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19th century English texts occasionally use Germanic-style number words, such as "four-and-twenty", but the same text would also have the modern "twenty-four" in places (see e.g. Conan-Doyle for several examples).

How did the usage of germanic-style numbers change historically? When did the Germanic forms fall out of use?

(I have asked this question previously on Sprachlog (German) and got a short answer by A.Stefanowitsch, but would appreciate any additional input.)

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David, can you write here a translated summary of the referenced answer? (It's in German). –  b.roth Oct 11 '10 at 12:14

4 Answers 4

As requested, this is my summary translation of the answer by A.Stefanowitsch, the host of Sprachlog:

'seven-and-twenty years' corresponds to the original germanic pattern. In Old English this was the usual way of forming complex number words. The influence of Norman French brought in the modern form and displaced the original pattern, which survived until about 1700 [Weinstock 1999]. It has been suggested that the switch began with the high numbers and progressed downwards [Weinstock 1999], and an informal corpus analysis gave a first confirmation [Diller 2005, S. 105]. The original germanic form still survives in dialects, especially in references to age and time [Cahill und Gazdar 1997], which fits the examples in Sherlock Holmes.

CAHILL, Lynne und Gerald GAZDAR. 1997 A lexical analysis of numeral expressions in Dutch, English and German.

DILLER, Hans-Jürgen (2005) Rezension zu Weinstock 2003. Anglia -- Zeitschrift für englische Philologie 123.2, S. 104-106.

WEINSTOCK, Horst (1999) Historical and comparative aspects of numerals between twenty-one and twenty-nine. In Uwe Carls und Peter Lucko (Hgg.), Form, function and variation in English: Studies in honour of Klaus Hansen. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, S. 65–77. [Neuabdruck 2003 in Horst Weinstock, Kleine Schriften: Ausgewählte Studien zur alt-, mittel- und frühneuenglischen Sprache und Literatur. Heidelberg: Winter].

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Counting in scores is not strictly the same phenomenon as the units-before-tens count, but does seem to share some of the same "flavour". It appears in formal speech in, for instance, the Gettysburg Address ("Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth ...") and in the biblical "three score years and ten" noted by @Benjol).

In British literature of the interwar period (this post is too informal and time too short for me to investigate sources, but I'm thinking of the Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons as good prospects), both counting in scores and the one-and-twenty forms would seem to be noted as low-status rural dialect markers. Another literary instance, Poem XIII of AE Housman's A Shropshire Lad, "When I was one-and-twenty" (1896) is also rural in setting. Lincoln's use thirty years before was probably something of an archaic rhetorical flourish as well.

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It still survives in some well-worn expressions, mostly cultural heritage:

There are probably others (I'm leaving this answer open for additions)

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'There were four and twenty virgins, down from Inverness / And when the ball was over there were four and twenty less.' –  Barrie England Nov 11 '13 at 9:50

It hasn't completely fallen out of use (or at least, it hadn't twenty years ago). I had a colleague throughout the 80's who would habitually say 'five and twenty to' for times. He was probably in his 40's. (in Cambridge, the original one).

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My grandmother would also tell the time this way - "It's five and twenty past nine." She was born in Norfolk, not so far from Cambridge, and was born around 1883. –  Mynamite Oct 13 '13 at 20:01
Yes, but I'm talking about somebody sixty years younger than that. –  Colin Fine Oct 13 '13 at 21:53
I know - I think it's great it still continues! –  Mynamite Oct 14 '13 at 22:34

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