I first wrote about the Philologos column of the Forward back in 2004, and once again they’ve come up with a nice bit of language history worth sharing in Recounting a Tale of Counting and Telling. It takes off from the quoted observation that Hebrew “sefer, ‘writing,’ ‘document,’ ‘book,’ and sofer, ‘scribe,’ ‘enumerator,’ ‘secretary,’ derive from one and the same verbal root s-f-r, meaning ‘to count, ‘to number,’ ‘to report,’ and ‘to recount,’” and goes on to “comment on the interesting fact that a verbal relationship between counting and narrating is not limited to Hebrew”:
Such a linkage exists in English, too — and not only in “count” and “recount,” two words mentioned by Labuschagne. We also find it in the verb “to tell,” which has the second, now archaic meaning of “to count,” as in a phrase like “to tell [the beads on] a rosary.”
Nor is English the only language that resembles Hebrew in this respect. German has zahlen, “to count,” and erzahlen, “to tell”; in Dutch this is tellen and vertellen; in Danish, taelle and fortaelle. All these languages belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family — but a “count-tell” relationship is not restricted to it. In the Romance family of Indo-European, we encounter the same thing. In French, for example, compter is “to count,” and conter is “to tell” or “to relate.” In Italian it’s contare and reccontare. In Spanish a single verb, contar, means both “to count” and “to tell,” so that cuenta is a numerical reckoning or a bill, and cuento is a story.
[…] Let’s start with the Hebrew root s-f-r. “He counted” in Hebrew is “hu safar,” while “he told” is “hu sipper,” using the pi’el construction. Both are related to the Akkadian (old Babylonian) verb shaparu, whose original meaning was “to send,” but which in time came to mean “to send a letter,” and eventually, “to tell” or “to relate,” since this is what letters often do. The root has like meanings in other Semitic languages, but only in Hebrew did it take on the additional meaning of “to count,” which was clearly a later development.
In the Romance languages, on the other hand, the process was reversed. In classical Latin, computare — the source of our English “compute” — originally meant only “to count” or “to do sums.” Not until Late Latin, from which the various Romance languages evolved, did it take on the sense of “to relate.” Yet classical Latin had its own “count” — “tell” pair in enumerare, a verb that derived from numerus, “number” but also had the sense of “to narrate.”
And now for our third case: Old English tellan, the ancestor of our modern “to tell.” Its oldest meaning was “to count,” as it was in other Germanic languages, which later added the meaning of “to relate” with the help of prefixes like German –er and Dutch ver-. In addition, however, tellan in Old English also meant “to put [something] in order.” And that, of course, is the link between counting and telling. To count is to put numbers in their proper order, and to tell a story or relate an incident is to put events in their proper order, first things first and last things last. This is why the two things are associated in so many languages, including Hebrew.
Commenters point out that in Slavic, the root chit– means both ‘count’ (cf. Russian число < *chit-slo ‘number’) and ‘read’ (cf. Russian читать ‘to read’); it’s related to Sanskrit cit– ‘perceive, take note of’ (related to ketas ‘thought’). Thanks for the link, Paul!