Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Two numerals: “six” and “hundred,” part 2: “hundred”

Like the history of some other words denoting numbers, the history of hundred is full of sticks and stones. To begin with, we notice that hundred, like dozen, thousand, million, and billion, is a noun rather than a numeral and requires an article (compare six people versus a hundred people); it also has a regular plural (a numeral, to have the plural form, has to be turned into a noun, or substantivized, as in twos and threes, at sixes and sevens, on all fours, and the like). Finally, it resembles and indeed is a compound (hund-red). Eleven and twelve are also compounds (see the previous post), but, to use a technical term, disguised ones, that is, we can hardly or not at all discern their ancient elements. However, though hundred does fall into two parts, neither hund- nor –red means anything to a modern speaker.

Before going on, let us note that in the remotest past people hardly needed words designating exact high numbers. One sheep, two sheep…, perhaps ten sheep, and then a lot (lots) of sheep. It is amazing how many words for multitudes we have: herd, flock, pack, drove, shoal (school), and so forth. They usually refer to animals, and we can sometimes guess their origin. Thus, if we know the verb to brood “to sit on eggs,” we won’t be surprised that the birds hatched in one nest are called a brood. Nor does a gaggle of geese present an insoluble riddle.  Some such nouns can refer to both human beings and animals, for example, troop and bevy. Apparently, all of them were coined because their existence served a useful purpose. However, many of us must have been puzzled by the enormous number of such words. What is a multitude of badgers called? Is there such a word? Oh, yes: cete. Does anyone speak about a cete of badgers? You bet. And look up a skulk of foxes. The Internet page is full of references. But back to our muttons, or rather, moutons.

One sheep, two sheep… many sheep.

In the remotest past, hund– must have meant “ten” rather than “hundred”; however, the picture is confusing. In Gothic, a Germanic language recorded in the fourth century, the word hunda (a neuter plural noun) means “a hundred” (like Latin centum). Yet taihun-tehund (read the digraph ai as English short e), either “ten-ten” or “tenth-ten,” depending on how we divide this word (not inconceivably, taihunte-hund), also existed and also meant “a hundred.” In Old English, we find similar words, for instance, hund-seofontig “seventy,” and wonder how hund “ten” and –tig, another word for “ten,” coexisted in one language and in one numeral.  There can be only one answer. By the time of our recorded monuments (and Gothic predates the texts in Old English by more than three centuries), at least some of those compounds must have become so opaque (“disguised”) that the tautology was no longer heard. Let us keep in mind that Engl. ten goes back to Old Engl. tēn and further to some form like Gothic taihun. Since Germanic h corresponds to non-Germanic k, the pair taihun ~ Latin decem is perfect. With regard to ten, whose distant origin does not interest us at this moment, we have no problems.

Napoleon’s hundred days: the peak.

The natural question arises whether hund– and ten, the alleged synonyms, can be related, and why have two words for “ten”? As we can see, they share a single sound, namely, n. Is this enough? Here we should consider several factors. From post to post (I was almost tempted to say “from pillar to post!”), I invoke the assistance of ablaut (vowel alteration, as in rise-rose-risen, get-got, and so forth). Ablaut is no longer productive. Whether one’s past tense of the verb wet is wet (on the analogy of setset-set) or wetted, no adult speaker of Modern English, inspired by get-got, will suggest wot as its preterit. Some strange (atavistic?) words arise from time to time, for which I have no explanation: brolly for umbrella, wodge for wedge (both chiefly British), and frosh for freshman. They are usually dismissed as expressive formations, but that is probably how the venerable Indo-European ablaut arose: compare pit-a-pat, tit for tat, and many others like them. Within the context of the present discussion, we may consider such words as Engl. know (from cnāwan) and ken (compare Gothic kannjan “to make known”). A look at cn-, which is another spelling of kn-, and kan– shows that kn– has no vowel between k and n, while kan– does. The alternating vowels are called grades of ablaut, and, when the vowel is absent, as in kn-, the relevant term is zero grade. It arose when stress fell on the next syllable. If we need an analogy from the modern language, note that some people pronounce come on! as c’m on! (stress on the adverb and the “zero grade” of come) and canoeing as k’noeing.

That is a brolly indeed.

Fortified with this information, we may look at hund- ~ cent and ten. In Germanic, the zero grade was usually filled by the vowel u. And this is exactly the vowel we find in hund-. Consequently, the initial stage of hund– was hnd- in an unstressed syllable. Germanic h corresponds to non-Germanic k, just as t corresponds to d (taihun ~ decem). Thus, Engl. what, from hwæt, is a cognate of Latin quod (= kwod). Hund– (from hnd-) is a good match for cent(um), except that it has the zero grade, while centum has a so-called full grade. It appears that Indo-European did have two words for “ten.” In Germanic, they were represented by some forms like hnd– and tehn-.

How could that happen? Here historical linguists bend over backwards and reconstruct the protoform dek’m-tón (k’ is a symbol for a special kind of k and, as in the previous post, need not bother us here), which split into what we find in our texts. Is this a probable scenario? Let us say that it is not improbable. By the same token, the word for “hundred” may have sounded approximately as dakandakanda, like Gothic taihuntehund (or taihuntaihund; both forms have been recorded).

We can also ask why the Goths needed hunda and taihun-taihund for the noun or numeral. A specific difficulty for Germanic speakers consisted in distinguishing between 100, that is, ten times ten, and 120, a so-called great, or long hundred.  They used the decimal and the duodecimal systems, and this fact gives readers of Old English and especially of Old Icelandic some trouble, because in the sagas, the Vikings’ main occupation was fighting, and we constantly read that there were a hundred people on board. The statement means 120.

Contrary to the circus stunts we have witnessed above, –red in hundred poses no difficulties. It meant “reckoning; account; number” and is related to Latin ratio (compare Engl. ratio and ration), so that hundred must have meant “a hundred things” and was indeed a noun. Hundred, denoting an administrative division of a shire or county, got its name from the circumstance that it was reckoned as a hundred hides of land in Old English (this hide has nothing to do with hide “skin”).

Until late in the nineteenth century, educated people pronounced hundred as hunderd, and two variants were distinguished: solemn (hundred) and colloquial (hunderd), a curious case of metathesis. Incidentally, the Dutch for “hundred” is honderd, but German and Icelandic are close to English: hundert and hundrað.

Featured image credit: “Viking Boat” by OpenClipart-Vectors, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Bill W.

    “Ablaut is no longer productive”

    In rural Alabama, not so long ago, I once distinctly heard “crunk” used as the past/past participle of “crank,” as in “X done crunk the truck” (meaning X started the engine).

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Enjoyed reading your post. Thanks.

    Concerning the etymology of the word “know”, however, I am puzzled.

    You write, “Engl. know (from cnāwan)”.

    It is more probable that “know” derives from the Greek “gnosis” and “nous”.

    I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    with correspondences in Latvian hound ~ kuņa/suns (bitch, dog), hewe ~ sieva (wife), home – saime (household family, flock, actually used also for hive)+ ciems (village)+kaimiņš (neighbour), hund-red – simts (Estonian kümme for 10 [desmit,LT dešimt] and sada for 100 which are considered as Baltic borrowings), one can get feeling that these words are semantically related (maybe also know-zināt, znots son-in-law) making a cluster. strangely septiņi is seven and not heaven

  4. Anne

    Speaking of get-got for tenses no longer being productive, I seem to recall reading somewhere that the past tense of “sneak” is “sneaked”, yet one often hears and reads “snuck.”

    Is it a modern case of the get-got pattern?

    I’m in western Canada, if that helps.

  5. Maggie Cambay

    Thanks! You just explained a mystery! I’m reading Heimskringla, and the translator keeps putting a larger number in parentheses. I couldn’t figure out why. Mystery solved!

  6. Mary Carroll

    Of course, snuck and dove are stigmatized by many people as ‘uneducated’. Perhaps one day we will wake up to find the boot has snuck onto the other foot.

Comments are closed.