What is non-borrowed native English word meaning "calculate", "compute", "count"? What was the word for these things in Old English?

  • 17
    If by "non-borrowed" you mean 'not derived from any other language' then clearly there is no such thing. If you mean 'from a Germanic rather than Romance root' you should use less misleading language. Apr 22, 2017 at 21:00
  • 45
    Nothing in English is "borrowed". We stole it all fair and square and will not be giving it back.
    – kbro
    Apr 22, 2017 at 22:36
  • 9
    No, they aren't. They were borrowed, maybe, a long time ago, but they've long gone native. They have perfectly cromulent English morphology, phonology, spelling, etc. They are no more and no less “borrowed from Latin” than a word like reckon is “borrowed from German”. Apr 22, 2017 at 23:35
  • 7
    Old English has been dead and gone for almost a thousand years. It's fine to ask for a word in Old English, but you cannot say that English somehow “borrowed” words like calculate, compute, and count from Latin or French; it never did. The streams of Norse and Norman French flowed into what we now read and speak sans borrowings. Make no mistake: English does indeed borrow words from other tongues, but the ones you have named are not amongst these. Rather, look if you will to the likes of naïve façade for words truly lent and borrowed—but for one, the only such you’ll’ve read in this.
    – tchrist
    Apr 23, 2017 at 3:34
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    @tchrist If words from a different language (Norman French in this case) flowed into English sans borrowings, how exactly would you say they did flow in? Appropriating a word from a different language into your own and beginning to use it as part of your own language is precisely what a borrowing is. Count is as much a borrowing as naïve and façade are; they were just borrowed at different times. Apr 23, 2017 at 15:59

3 Answers 3


Reckon comes from the Old English recenian, meaning “to pay, arrange, dispose, reckon”.

  • How is this better than Josh's ''Tellan''? All those meanings aren't about calculation? ''Pay'' is to give something to someone else, ''arrange'' is like sorting, ''dispose''... No relation to counting... and ''reckon'' is for any kind of deduction?
    – Malady
    Apr 24, 2017 at 2:33
  • @Malandy: To pay is to count out money. Definitely an etymological relation. Apr 24, 2017 at 2:51
  • Yes... But, that's 1/4 meanings, in contrast to "Tellan", where "count" is directly one of the meanings, while "tell", which can be connected to "teller", is the second one... Although, that has a bit of distance, as "telling" is any relating of information... But there's "telling the time"... And "Bank Tellers" were brought up...
    – Malady
    Apr 24, 2017 at 3:22
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    While Malandy is going crazy with rage that two answers are posted, it could be worth pointing out that this is the word used in Germany and the Scandinavian languages for all the words in the question: calculate, compute, count. Rechnen, räkna, regne, etc.
    – pipe
    Apr 24, 2017 at 4:48
  • 1
    @Malandy: There are plenty of phrases in which "reckon" clearly has the meaning "count" or "calculate", e.g. "in the final reckoning", "ready reckoner", etc...
    – psmears
    Apr 24, 2017 at 10:19

Tellan was a an Old English term meaning:

  • to count
  • to tell



  • to tell reckon count number compute calculate account estimate consider think esteem believe charge against impute to assign state recount enumerate announce relate ~ gelíc compare.


  • 7
    I'd always thought that the verb tally was related to this one, but it appears instead to have come down via Latin talea (like in Italian) via Medieval French, and not be cognate back in Proto-Germanic or Proto-Indoeuropean as far as I can tell.
    – tchrist
    Apr 22, 2017 at 13:35
  • 12
    @tchrist: on the other hand, teller is related, and for bank tellers, retains the original meaning of (approximately) "one who counts". Apr 22, 2017 at 13:37
  • "Tell me how many of these things there are" Is all from Germanic... 'Think there's no word that came down to us with the meanings of "calculate" and "compute" as they are today, or human computers... A guess of the word if there were no Latin-German mix, like this... (Thanks, Bobson...) A likely root is tellan, I suppose.
    – Malady
    Apr 24, 2017 at 2:44

The Old English roots for "number" were both "rim" and "tæl"/"talu" (as can be seen by entering "number" and translating to Old English here).

Using that as a starting point,

tally: (v) calculate the total number of;

reckon: (v) establish by counting or calculation; calculate.

To see that the etymology of tally goes back to the Old English, consider words zala/zahl.

Zahl in modern German means "a number".
Zala meant "number" in the Old High German.

The fact that t/s sounds can be viewed as interchangeable and one can become permanently transitioned into the other can be seen from the Hebrew Tav/Sav. Modern Hebrew dispensed with Sav altogether and uses Tav both where Tav and Sav used to be.

Officially, "tally" is considered to have entered English in the mid-English by the way of "cutting"->"entering notches"->"counting". But the fact that its sound is so similar to "talu" seems too coincidental.

"reckon" came in as a variation on "rim".

  • 11
    No, English is not a mixture of German and French. English is a Germanic language, but it is not in any way German (at the stage when the ancestral forms of English and German were close enough to be the same language, there was no such thing as neither ‘English’ nor ‘German’), and being a Germanic language, it is certainly not French. Loan words are a complex matter, but words that make their way into one language through another is pretty much the most basic definition of what a borrowing is. Apr 23, 2017 at 15:56
  • 3
    "tally" is a loanword.
    – herisson
    Apr 24, 2017 at 8:33
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    @grovkin: Anixx's phrasing of the question (What was the word for these things in Old English?) implies that he is using a historical definition of "loanword" or "borrowing", not a contemporary one. All words from French are in fact considered to be loanwords in English from the perspective of historical linguistics. They can't be used as data points for the reconstruction of Proto-Germanic or Proto-Indo-European, the ancestors of English and Old English.
    – herisson
    Sep 14, 2017 at 21:10
  • 1
    I hope you'll agree that the consensus of historical linguists is that "Old English" was a Germanic language. If you disagree, please explain. The question asks about a word for "calculate", "compute", "count" that existed in Old English. I don't think this answer satisfies that criterion.
    – herisson
    Sep 14, 2017 at 21:21
  • 2
    The actual question talks about Old English. Disagreeing with the underlying basis of the question doesn't make it unanswerable. I don't think it's helpful to provide an answer that goes against one of the explicit criteria of the original question. The question is not primarily about the definition of "borrowing" or the ancestry of Middle English. Anyway, I think we both understand each other's viewpoints as much as we ever will, and it doesn't look like we're going to come to an agreement.
    – herisson
    Sep 14, 2017 at 21:46

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