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Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Nuts and Bolts: how many Danish?

How many Danish?

File:Danish pastries, Chapters Village, Logo Square, Hong Kong Polytechnic University - 20130809.JPG
Photo by Smuconlaw

Well, unfortunately, in this picture there are more than forty nine Danish pastries, and after that...well, after more than forty nine Danish pastries you probably wouldn't care much how Danish numbers work, but the fact is that Danish counting cunningly combines two systems, one based on the number twenty (French does something rather similar) and one on some old expressions for two and a half, three and a half, etc.

The number sixty is straightforward. That's tres(indstyve), or third*-times-of-twenty. (You don't usually bother to say the bit in brackets.) It's a bit long, perhaps. but sixty is three times twenty, so fair enough.

But what about the number fifty? That's halvtres(indstyve) or half-third*-times of twenty. 

The trouble is, as far as I can do the arithmetic, there is no way fifty is half third* times twenty. 

Pleasingly, the numbers seventy and ninety behave in the same way as fifty, and make no more sense.

Now, I've said that Danes don't usually use the bits of the numbers I've put in brackets, but if you're saying fiftieth or sixtieth, for instance, then shortening numbers is most definitely not done. Fiftieth is halvtredsindstyvende, which is so awkward that a lot of the time Danish people are beginning to say nummer halvtreds instead.

Norway and Sweden have number systems based on tens, but trying to introduce a similar system into Danish has met with no success except in inter-Scandinavian communication and on money documents, when one may use femti, seksti, syvti, otti and niti.

Is the Danish system unwieldy and illogical? Yes. Should the Danish people abandon it?

No, of course not, They should cherish it and glory in it. 

And I'm delighted they are.

Word To Use Today: Danish.The first mention of the Danes was in the 700s, when they were a tribe inhabiting Jutland.

*That's third as in first, second, third, not as in one divided by three

Gosh, English is pretty weird, too, isn't it.


  1. Surely the 1st half is 0.5, the 2nd half is 1.5 and the 3rd half is 2.5 which times 20 gives 50.

    1. Good heavens, that seems to work. Thank you, Anon! How interesting that this idea of first, second and third halves seems to be as much a verbal as an arithmetical one.
      It still makes me feel as if someone's put my brain in a wringer, though.