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the case for simple numbers

modern languages are contingent fucked-up messes of historically-motivated arcane idiocy that must be stripped and upgraded to make them functional in a post-religion, post-uneducated world or we are destined to continue to wallow in the mindless communication quagmires of the past, something most people seem more than happy to do. this is not a question of europe against asia, though, as many things in language are, asian languages tending to have significant advantages in modernization by eliminating many of the useless wastes of energy and time present in european languages (gender, agreement, subject-dependent conjugation, sometimes even tense). the question here is about numbers. i suspect there is no other segment of modern language that is so historically-confused. european languages generally have one problem while asian languages have a similar yet distinct one. let’s take a look at three representative languages from each group and how they deal with numbers — extremely badly in all six cases — and how this could be (easily) fixed if people were a bit more intelligent about it. the languages in question are modern and commonly-spoken, avoiding problems of tokenism or extremes selected to make these problems easy to ridicule — english, french and german on the european side and chinese, japanese and korean on the asian.

european languages have a multisystem problem — they use different numbers for counting or math from those for ordering. asian languages have two related issues — some use different counting systems for different things (japanese native numbers compared to sino-japanese numbers, korean native sometimes but sino-korean other times) but the larger issue is the use of counters, often counters that change the number they’re attached to. we’ll start with the european problem because it’s somewhat more fundamental to numeric idiocy and overengineering then look at the asian issues separately.

here is an example sentence — “i was there three days before the race to practice but came third”. in french, that’s “j’étais là trois jours avant la course pour m’entraîner mais je suis arrivé troisième” while in german it’s “ich war drei tage vor dem rennen dort um zu ueben und wurde dritter”. there are other possible translations in these languages but these are generally literal and grammatically passable — they illustrate the problem perfectly well and there’s no need to worry about them not being the best possible ways to say them as that’s irrelevant to the point.

the key words here are “three” and “third”, “trois” and “troisième” and “drei” and “dritter”. the first question is why they’re different. the second question is why they’re still different today. the third, most important question is what’s a better approach.

  • one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
  • first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth.

the answer to the first is a simple issue of history. this is perhaps better-illustrated when looking at english’ complete set from one to ten.

one/two and first/second are the most egregious examples of anachronistic idiocy. what’s the relationship between “one” and “first”? well, simply put, “one” comes from french (“one” in modern french is “un” or “une”) while “first” derives from german (“erste” among other things depending on case, another silly linguistic holdover from the past mostly found in european languages). please understand this isn’t a judgment of the speakers of these languages — or even the languages themselves. this is a comment about the usefulness (in this case the absent usefulness) of a particular aspect of languages and it’s not one in particular but that many share this trait and should all lose it.

french doesn’t rely on historical borrowing from german for its difference between “un” and “premier” but the issue is much the same as it borrowed one from one place and the other from another and for no particularly good reason kept both instead of picking one — by the way, it borrowed both from latin and they just come from different origins within the same language, unlike english’ borrowing from two locations, though the result is maddeningly similar. you don’t have to speak a language that’s a confused mashup of other languages (english = french + german, approximately) to have this happen, just have a language that’s evolved in the popular world over time (french = latin + latin + latin + the great unwashed + time).

why is this still done? that question is even simpler. nobody bothered to fix it. much like almost all other historical aspects of language that serve no purpose other than to make it confusing and difficult to learn for children and adults alike (capitalization, nonphonetic spelling, subject agreement, etc), this is not a matter of there having been a good reason and nobody remembers what it is. it’s a matter of there being no reason in the first place, an accidental inclusion and historical inertia (also referred to as tradition) propping up a useless practice to the point everyone would feel so stupid abandoning it after throwing so much good time after bad learning it, they feel the need to pass on their traumatic educational experience to the next generation just to make sure their investment wasn’t in vain. it’s like knowing the deck is marked but continuing to play because you’re sure the house can’t always win and you’ve lost so much already. in our linguistic casino, i guarantee you, the house really will eat all your time, money and effort unless you stage a revolt and modernize by force. historical language traits have more momentum than republican lies in an arkansas swamp. and they need to be stomped out the same way — brute force and the summary elimination of popular freedom.

how do we fix it? we just stop using different words. “i was there three days before the race to practice but came three.” (replacing “troisième” with “trois” and “dritter” with “drei” would have the same effect in french and german.) there’s no complexity to learn and nothing to really get used to because they’re the same words we’re already using for other things. we just completely eliminate ordinal numbers from the language and everything becomes easier. i ran a race and came one. this was the two item in the list. easy. problem solved. now we just have to get people to do it across all european languages and simplicity has won against tradition and idiocy.

asian languages’ problems are a little more complex but just as easy to solve. in japanese, the most obvious example can be summarized by comparing the pronunciation of “one” and “person” with that of “one person” (“一” + “人” = “一人”). these are, in order, “ichi”, “hito” and “hitori”. i know what you’re thinking if you’re not a japanese speaker. “hitori”? what the actual fuck is that? well, it means “one person”. and there’s absolutely no reason for this. korean does much the same thing. “한” + “사람“ = “혼자”, which is a bit more pronunciationally sensible but still more complex than it needs to be. this comes down to an issue that was originally developed as an overengineered solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist when chinese was a much younger language and can be seen very clearly in this example — “一” + “人” = “一个人”. where exactly is that “个” coming from? what’s its purpose? well, it’s to tell you that the one is one person. that the thing you’re counting is a person. which, of course, you already know because the “人” tells you it’s a person. there are certainly reasons why this became a common way of dealing with counting objects but none actually pass the test of “is it necessary for comprehension?” — from an age when beauty and perfection of written language trumped streamlined and efficient communication and most people had all the time in the world to learn the language in all its quirky, traditional glory, this wasn’t really an issue. in a world where everyone needs to be able to communicate in multiple languages just to deal with daily life (if you don’t speak at least english and mandarin, you’re at a distinct advantage dealing with international issues and a few other european and asian languages would be useful in so many situations), this tedious ridiculousness has to go.

we can fix this by simply using one set of numbers for everything — the set that already exists. of course, this is only one of two problems with numbers in asian languages, though chinese doesn’t have the other problem — it adds “第” to the beginning of any standard number to show it’s used for order and that, while unnecessary, is at least simple and no real cause for change. japanese and korea, however, our other two sample languages, absolutely do and they don’t even implement the issue in the same manner. the problem is that there are two numbering systems. a native numbering system (pure japanese or korean) and a chinese-derived numbering system (sino-japanese and sino-korean). this means “one” can become “ichi” (sino-japanese) or “hitotsu” (pure-japanese) — yes, i know that means “one thing” but the point is that it’s not “ichitsu” and those pure numbers are rarely found in isolation. in korean, “il” can quickly be transformed to “hana” (also “han” but that’s a story for another day).

this issue exists for exactly the same reason as the “first”/“one” and “premier”/“un” silliness in english and french. it’s history determining language by not allowing people to break with the past just because it’s unnecessary in the present. there were two sets of competing numbers, often used interchangeably in these languages, depending on region and dialect. when the languages standardized, one became standard for some uses while the other remained for the rest.

the solution to this one is the one you are probable imagining. upgrade the language by eliminating one set of numbers. which one to eliminate? i’d eliminate the non-counting ones because that is the more complex set in both cases. numbers beginning with “ichi” and “il” could easily be used for all purposes — counting, numbering, ordering, etc. this complexity just confuses people (and don’t even explore how months or days are counted in these languages unless you’re desperately seeking to reach your headache quota for the year in a single morning).

to simplify, then. european and asian languages both have overengineered solutions to problems with numbers that never existed in the first place. these non-solutions have been propagated for centuries without being removed, despite not being helpful to anyone and hurting millions of learners every day. we can fix this problem. you, too, can prevent forest fires. and linguistic hypercomplexity. standardization and modernization are key to making language accessible to more speakers — and you want everyone to speak your language, right? let’s stop making it harder on them just because it’s what you (and i) had to learn. there are vast numbers of silly historical traits left in modern languages. this, however, may be the most fundamentally-useless of them. subject-agreement and tense at least had reasons to exist, though they don’t have good reasons anymore. capitalization and inverted grammar (two particularly egregious examples of english being both outdated and overly-complex for no particular purpose) were at least introduced for reasons — those reasons are primarily religious and racist but at least we know what they were for. this, however, was added to the language as a mistake. so let’s correct it and move on.