The reason for such a strange topic will become clear right away. The present post is No. 600 in the career of “The Oxford Etymologist.” I wrote my first essay in early March 2006 and since that time have not missed a single Wednesday. When I am out of town, even for a whole month (which occasionally happens in connection with my trips to Europe), I send the essays to New York and discuss the text and the illustrations with the editors ahead of time.
600 is a respectable number, and it suddenly occurred to me that I had never addressed the origin of numerals in this blog. My reserve is due to two circumstances. 1) As a general rule, I prefer to discuss the words about whose etymology I have something new to say, regardless of whether my opinion has the chance of being accepted (or not; I despise this pleonastic or not, though I often see it in the writings of our best authors). When it comes to obscure idioms like whip the cat (22 July 2015), I am certain that my overview, even if stopping short of a sensible proposal, will be new to our readers, and this justifies the effort. 2) The second reason is of a different kind. The highly controversial etymology of numerals presupposes delving into the obscure technical details of Indo-European phonetics, a subject I always avoid.
However, 600 is a milestone. The Greeks believed that the future is open because it lies in front of us, while the past, which lies behind the observer, cannot be seen or deciphered. True or not, our future, even if visible, is not particularly clear, and, since I am not sure where I’ll be another hundred posts later, I decided to turn to numerals today. Contrary to the photo that accompanies this blog, its real-life model does change. According to my reconstruction, in 2006, most of us were eleven years younger. No one’s middle name is Dorian Gray.
Strange, as it may seem to non-specialists, the origin of the words one, two, three, etc. has never been discovered despite quite a few good hypotheses. We can probably assume that at one time people counted on their fingers. Hence the suggestion that the number five (five goes back to some form like finf: compare Modern German fünf) is related to finger. Also, those who deal with language history and prehistory always try to reconstruct the ancient protoform, but it so happens that, when they cast the net widely (from, let us say, Hittite and Armenian to Old Irish and Old Norse, all of which belong to the Indo-European family) and list the available cognates, the oldest forms often refuse to yield the desired protoform, for the obvious reason that they are not really very old and might (even must) have changed dramatically from the beginning of time. Knowing all this, let us look at the possible derivation of six.
Here the main difficulty is the protoform. In the Germanic languages, all the attested forms are very much alike (six, seks, and so forth). Elsewhere, the Indo-European words for “six” begin with we-, swe-, k’se-, and k’swe– (k’ designates a special variety of k, but this detail need not delay us here). For instance, Russian shest’, along with the same or similar forms elsewhere in Slavic, goes back to kse-. The main choice of the protoform is between weks and seks. The first of them has a wider distribution among the Indo-European languages and may be older. If we assume that the number six had something or even everything to do with counting on one’s fingers, weks can be understood as a congener (cognate) of the English verb to wax (its original sense was “to grow”: compare wax and wane and German wachsen “to grow”). The rationale for naming the numeral would emerge approximately as “the counting of the fingers on one hand is over, now ‘an increase’ starts.” Analogous cases are neither rare nor exotic: indeed, in several languages across the globe six is understood as an addition to the last numeral on the other (usually left) hand; it appears to mean “five plus one.”
But it is also a well-known fact that in the process of counting, numerals influence one another, so that, conceivably, the initial consonant for Germanic six changed under the influence of seven, whatever its origin. Here too analogous cases have been found. Thus, eleven very probably means “one left over ten,” while twelve has the same suffix as eleven and the root of two (the Old English forms were endleofon, from ainlif, and twelf, from twālif, respectively). In Old High German, the forms were einlif and zwelif. Later, einlif became elf, presumably on the model of zwelf ~ zwölf. In Low German, the similarity is even greater: elf, twelf. Under normal circumstances, einlif would not have become elf. Note that the influence usually comes from the next item: six like seven, eleven like twelve.
Still another factor should be taken into consideration. Many words in the Indo-European languages have initial s, a parasite, as it were, whose origin has never been explained to everybody’s satisfaction but whose existence cannot be denied. This s appears in cognates across langauges and even in one and the same langauge. It has been called movable s, and in this blog I have had more than one chance to refer to its existence. If the root of six once began with w-, the consonant s before it could be a case of movable s. To make matters worse, the Slavic numeral began with kse-. What should we do with it? Those versed in the arcana of reconstruction will easily guess that the easiest solution would be to set up the protoform kswek’s and understand the recorded forms as the simplification of the long and bulky kswek’s. There is nothing improbable in the simplification of heavy clusters (ksw– is certainly heavy). But what is the meaning of kswek’s? An adventure in etymology consists of two parts: we try to track down the most plausible phonetic shape of the protoform and to discover its meaning. Without the second step the “adventure” degenerates into a dry exercise in comparative phonetics.
Finally, numerals are often borrowed. The examples are many. For instance, the odd Russian word for “forty” is sorok (stress on the first syllable). It is almost certainly a borrowing, even though the lending language remains a hotly contested issue. The case of sorok is not unusual. Time and again, it has been proposed that also some forms of six are loans from the neighboring languages.
One can now see why I prefer to stay away from numerals in this blog. It is the amount of legerdemain that scares away the researcher, and the ground is shaky. Yet every word deserves the linguist’s attention. Etymological dictionaries can skip some slang and the obsolete or little known words and pretend that those do not exist, but no lexicographer can do without the basic numerals. In our case, most dictionaries remain noncommittal and make do with a list of the heterogeneous cognates of six. What then is its origin? Nobody knows for sure, and nobody knows whether Indo-European had a single form of this numeral. If indeed the starting point was counting on one’s fingers, perhaps six did signify the beginning of the “second series.” Even if so, many questions remain unanswered, with the thumb (fortunately, not the third finger) of the left hand up in the air, inviting further research, and promising victory.
Image credits: (1) “Clock” by Robert Karkowski, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) “Industry people” by bstad, Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) “IceF Internal” by D B, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. Featured image credit: “Fireworks” by Eric Spaete, Public Domain via Pixabay.