This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Nuts and Bolts: fingers and thumbs.

Talking with Hands - Wikimedia Commons

How do you count on your fingers? 
I go from my left thumb to my left little finger, then proceed to my right little finger and then on to my right thumb.
If you use your fingers in some other order then it doesn't make any difference.
Well, it doesn't if you're speaking English.

If you were speaking Zulu it would matter very much indeed.

A Zulu speaker will start counting with the little finger of the left hand and proceed to the left thumb. Then he or she will continue with the thumb of the right hand.

Why does this matter?

Well, because in Zulu the names for the numbers six to nine are to do with the fingers used to count them.

For instance, the Zulu word for six, isithupha, means “thumb”; the word for seven, isikhombisa, means “the one that points out”; eight, or isishiyagalombili, means “two remain”; and nine, isishiyagalolunye, means “one remains”.

This is a beautiful way of making words, but no one can say it's quick or easy to use. The number fifty nine, for example, is amashumi amahlanu nesishiyagalolunye.
In practice, Zulu speakers tend to use English numbers. In fact this happens so commonly that Zulu enthusiasts have made up new shorter numbers for Zulu people to use in their everyday lives.

It's too soon to say whether they'll catch on yet.

I can see the reason behind the new numbers, but I can't help hoping the beautiful, if impractical, traditional Zulu numbers will survive, for special occasions, at least.

Thing To Do Today: count up to ten in a language not your own. In Zulu it goes: kunye, kubili, kuthathu, kune, kuhlanu (or isihlanu), isithupha, isikhombisa, isishiyagalombili, isishiyagalolunye, ishumi.





  1. Beautiful : o )

    (and I did your exercise!)

    1. Hurray!

      In Alsatian it goes: eins zwei drëi vier fenf sex seve acht nin zehn.

      And I didn't even know that Alsatians could count...

    2. Well! I didn't even know that Alsation was a language ... so your joke was both funny *and* educational!


  2. Okay, here goes in Hebrew...Echat, Shtayim, Shalosh, Arba, Hamesh, Shesh, Sheva, Shmone, Teysha, Esser.....and I count like you starting on the left but when i get to five I go to my right thumb...

    1. I think Shalosh might be the most truly satisfying word I've ever come across in any language, Adele. Thank you!

  3. I'll count to ten in Welsh. Un, dau/dwy, tri/tair, pedwar/pedair, pump/pum, chwech/chwe, saith, wyth, naw, deg. I've never been very good at counting. I get confused.

    1. That's interesting, thank you Anon. Now I must find out why there two words for some of the numbers. And, indeed, how to pronounce chwe