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Anyone mathematical AND linguistic?

May 14, 2013


Nsenga has words for the numbers 1-5, 10, (arguably) 100, and 1000.

All other numbers are combinations of those.

So, 7 = “five and two.”

19 = “ten and five and four.”

30 = “tens, three” (Adjectives follow their nouns, so the “three” which modifies “ten” comes after it.)

The problem:

We need to say the number 80.

They natural way to write that would be “tens, five-and-three.” 10 x (5+3) = 80.

The problem is that this looks like “tens, five. And three.” (10 x 5) + 3 = 53.

How do we disambiguate??

(We can’t use punctuation, as I have in the explanation above. We also can’t subtract, like Roman numerals XL or something.)


PS — You should see us trying to piece together 144,000!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2013 10:14 am

    Why do you need to say the numbers? Can you just leave them in number form?

    • May 15, 2013 1:15 am

      We’re following the convention of other local languages which writes out the number in words, then puts the digits in parens afterward (for complex numbers). So, technically, the (80) after our phrase would eliminate the ambiguity by itself. But that’s no excuse for not spelling it right, also. Thanks for the thoughts!

  2. RLO permalink
    May 14, 2013 11:55 am

    Hi Chris;

    Sounds as though the cultures of the Nsenga language have never had much of a need for numbers over what they can carry in their hands. Would it help if you were able to first distinguish between the meanings of the word “plus” and the word “and” ?

    Or maybe avoiding the whole “five-three” thing altogether by expressing a doubling of 40, perhaps:

    “Tens, four (40) plus tens, four (40)” ??

    Just a thought. I imagine there would be hurdles with that as well.

    You really got your work cut out for you, huh?


    • May 15, 2013 1:12 am

      Yes, we do! 🙂 Thanks for the suggestion. Most people have been saying something about the repetition of the “tens” number, so that the potential ambiguity is eliminated. I think that’s the “distributive property.” Sounds good to me, and the translators say it works. The problem will be when it really comes time to say something like 53… Blessings!

  3. Steve Lawrenz permalink
    May 14, 2013 12:09 pm

    Tuesday, May 14, 2013.


    About the number 80 in Nyanja/Chewa I would say makhumi asanu ndi makhumi atatu.

    That, translated, is “tens five and tens three.” There may be a better word for “and” than “ndi,” because I have heard of it but never used it and now can’t remember it.

    But first and foremost, keep in mind that I was writing about what I would do in Nyanja/Chewa. Nyanja/Chewa and Nsenga are similar languages. But really, why don’t you ask Rev. Shadreck Njobvu, my good friend, who is a native speaker of Nsenga?

    Steve Lawrenz, Blantyre, Malawi.

    • May 15, 2013 1:13 am

      I’m asking around, Steve. Sometimes the internet is a good place to look for answers too.
      We’re going with “makumi asanu na makumi atatu.”
      This is fine for 80. We’ll see what happens when we really do need 53.

  4. Zachariah Yoder permalink
    May 15, 2013 11:14 am

    Could you change the word order?

    I am thinking about how we do it in Enlish. Twenty was once “two ten one”. Could you say “five and three ten” for eighty? But of course that isn’t natural, is it?

    Could you create new words for numbers six through nine by somehow combining the two words?

    e.g. if it were Engish five and one would become fun or maybe fivun, five and two, fiftoo, five and three fivthree, five and four, fivor, and so on? Then “tens fivthree” would be eighty and “tens five and three” would be fifty three and “tens fivthree three” would be eighty three.

    Zachariah Yoder

    Serving in sociolinguistic survey PO Box 953, Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria

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