While in English Romance languages and Germanic languages, the rendering of fractions usually corresponds to that of the ordinal numbers, i.e a fifth, and a sixth, a seventh, etc. ; it seems to me that conceptually, they are are a different entity.

To highlight this, in Germanic and Romance languages there seem to be a few exceptions peppered in the lower numbers: English ½= a half 2nd = second , ¼= quarter vs. 4th= fourth. Spanish: ⅓ = um tercio 3º = tercero .

All the texts I've read refer to the set of "half, third, quarter, fifth..." etc. as the "ordinal numbers" of a language. However, it seems to me they are a separate conceptual entity (innately; but also as demonstrated by the presence of the exceptions).

Is there a linguistic term for the set of these words in a language?

Are there any examples of languages which have a set of words (more than 2 or 3) for fractions that are different from both the ordinal number (e.g. "one third") or the cardinal (e.g. "one over three") numbers.

  • To helpful editors, linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/918/… is related, but not a duplicate.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 18:25
  • What is the referent of "these words" -- fractions? Fractions without etymological relation to their inverse integers? How does pronunciation relate to your question? Since you know of the word "half", what does the question "Does it always conform to to ordinal number" mean (the answer is "Obviously, no". E,g, what does "conform" mean, or "always"?
    – user6726
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 19:33
  • I have edited my question based on your comments, I hope it's clearer now. My academic background is not in linguistics, and I was misusing the word pronunciation, or at least using it in a non technical sense. The meaning I was trying to convey was "the morpheme for the concept of a fraction" rather than "what phonemes are used to render this".
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 21:43
  • All the texts I've read refer to the set of "half, third, quarter, fifth..." etc. as the "ordinal numbers" of a language. I doubt this is true, or if so all these texts are incorrect -- as you rightly point out, "ordinal numbers" refers to the set "first, second, third...", not to fractions.
    – TKR
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 23:36

4 Answers 4


I haven't encountered a special linguistic term for the denominator in fractions, and I'd be surprised at any linguistic work saying that "third, fourth, fifth" as used in fractions is an ordinal number -- it's the same (in form -- or pronunciation) as an ordinal number, but what a number "is" also involves its meaning.

In Swahili, there are special lexical items (like "half") for some fractions, from 1/2 to 1/6 (whereafter a general construction is used "__ part of N"). The lexicalized denominators (nusu, theluthi, robo, humusi, sudusu) are unrelated to the terms for cardinal numbers 2-6 (mbiri, tatu, nne, tano, sita). Ordinal numbers in Swahili are a regular grammatical transformation of cardinal numbers, except "first" is rendered as "beginning".

  • Theluthi, robo, humusi, sudusu are obviously borrowings from Arabic.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 7:12
  • Nusu is also obviously from Arabic نصف. Beats me what happened to the f.
    – user6726
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 17:53
  • @user6726. نص is common in Arabic dialects.
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 9:59
  • The Swahili cardinal numbers from 6 to 9 are also borrowed from Arabic. So it is wrong to say that they are "unrelated" to corresponding fractions, which are also taken from Arabic.
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 10:28
  • If you'd care to explain how sudus relates to sitta in Arabic, that would be enlightening. As for the rest of those numerals, I cannot imagine how nusu would relate to mbili (oops, I have an r/l issue in Swahili), or how robo would relate to nne. Maybe you didn't understand my sentence?
    – user6726
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 16:14

In Slavic languages the cardinals (единъ (1), дъва (2), трьѥ (3), пѧть (5), съто (100)... /masc (fem and neut are also possible)/); the fractions (половина (1/2), третина (1/3), пѧтина (1/5), сътотна (1/100) /only fem/) and the ordinals (пьрви (1th), вътори (2th), трети (3th), пѧти (5th), сътотни (100th) /masc (fem and neut are also possible)/) are all different... The fractions are sometimes called дроби = "partive" ie "fractional" numbers (I can't translate it exactly in English).


There are no general terms that I know of, other than "fractions" I suspect this is the sort of language trading peoples would invent. Who knows what metaphorical pathways there are for their creation. I doubt Pirahã has such language. With time these things become lexicalized and people forget the etymologies and histories.

In "European" languages I guess you expect them to be regular (and probably "feminine") as they are probably participles, or as Douglas Harper (etymonline.com) says quoting "Watkins:"

marking the accomplishment of the notion of the base

...That it is a result adjective or verb-thingy is not surprizing. In Turkish, for example, to split is "ikiye bölmek" to cut (in)to two. But also, you expect things below ten to be a bit irregular, due to (over)use. Also, arbitrary historical things related to cultural and religious metaphor.

English has another from of fractional speak: "one in four" "ten in one-hundred" And Spanish "uno de cada cuantro," "diez de cada cien" But this is not limited to the badly inbred European languages; Turkish has: "Dörtte bir",(one in four) "Yüzde on" (ten in 100) all marked with the locative.

Turkish also has two lexicalized words like "half" of English or "mitad" of Spanish: Yarım (half) & Çeyrek (quarter). "Yarım" is a verbal element from another 'to cut' verb (think something like: cutted)- a result noun. "Çeyrek" comes from Farsi and is composed of familiar Indo-European elements چار يك VERY literally: four in one.

The other form in Turkish is verbal 1/4 bir bölü dört approx.: '1 divided 4'. The noun "bölü" is one of the modern Turkish derivatives of "bölmek" which I mentioned before. In Ottoman Turkish they used the Arabic تقسيم Taksim

Turkish also has regular (in form) ordinal suffix (In Modern Turkish almost everything can be an ending), but I do not know its history and it is NOT used in fractions (I learned this the natural way by making a fool of myself early in my learning experience).

In short, the ways and language used to describe a fraction of a whole changes from langauge to language as can be seen from this completelt unrepresentative of the 7000-9000 human languages around today. ....Three seven-thousands at best.

  • I have now had the experience of learning a bit of Tagalog in Manila. Sure enough, in Tagalog (a super trade language) has the structure numerator-denominator. So a fifth is literally isapito(ng) which means one five (in one word). Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 9:02

In Arabic the ordinal numbers (third, fourth, fifth…) are thālith, rābiʽ, khāmis etc. The corresponding fractions are formed form the same roots, but a different pattern: thulth, rubʽ, khums etc. Similarly in other Semitic languages.

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