# Why do we pronounce the numerals from 13 to 19 backwards (as in thir[3]-teen[10])?

In counting, languages typically go one direction or the other. e.g., 1,234 is said "one thousand two hundred thirty four," not "four thirty two hundred one thousand." However, in English we say 13-19 in reverse, saying the ones ("thir") then the tens ("teen"). (In German this extends to 99.) Any idea why just this span of numbers is pronounced inconsistently with the rest?

• It's like that in most languages with decimal number systems. The first 7±2, the subitation numbers, are usually unique, then ten starts a strange decade, then 20 starts a regular decade, D.C. al Fine. There are exceptions, and odd morphology (like first, second, third), especially close to decade boundaries. Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 20:44
• The reverse form was once used much more. Consider "four and twenty blackbirds". Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 7:58
• This is a very good question for a first contributor. It really tries to understand the language in a granular level and drives us to find a reasoning from the history of the language. "Why" questions can be challenging sometimes as the language changes and there are many irregularities in English but we are here to discuss the finer details of the language. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 13:08

It comes from the old Germanic times where the Germanic tribes used numbers in that manner and the numbering system was carried through the history with some orthographic and phonological changes. At some point, they possibly counted and needed to count only up to ten (10) as they were primitive tribes and anything above ten was "more" for them. One or two more than ten were still counted as there are specific words for eleven and twelve as well. (they are based on the number ten also, you can check their etymology in this question asked before: Why do eleven and twelve get unique words and not end in "-teen"?)

In time, as they needed to count more numbers and they had a more clear conception of numbers, the subsequent number-forms arose by using the number ten as the base: 3 +10: thir-teen, 4 +10: four-teen, 5 +10: fif-teen etc.

The numerals 13-19 are formed with -teen which originates from an inflected form of ten suffixed to 3-9.

The etymology of -teen from Etymonline:

word-forming element making cardinal numbers from 13 to 19, meaning "ten more than," from Old English -tene, -tiene, from Proto-Germanic *tekhuniz (cognates: Old Saxon -tein, Dutch -tien, Old High German -zehan, German -zehn, Gothic -taihun), an inflected form of the root of ten; cognate with Latin -decim (source of Italian -dici, Spanish -ce, French -ze).

The OED has this note under the etymology of -teen:

In addition to the cardinal numerals ‘13’ to ‘19’ (all of which are inherited from Germanic), in the post-medieval period new formations are occasionally found, e.g. eleventeen n. (17th cent.) and umpteen adj. (20th cent.).

• So wrapping this up, first we had the Germanic "lif" suffix (ein-lif [11], zwo-lif [12]), but those words were abbreviated from frequent use into elf and zwölf. "lif" became "zehn," and brought us dreizehn - neunzehn (13-19). Then the rest of German until 99 consistently uses the "ones then tens" notation. But English strayed at some point and switched to "tens to ones" at 20-99. If this is correct, I wonder what the impetus was behind this apparently nonsensical change? Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 18:06
• @jphansen The suffix -ty is used for the decade numerals from 20 to 90 which is also based on ten (10) and represents "multiples of 10". As the numbers 20-99 are represented differently, they are different than -teen numbers. However, formerly, they were backwards in English too like "one and twenty", "two and twenty", etc. and I think some people still use it. Here is another similar and good question from German Stackexchange: Why are German numbers backwards? Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 21:37