Obviously language changes, which is the reason why numbers have many different names in languages. Comparing the German "einundzwanzig" (one-and-twenty) with the English "twenty one" shows what I mean.

My question is about changes that happened naturally and without influence of another language. I got curious in this because, if math is offered in a public school, then a child gets to know the numbers by the name of their language. It gets ingrained into them and thus it doesn't make sense for an adult to suddenly change the word for a number and even less sense for a school to do the same.

Is there any language which has undergone such a change since the introduction of public schools?
If there are indeed such languages, how could they undergo such a change?

  • 1
    It is an established anecdote (:)) that no matter what travels you have over your life and what languages you learn and use on a day to day basis, numbers and swearing as you first learned them are the last things to go with dementia.
    – Mitch
    Sep 5, 2016 at 20:35

2 Answers 2


In many Bantu languages of Kenya and Tanzania, numbers are now changing, especially those above 10. For instance, the traditional number for "20" in Logoori is makʊmi gavɪrɪ (lit. 'two tens'), but that is being replaces with ishiriini, which historically derives from Swahili. The cause is the widespread expansion of Swahili and the main instrument of that expansion is via the public schools, where Swahili has become the medium of instruction very early on (policy and reality vary by time and location, but let's say after the first couple of years at most).

While there has been significant infiltration of Swahili vocabulary into local languages, higher numbers are especially vulnerable (it should be noted that the higher Swahili numerals themselves derived from Arabic). One of the reasons is that use of numbers above 10 has not been particularly common in day-to-day life, but they are essential to business and technological contexts. Since addition tables are taught in Swahili, it is predictable that one would tend to use Swahili numbers when calling on addition tables to add up the tab at a store.


In Norwegian language, the way of counting was changed recently (1951 by declaration of the Norwegian parliament) from a German-style system to an English-style system. See Zahlwörter (Wikipedia).

And in Germany, there are some vocal advocates for a similar planned language change, see Zwanzigeins.

  • +1 I admire the Scandinavian countries. They often go the right way instead of the way of least resistance. Sep 5, 2016 at 16:35
  • "In der gesprochenen Alltagssprache ist diese letztere Zählweise [the "German style"] allerdings auch heute noch weit verbreitet; die meisten Menschen gebrauchen wechselweise das eine oder das andere System."
    – fdb
    Sep 5, 2016 at 18:29
  • Government intervention in language matters is never successful.
    – fdb
    Sep 5, 2016 at 18:33
  • 1
    Except in Europe and China.
    – jlawler
    Sep 6, 2016 at 2:55

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