Really just a curiosity, but I've been unable to find such a thing on my own...

I figure something as simple as a word for the thing you count with should exist in any language which has terms for counting. It's definitely possible we had no such thing ourselves, and had to borrow the term.

My knowledge of other Germanic languages (Icelandic, Faroese, and Dutch mostly) only includes cognates of "number". If we were using a Germanic word before, does anyone know what it was?

  • 2
    Do you mean something like Zahl or Ziffer ?
    – mplungjan
    Jun 4, 2015 at 6:29
  • 1
    @mplongjan: The cognate of Ziffer is cipher, but its origin is not Germanic, it's ultimately Arabic. Jun 4, 2015 at 12:27
  • 2
    @Carl Smith: I have no idea what the conceptual distinction between nothing and zero would be, and I'm a mathematical logician. I very much doubt that this is required to develop a word for number in the sense of the question that was asked here. I think it's a pretty safe bet that anyone who spoke a language that could reasonably be called Germanic already had methods for recording numbers, though there may have been many for the different things typically being counted. This makes a word for numbers almost a necessity.
    – user86291
    Jun 4, 2015 at 18:26
  • 1
    The conceptual difference lies in nothing being the lowest amount you can have; no amount can be less than nothing. Zero is just a number, like -1 is just a number, on an infinite line. If you replace the absence of something (a null value) with 0, you'll mess up even basic arithmetic, like finding a mean. The OP makes it clear that they believe "something as simple as a word for the thing you count with should exist in any language with counting", which is overly simplistic. A word meaning amount should exist, but a word meaning number would not.
    – Carl Smith
    Jun 4, 2015 at 18:39
  • 1
    @CarlSmith I fully understand the semantic difference between null (often used for an unitialized value) and 0; I've been programming for about 12 years now, and that part is extremely clear to me. What I'm not clear about, is how “amount" (literally to “go up”) means only the initialized values, while “number” means all values initialized or otherwise.
    – user109820
    Jun 4, 2015 at 23:10

2 Answers 2


I think the word that English used before borrowing number from Latin/French was probably tale. I couldn't confirm this directly with etymological online sources, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence.

German Zahl, Dutch getal and Danish tal together with German/Dutch/Danish Anzahl/aantaal/antal and Nummer/nummer/nummer cover most or perhaps all uses of English number. Zahl/getal/tal is the most basic meaning; the other words can and must be used for certain special uses:

The number of numbers under 6 is five. Number 5.

Die Anzahl Zahlen unter 6 ist fünf. Nummer 5.

Het aantal getallen minder dan 6 is vijf. Nummer 5.

Antallet af tal under 6 er fem. Nummer 5.

The telling of a story is related to counting in that you say one event, or number, after another, in the correct order. That's why you can "recount" a story (or give an "account" of it), and that's why the words for counting and telling a story are related in the Germanic languages other than English.

I am counting my sheep. I am telling a story.

Ich zähle meine Schafe. Ich erzähle eine Geschichte.

Ik tel mijn schapen. Ik vertel een verhaal.

Jeg tæller mine får. Jeg fortæller en historie.

In English, the counting sense of tell has mostly been superseded by the story-telling sense and replaced by Latin words, but traces of it survive e.g. in tally as a synonym for reckoning or account and in teller as a word for someone for whom counting money (rather than telling stories) is part of the job description.

The etymonline articles on tell and tale are relevant. In particular, etymonline says this about tale:

The secondary Modern English sense of "number, numerical reckoning" (c. 1200) probably was the primary one in Germanic [...].

(I was a bit puzzled by what appears to be an implicit claim that tale has a numerical secondary sense in Modern English. But TimLymington cleared this up with a comment quoting Chambers with the archaic phrase "a tale of years".)

I don't know if this answers your question in the title with a yes or no because it's not entirely clear whether you are looking for a word in Proto-Germanic (which apparently would be talo) or for a modern English word of Germanic origin. The latter doesn't seem to exist because the number sense of the word tale itself was lost completely in English, in favour of number, unlike the other Germanic languages that evolved a differentiation of meaning between the cognates of tale and the cognates of number that essentially puts the former into a mathematical context and the latter into a numerical naming context.

  • Tale itself can mean 'number or reckoning (archaic)' according to Chambers, for example. 'Your tale of years' is your age, not your life history. Jun 4, 2015 at 16:35
  • @TimLymington: Thanks, I wasn't familiar with that phrase.
    – user86291
    Jun 4, 2015 at 16:36
  • 1
    Taal is Dutch for language. There are the common aantal (number: het aantal appels -> the number of appels) and the slightly archaic tal (in fixed expressions: tal van mensen -> a lot of people). Then there is getal, number as in "zes is een getal -> six is a number.
    – oerkelens
    Jun 4, 2015 at 16:46
  • @oerkens: Thanks for alerting me to this stupid mistake. I hope it's correct now after my latest edit. Thanks also for reminding me of the aantal sense, which I am also going to add now.
    – user86291
    Jun 4, 2015 at 18:00
  • Tale here describes a tally, which is only a number if you conceptualise it as being one. Prior to mathematics, a tally would be an amount, not a number. See my comment on the question.
    – Carl Smith
    Jun 4, 2015 at 18:16

Wiktionary says


Proto-Germanic *rīmą (“number, count, series”), from Proto-Indo-European *re(i)- (“to reason, count”). Akin to Old Frisian rīm, Old Saxon -rīm, Old High German rīm, Icelandic rím

1. a number, counting, reckoning, numeral; calendar
Rim miclade monna mægþe geond middan-geard — Cædmon’s Metrical Paraphrase sum; enumeration
2. sum; enumeration

Derived terms

  • gerīm n. — A number, computation, measurement, calendar, diary

  • rīman — to count, number; tell, enumerate, relate; account, esteem as

  • rīmāþ m. — oath by a number of persons
  • rīmbōc — calendar
  • rīmcræft m. — arithmetic; calendar
  • rīmcræftig — skilled in reckoning
  • rīmcræftiga m. — one skilful at figures
  • rīmgetæl, rīmgetel n. — number
  • rīmre m. — reckoner, calculator
  • rīmtæl n. — number
  • rīmtalu f. number

The word rhyme is derived from the OE rīm

... from Old French rime or ryme, which may be derived from Old Frankish *rīm, a Germanic term meaning "series, sequence" attested in Old English (Old English rīm meaning "enumeration, series, numeral") and Old High German rīm, ultimately cognate to Old Irish rím, Greek ἀριθμός arithmos "number". Alternatively, the Old French words may derive from Latin rhythmus, from Greek ῥυθμός (rhythmos, rhythm).

Source: Wikipedia

From the Anglo Saxon Dictionary (1921) the term getæl was used in Old English to mean a number.

enter image description hereenter image description here

and from the same source the entry for rīm

enter image description here

  • A while now reading quite a bit of Icelandic and I've never come across that word. If I can confirm the definition through other sources, this might fit very well.
    – user109820
    Jun 4, 2015 at 23:19
  • Everything I've found has this at least comming from Latin, possibly even Greek. Even your source states this. I'm looking for something not of Italic origin, which would exclude Latin.
    – user109820
    Jun 5, 2015 at 5:56
  • @PatrickKelly I believe it would be impossible to say with certainty if Proto-Germanic borrowed a Latin term or vice-versa. But for hypotheses sake, let us imagine that they did, once a "loanword" has been borrowed and used extensively, it becomes an integral part of that language, its original meaning and identity is no longer "foreign" to its speakers, for all intents and purposes it is fully assimilated.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 5, 2015 at 6:18
  • 2
    @PatrickKelly The Proto-Germanic word *rīmą- and its descendants are quite positively not from Latin, because the sound change whereby the -th- in the middle was lost didn’t happen until much later, in Old French. There are two different roots/developments: 1) PIE *sreu̯- ‘flow’ > Gk. ῥυθμός ‘rhyme/rhythm’ > Lat. rhythmus > Old French ri(t)me. 2) PIE *h₂rei̯H- ‘count, number’ > Gk. ἀριθμός ‘number’, but also PG *rīma- ‘number’, Old Irish rím ‘number’, Welsh rhif ‘number’. The two were quite distinct in most languages, except that Greek introduced the θ from [cont’d→] Jun 5, 2015 at 19:49
  • 1
    [→cont’d] one into the other (uncertain from which to which). But in Old French, they definitely had the inherited (from Latin) ri(t)me ‘rhythm/rhyme’, and very likely also a Frankish loan word rime ‘number, tally’, and if the t in ritme hadn’t been lost already, the closeness of those two words in both form and meaning definitely helped it along, so the words merged. From then on, Old French rime meaning ‘rhyme/rhythm’ spread to English, German, Scandiwegian, etc. But it’s a different word from the original Germanic one, basically identical, but with a different meaning. Jun 5, 2015 at 19:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.