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The cardinal "a half" is unrelated to "two", whereas "a third", "a quarter" (and certainly "a fourth"), etc. are related to "three", "four", etc. This seems to be true in other languages, too, in various language families:

  • Portuguese metade but quarto;
  • German Hälfte but Viertel;
  • Scottish leth but cairteal;
  • Hebrew חצי but רבע;
  • Hungarian fél but negyed.

Two questions:

  • How universal is this?
  • If it is pretty universal, then why? Why are words meaning "a half" different from the rest?
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Interesting question! My guess is that this irregularity is an instance of suppletion, caused, as usual, by the high frequency of use. The word for "half" is more frequently used than the words for the other fractions numbers. – Otavio Macedo Oct 30 '11 at 22:07
Why didn't you make this an answer? – kaleissin Oct 31 '11 at 7:42
I'd think you'd find that words meaning "half" is a lot older than the names the other fractions (which are usually derived from the fraction). I'd guess that "half" in different languages comes from "a part of" or "divided" as oposed to "whole"; and the meaning 1/2 is fairly modern. – Stein G. Strindhaug Oct 31 '11 at 14:22
Is "half" a word included in Swadesh lists? Is it known how freely it is subject to borrowing/replacement? Does it correlate pretty highly between related languages? – hippietrail Nov 1 '11 at 10:33
Good question, it is even impossible to say "one second" as an alternative. – Phira Nov 2 '11 at 1:12
up vote 7 down vote accepted

As I suspected, this is indeed a case of suppletion, a term defined by A Glossary of Historical Linguistics as

The use of two or more originally unconnected forms (roots, stems) in the inflection of a single lexical item, for example, go/went, where originally went was not part of the tenses of ‘to go’ but rather was the past tense of wend, which was taken over as the past of ‘to go’ and incorporated into its inflectional paradigm.

Examining your examples:

  • Portuguese metade is cognate to meio, from Latin medius, ultimately from PIE *medʰyo- (‘between’). Analogously for other Romance languages.

  • German Hälfte comes from Proto-Germanic *halbaz, which is connected with the Indo-European root *(s)kel- ('to split'). Analogously for other Germanic languages.

  • Scottish leth comes from Old Irish leth, (‘side’). Analogously for other Goidelic languages.

  • Hebrew חצי is derived from the root חצה ('to divide').

  • Hungarian fél comes from Proto-Uralic pälä ('side'). Analogously for other Uralic languages.

Accorging to Fisiak, this is the same process that caused the irregularity onefirst, twosecond in several languages. Since the word for half (as the words for first, second and third) is much more frequently used than the words for other fractions, it tends to maintain its irregularity over time. Another source of this irregularity is that children do not learn to count as onefirst, twosecond, etc. Instead, they learn the ordinal and cardinal sequences separately. This is probably what happens to the fraction numbers as well, which constitutes another barrier to regularization.

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