At work, I spend a fair amount of time taking phone calls from French customers. This often entails writing down phone numbers. One particular range of numbers tends to drive me nuts: 70 through to 99.
Take the number 78 for instance.
Let’s have a look at how this is written/pronounced in other languages that I’ve more or less mastered:
- Dutch: achtenzeventig
- English: seventy eight
- Spanish: setenta y ocho
- German: achtundsiebzig
Pretty straightforward, right? A seventy and an eight or an eight and a seventy. Now for our French friends: they thought it would be better to conceive it thusly:
That’s a sixty, a ten and an eight. To write the number 78 you have to start at sixty, and then add 18. It’s the equivalent of saying “sixty ten eight”.
But wait! How about the number 97! Here, the number is broken down into quatre-vingt-dix sept. In English that translates to “four twenty ten seven”. Yes: the number 80 is composed of 2 numbers itself. Having established the 80, you then add 17 to that, and you’ve successfully processed 97 in your mind, and are now ready to write it down.
Except of course, at this point the person on the other end of the line has already rattled off the last number. Which was 94. Or 79.
The funny thing is that in the French language there are other perfectly legal ways of naming a number within the aforementioned range: septante (seventy) and nonante (ninety). Walloons (the french-speaking part of Belgium) use this.
But the French? Noooo. As the English refuse to drive on the right side of the road, so the French refuse to name numbers the way the rest of the world had envisioned it.
Now if you’ll excuse me: the phone is ringing…