Ten, Hundred.

Anatoly Liberman is an etymologist whose style I often find confusing and off-putting, and in this OUPBlog post from last year I have a hard time figuring out what he’s saying. He’s discussing the etymology of hundred, and after his usual rambling introduction he gets to the heart of it:

In the remotest past, hund– must have meant “ten” rather than “hundred”; however, the picture is confusing. In Gothic, a Germanic language recorded in the fourth century, the word hunda (a neuter plural noun) means “a hundred” (like Latin centum). Yet taihun-tehund (read the digraph ai as English short e), either “ten-ten” or “tenth-ten,” depending on how we divide this word (not inconceivably, taihunte-hund), also existed and also meant “a hundred.” In Old English, we find similar words, for instance, hund-seofontig “seventy,” and wonder how hund “ten” and –tig, another word for “ten,” coexisted in one language and in one numeral. There can be only one answer. By the time of our recorded monuments (and Gothic predates the texts in Old English by more than three centuries), at least some of those compounds must have become so opaque (“disguised”) that the tautology was no longer heard. Let us keep in mind that Engl. ten goes back to Old Engl. tēn and further to some form like Gothic taihun. Since Germanic h corresponds to non-Germanic k, the pair taihun ~ Latin decem is perfect. With regard to ten, whose distant origin does not interest us at this moment, we have no problems.

The natural question arises whether hund– and ten, the alleged synonyms, can be related, and why have two words for “ten”? [Excursus on ablaut omitted.] Fortified with this information, we may look at hund– ~ cent and ten. In Germanic, the zero grade was usually filled by the vowel u. And this is exactly the vowel we find in hund-. Consequently, the initial stage of hund– was hnd– in an unstressed syllable. Germanic h corresponds to non-Germanic k, just as t corresponds to d (taihun ~ decem). […] Hund– (from hnd-) is a good match for cent(um), except that it has the zero grade, while centum has a so-called full grade. It appears that Indo-European did have two words for “ten.” In Germanic, they were represented by some forms like hnd– and tehn-.

Gothic hunda means ‘hundred.’ Latin centum means ‘hundred.’ Hundred means ‘hundred.’ Where is he getting this “two words for ‘ten’” thing? Can anyone make sense of this?


  1. Centum / hundred are thought to go back to a *dḱm̥tóm based on *deḱm̥ ’10’, but if that’s what Liberman means, he conceals it very well.

  2. If I understand his argument, the only relevant part seems to be that if taihun-tehund really means “hundred” and has to be parsed as “ten tens,” then not only would taihun mean “ten,” but so would the tehund part. What he is proposing seems to be that hund/tehund as a free-standing lexeme was moribund, and the word was eventually shortened to just hund without losing its meaning of “hundred.”

    The problem with this is that it requires the same development to have occurred not just in Germanic, but elsewhere. The “ten tens” word has to have the same developmental history not just in Germanic, where the first “ten” was dropped to give hund—but also in, e.g. Latin, where the first “ten” of the corresponding “ten tens” word was dropped to give cent-, also meaning “hundred.”

  3. Yeah, it seems convoluted and unconvincing.

  4. That’s just his 10¢.

  5. For my simple mind this seems rather roundabout (not that it never happens with language development). The simplest way it seems is to think that tehund = decum =10 and hund(red) = centum = 100. Tehund-tehund then means ten times ten, but hund- is not a shortened tehund, at least it didn’t happen in Gothic. Yes, there are two unanswered questions. One, why have two words for the same number (it happens, of course, but there might be an explanation) and two, why the word for 100 is shorter than for 10? I don’t see how Liberman answers any of those.

    Add to this hekaton and deka and I don’t see how hund- can mean 10. The word for ten should begin with d/t.

    P.S. Y wins the thread.

  6. Stephen Carlson says

    A lot seems to be riding on his hund-seofontig (70) example, where the apparent hund morpheme means 10 and not 100. But the Bosworth-Toller gives an alternate account for this element:

    hund- as a prefix to numerals from 70 to 120 is a shortened form of the word which appears, in Gothic as téhund, taihund [v. preceding word], and may be explained decade. O. Sax. prefixes ant [ = hund?], in O. Frs. the prefix is t, and a trace of such forms is yet left in the Modern Dutch t-achtig = 80. On these numerals March remarks ‘Gothic has sibun-téhund. The Anglo-Saxon form was once hund-seofonta [decade seventh], like O. Sax. ant-sibunta. The -ta changed to -tig through conformation with the smaller numbers, and hund-, whose meaning had faded, was retained as a sign of the second half of the great hundred.’ Grammar, p. 75. See also Helfenstein’s Comparative Grammar, p. 229. For the great hundred [120] cf. Icel. tólfrætt hundrað as distinguished from tírætt hundrað. See Cl. and Vig. Dict. hundrað.

  7. Yeah, I think that “ten tens” word probably really has the same morpheme twice. However, there may be Influence from hund as well, with the form partially reanalyzed as “ten, a hundred.”

    Such “counting-up” constructions (to give them a provisional name) exist in some varieties on English. If I said, “There’s five, ten animals in that field, although no badgers,”* I would be indicating my uncertainty about the number and providing an estimate. However, to some Midwesterners, “There’s five ten animals over there,” (the different punctuation indicating a change in intonation), would indicate “counting-up,” meaning ten is likely the exact answer.

    *A very obscure reference. I do not believe any will solve the conundrum.

  8. There can be only one answer.

  9. Tiago Tresoldi says

    It might be a development on the hypothesis that the ancestor of “hundred” was once (likely in PIE times) built from “ten tens” but meaning just “a large number” (i.e., an emphatic expression like the Biblical “seventy times seven”), which was later (PG times) interpreted as the actual arithmetic value (supposedly when the speakers finally managed to properly learn their math). As an hypothesis it has a good enough foundation, but it is indeed quite hard to get to that from the oup post (that said, if I am indeed guessing it right).

  10. I would add at this point that one of the uses of Finnish kunta that appears more likely to derive from Germanic than Uralic* is indeed “a large number”: kymmenkunta ‘about ten’, satakunta ‘about a hundred’, tuhatkunta ‘about a thousand’.

    * The word by now essentially represents a merger of Germanic *hunda- with native *konta ‘hunt, hunting group’ (> Khanty, Hung. had ‘army’, etc.). If the also close-by Germanic hunt < √kent- group is involved seems to be up in the air so far.

  11. I hope it derives from Germanic and not from Old Norse

  12. David Marjanović says

    Borrowing with /k/ instead of /h/ indicates an older date.

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