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First things first

I seldom, if ever, try to be “topical” (I mean the practice of word columnists to keep abreast of the times and discuss the words of the year or comment on some curious expression used by a famous personality), but the calendar has some power over me. The end of the year, the beginning of the year, the rite of spring, the harvest—those do not leave me indifferent. Last Wednesday, I wished our readers all the best in 2018. Now 2018 has come, with its rosy dreams and dark forebodings. This is the first post of the New Year, and I decided to return to one of my old topics and write a few lines about why the ordinal numeral of four is fourth, of ten is tenth, but of one…. Why not oneth? And two is coupled with second instead of the much more natural twoth.

In grammar, forms tend to form clusters in a rational way, for example, cat—cats, purr—purred, come—came. But sometimes this system breaks down, as in I—we, go—went, one—first, two—second. The forms that belong to the same paradigm but go back to different roots are called suppletive. The reason for their appearance is far from clear. See my post of 9 January 2013. (I have now reread it and discovered, as always, several new comments. May I repeat my usual request never to add comments to old posts? I have no chance to discover them. If you want to discuss an old post—and there are many of them: this is already No. 625—add your remarks under the latest one with an appropriate reference.)

It is not quite clear why, but all over the Indo-European world the words for first and second were not understood as belonging with one and two. The idea of “first” was expressed by an adjective meaning “the foremost one,” and of “second” by “the next one.” After that, counting went on without any trouble. Engl. three and third do not sound close enough, but the difference between them is due to their phonetic history and can be easily explained; the root is the same (r should have stood before the vowel, as in German dritte—this is a trivial case of metathesis).

It is instructive to look at what happened to the designations of one ~ first and two ~ second in the Old Germanic languages, especially in the Western group, to which English belongs, and Gothic. The Old English for “one” was ān (reminder: ā stands for long a, that is, the vowel as in Modern Engl. spa; the so-called macron over a vowel indicates length). For “first” several old words have been recorded: forma, formesta ~ fyrmesta, fyresta, and æresta (æ was also long). Formesta ~ fyrmesta are the superlatives of forma, and we recognize Modern Engl. former and foremost in forma and formesta. The root of all them is fore-, as in Modern Engl. forefather. Today’s adjective foremost is really form-ost; it acquired its familiar pronunciation under the influence of most.

Æresta, too, has a recognizable root, even though today we need some effort to detect it in the archaic ere “before” (from ær), early, that is, ear-ly, and erst(while). (Isn’t it ridiculous that we spell early and erst differently, though they have the same root and the same pronunciation? To be sure, ere and ear are also spelled differently, but they were also different a thousand years ago.) One views with a feeling akin to wonderment the efforts of the Anglo-Saxons to drive a wedge between “one” and “first.” In English, first eventually supplanted its competitors, the more so as not all of them occurred in the same dialects and at least some could have disappeared in peace. Alejandro Casona once (that is, long ago, in 1949) wrote a play titled Los árboles mueren de pie (“Trees Die Standing”). Words die in the same heroic way.

The other languages offer no surprises. Old High German had ein “one” and ēristo ~ furisto “first.” It is only curious that the later norm chose first for English and erst– for German. But furisto did not quite drop out of German. We know it as the noun Fürst “prince.” Incidentally, prince traces to Latin princeps, and it is possible that Fürst came to mean what it does under the influence of the Latin word. Gothic was recorded in the fourth century; the pair we need sounded in it as ains ~ fruma. In Old English, fruma was a noun and meant “beginning, origin.” It had many cognates that do not interest us at the moment.

In Old Germanic, the first four numerals (one, two, three, and four) were declined and had different forms for the masculine, feminine, and neuter (naturally, two, three, and four only in the plural). The system has continued into Modern Icelandic. That is why foreigners trying to go shopping in Iceland and pretending to speak Icelandic are advised to buy five specimens of what they need, for they may not know the gender of the noun following the numeral of their choice. Providentially, the word for “five” is the same for all three genders. The same holds for the other numerals.

The Old English for “two” was twegen, pronounced as twayen (masc., of which the modern reflex is twain), and twā for the other two genders. Modern Engl. two is the continuation of twā. Their Old High German counterparts were zwene (m.), zwei (n.), and zwa ~ zwo (f.).  Zwei is the modern form (the reflex of the neuter, as is Engl. two). Zwo also exists but has the status of a poor relative. I won’t discuss it here but will note why the neuter form prevailed in both languages.

It has been pointed out above that some numerals had three genders. No problem arose when people spoke about two, three, or four boys, bulls, etc., as opposed to the same number of girls and cows. The same usage determined the pronoun they. But in referring to mixed company (for instance, three men and two women or even many men and one woman) the Germanic speakers used the neuter (a most rational solution). The same rule prevailed for inanimate objects: the generalizing pronoun was the neuter. Consequently, the neuter plural had the best chance of survival.

The ordinal numeral for “second” had two forms in Old English: ōðer (read ð as th in this), easily recognizable as Modern Engl. other, and æftera (with long æ), more or less corresponding to the modern form after (-ter is the suffix of the comparative degree). It is curious to watch how language clings to its suppletive forms instead of making life easier. The Old English form was lost or rather superseded in the thirteenth century by its Old French synonym, and, as a result, we still have suppletion: two versus second. The story about how such a minute unit of time as one minute acquired its name and how its sixtieth part came to be called second deserves a special story.

Numerals are tough words for an etymologist. Those interested in the origin of six and hundred will find some musings on this subject in the posts for 12 and 19 July 2017.

Last week, I quite forgot about New-Year predictions. Here is one that will certainly warm the cockles of your heart in this cold weather. In 2018, the Oxford Etymologist will discover the origin of the word twaddle.

Featured image: While shopping in Iceland, buy five of everything if speaking Icelandic to avoid gender confusion. Image credit: “Little Shop on the Corner” by Les Williams. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr