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Number five-and-twenty: A fading linguistic practice

Timeless: Cromer pier at sunrise. (Photo by: Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) - Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty

PETER TRUDGILL on a fading linguistic practice for describing numbers

For the first twenty or so years of my life, when I was telling the time I always said five-and-twenty past two rather than twenty-five past two, and I continued to use that type of formulation on at least some occasions for many years after that. My grandparents, all born in the 1880s, almost certainly never said anything else, and this was also the normal everyday way of telling the time for my parents. It is a pity, I now feel, that I was part of the first generation to abandon this centuries-old usage, though it is pleasing to know that there are still some people around who maintain it.

The reason I used to say five-and-twenty past two was of course that everybody else said it too. That was the way of telling the time which I learnt as a child, as I was acquiring the sort of English spoken around me by everybody who I normally came into contact with on a day-to-day basis in my Norfolk home.

But there was nothing particularly East Anglian about it: it was what many people used to say over more or less the whole of England.

One interesting thing about my earlier usage was that it was entirely confined to telling the time. No one ever said It’s five-and-twenty miles from here to Cromer.

That seems to be because this usage was a relic left over from a bygone age. For many hundreds of years, English speakers always used to put all units (not just five) before the tens when using numerals: four-and-thirty, seven-and-fifty, six-and-ninety – and not just for time-telling.

In the Old English language, twenty-four was feower-and-twentig. Shakespeare wrote of ‘five-and-thirty leagues’. Many people are aware of folk-song lines like ‘When I was one-and-twenty’; and most of us know the nursery rhyme with ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’.

This type of structure gradually died out, however, with the loss spreading slowly from one sphere of usage to another, until in the end time-telling was the last context where it survived, although in some areas it also lasted almost as long in expressions of age: she’s four-and-twenty years.

This units-tens order which has now almost disappeared from English, apart from the time-telling vestiges, was formerly the norm in all Germanic languages. The modern German for twenty-four is still vierundzwanzig, ‘four-and-twenty’; in Dutch it is vierentwintig; the West Frisian is fjouwerentweintich; and the Danish is fire-og-tyve. Swedish, however, has the tens-unit order, like modern English: tjugo-fyra.

The four-and-twenty way of counting is rather unusual in the languages of the world, and it is not maybe too surprising that it died out in English.

It is perhaps significant that when we write numbers, we put the tens before the units. People working in German report that when writing down numerals – for example an address given over the phone – there is a split-second delay: if a number in the four-and-twenty form is to be written down, you can’t start writing when you hear the four- but have to wait until the and-twenty comes along.

The Norwegian situation is more complicated: there, both orders occur. In 1951, the Norwegian government introduced an official plan to change the numerals over from the four-and-twenty system to the twenty-four type.

Their expectation was that, once it had been introduced in the schools and promoted elsewhere, the change would take only a few years to come into effect in the speech of the Norwegian people. But the older system, even if it is now much less used by younger people, is still alive and reasonably well, especially in informal speech, nine-and-sixty years later.