hant
400: pevar c'hant
500: pemp kant
900: nav c'hant /naU xa~nt/
1000: mil
2000: daou vil
3000: tri mil
Two cats: daou gazh /daU gas/
Three cats: tri c'hazh /tri xas/
Six cats: c'hwec'h kazh /CwEC kas/
Eighty-two people: daou zen ha pevar-ugent
Seventy five people: pemzek den ha tri-ugent

Div, teir and peder are the feminine forms of daou, tri and pevar which trigger identical mutations. They must be used when counting any noun of feminine form, such as eur, o'clock. I can now leave you to ponder the following contrived, contorted, amazingly cool and final example:

Daou vil tri c'hant peder eur ha hanter-kant ha triwec'h munut.

  • Le Breton de poche, Assimil évasion, ISBN 2-7005-0308-2
  • SAMPA (for phonetic notation)

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