Is there a scientific/historic explanation for the reversed word order for numbers in some languages?

For example, while we have for 32:

  • in English: thirty two (tens units), Hebrew: shloshim weshtaim (tens units), the same in Russian, Spanish, Bulgarian (I am a native speaker), Italian, Turkish, French, etc.
  • on the other hand, we have in German: zwei und dreißig (units tens) and in Arabic: athnan wethlathun.

Maybe that structure exists in other languages too, but I am aware of these two.

I suppose that this is due to some local dialects which then evolved in the national language. But it would be interesting if someone knows how this evolved.

  • 2
    We have had this same question recently: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/17595/…
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 10:19
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    @fdb, not exactly the same; the OP asks about the reasons for this phenomenon, while the linked Q is about examples of such languages. Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 10:27
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    @bytebuster. The real problem is that there is no "reason" for this sort of thing.
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 10:33
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    @fdb, that would be the answer! :-) I searched the site thinking there must be similar questions asked before and I was surprised there were none. My inner Nostradamus tells me this question is a good candidate for Hot Network Questions. Let's see. Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 10:40
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    All the word orders are linear, they're just not all straightforwardly ascending or descending—USA-style dates are another example. Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 3:02

1 Answer 1


My guess would be that it has something to do with rhythm. When you have a couple or a triplet of words on the same level ("X and Y" or "X, Y and Z"), there is a tendency in Indo-European languages to put in the longest of the two/three at the end (this is actually very well attested in poetry).

The 10s numerals tend to be longer (as they are originally compound words or even univerbised phrases) than numbers from 1-10, this could lead to the words being switched if they are perceived to be on the same level somehow and not one dependent on the other ("40 and 5" and not "40 being the H and 5 being the D").

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