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
  • Why did it fall out of use? It's tedious. A better question is why it got started, and one might surmise that the "canonical order" for rattling off numbers was not so well developed at one time. – Hot Licks Aug 16 '15 at 13:57
  • Related question on german.stackexchange: german.stackexchange.com/questions/5009/… – Jonas May 4 '16 at 7:27

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].

  • The Cahill et al link is broken. – March Ho Aug 16 '15 at 13:38

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.


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

  • Threescore and ten ("score" being 20, that makes 70, which is one's allotted lifespan)
  • Four and twenty (as in blackbirds)
  • 'Four score and seven years ago' (Gettysburg Address)

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
  • @Mynamite, I confirm that's it alive and well, even in London. A colleague in his 50s, born and raised in north London, still says "five and twenty past five". He claims it's a family habit copied from recent ancestors from rural Northamptonshire [not too far from Cambridge]. – David Garner Nov 20 '15 at 11:16
  • @DavidGarner It was used extensively, including by me, when I was a boy in Norfolk, in the 1950s. But I don't think the practice was restricted to East Anglia. My friend from Northern Ireland also recalls it from the same period. – WS2 Aug 20 '17 at 12:01

Google Ngrams for 24, 25, 26 and 27 appear to show the same trend, with the German-like numerical expressions declining since 1800, but generally significantly in the region around 1940. All of them have retained a nontrivial amount of use into the modern era, however.

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In Breton it is the usual way to count

For example : 31 = "unan ha tregont" 62 = "daou ha tri ugent" two and three twenty


There are some reasons to believe that this English construction can be ascribed to the influence of Celtic Languages with which English has been in contact for the last 1500 years.

  • Could you provide some evidence for the claim in your last sentence, please. It's an interesting idea, but needs some back up. – Margana Aug 25 '15 at 21:34
  • This doesn't seem to answer the question. When did what the question calls "Germanic-style" numbers fall out of use? – David Richerby Aug 25 '15 at 23:28
  • You can find more information here wanda.uef.fi/ecc/index.html – Gwenael HENRY Aug 27 '15 at 6:15
  • @David - "Germanic-style" or "Celtic-style" to answer the question you may have to resolve this problem before. – Gwenael HENRY Aug 27 '15 at 6:31

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