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Naming Small Numbers

Date: 07/29/2002 at 13:45:07
From: Aaron Silber
Subject: Why are the numbers called what they are?

Here's the question:

Why is "one" named "one," and why is "two" named "two," and
why is "three" named "three"?


Date: 07/29/2002 at 17:02:46
From: Doctor Peterson
Subject: Re: Why are the numbers called what they are?

Hi, Aaron.

That's not an easy question to answer! You could ask the same thing 
about any word in our language: why is a dog called a dog? You could 
also ask your parents why you are called Aaron. In that case you can 
at least find out who chose the name, but even then you might not get 
a complete answer as to why. In general, words and names are what 
they are just because someone chose to use some word in the first 
place, and others have gradually changed it since then.

Here is a very unsatisfying answer in the Dr. Math archives that I 
gave to the same question once:

   Number Word Etymologies 

Here is another page I found about this (select: the topic English 
numbers, Etymology of): 

What these say is that you can look back in history to before there 
was an English language at all (and before anything was written down, 
so all we can really do is to guess at how words might have been 
said), and you will find the ancestors of the words we use for 
numbers today. You can see some family resemblances, even though the 
language was very different. For example, what we call "one" today 
was apparently pronounced in early English something like the name 
"Anna" (and is related to our word "a" or "an"), and came from a much 
earlier word that we might write as "oynos." All you can see in there 
from our "one" is the "n." Our "two" was pronounced "twa," with a 
real "w" sound, in early English, and something like "duo" in the 
great-great grandfather of English. Can you see how those are related?

So the answer is that we have no idea how the words we use for 
numbers were originally chosen, because they go back before there is 
any record of the language. Some of the words have hardly changed 
(like "three"); some have changed their pronunciation, but the 
spelling shows how they used to be said (like "two"); and others have 
changed a lot more (like "four," which in early English was "feower," 
but started out as "kwetwores."

If you have any more questions, feel free to write back.

- Doctor Peterson, The Math Forum 
Associated Topics:
Elementary Math History/Biography
High School History/Biography
Middle School History/Biography

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