Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Zut alors

I would like to file a complaint with l'Académie française about the French number system. If you don’t know what l'Académie is I can save you a trip to Wikipedia. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

The Académie consists of forty members, known as immortels (immortals). New members are elected by the members of the Académie itself. Académicians hold office for life, but they may be removed for misconduct. The body has the task of acting as an official authority on the language; it is charged with publishing an official dictionary of the language.

Sounds pretty serious, n’est-ce pas? Sort of like the Supreme Court in charge of the French language. I don’t think I’ll get far filing a complaint, being a mere mortal and an American to boot.

However I would like to point out to the immortals that perhaps no one has noticed before that the French number system is convoluted. For example, the French word for the number 99 (in English, simply and reasonably ninety-nine) is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf. Literally translated this is four-twenty-ten-nine or less literally, four times twenty plus nineteen. The number 60 has its own word—soixante, but after you get past 60 all hell breaks loose. There’s no word for 70—in French it’s 60 plus 10. There’s no word for 80—it’s four times 20. It’s not the vocabulary that throws me off. One has to do math to figure out what the number is in French. Not simply multiplication but a combination of multiplication and addition and you have to do it in the blink of an eye in another language. By the time I’ve figured out what the number is I could have been well into another conversation. And if someone tells me in French how much something costs I’ll have no idea what the real price is. Maybe it’s their way of keeping the non-native speakers confused.

How hard would it be for the French to have separate words for their numbers? I would like to propose to l'Académie that the French develop new words for the numbers 70, 80, and 90. Perhaps seventie, eightie, and ninetie? So the word for the number 99 in French would be ninetie-neuf. That I could understand.

I thank l'Académie française for considering my proposal. And when you consider it, please remember that we saved your derrières in World War II and it's the least you can do. You're welcome.

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