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Why English Doesn’t Use Onety-One

I have a guilty pleasure, and I apologize for it ahead of time. I always laugh at the memes that ask why eleven isn’t onety-one. I have probably seen it a million times, because of its widespread popularity but I can’t help calling out perfection when I see it. Such a simple premise. Why isn’t eleven onety-one and twelve onety-two? You could do it all the way up through nineteen. I honestly prefer the Mandarin number system and how simple it is. One ten one is eleven. One ten two. One ten three. 363 is Three hundred six ten three. Fairly simple, pretty, and can go for as long as you have numbers. But where does eleven through nineteen come from?

The definition of eleven is one more than ten. It comes from the Old English word eneleofan, which simply means “one left.” One left from from what? Ten. You have a pile of ten coins and you have how many left after you separate it out. The next ten numbers explain how many you have left after ten. Eleven, twelve, etc. A little bit down the line and you have Proto-Germanic “ainlif-,” which breaks down to “ain,” meaning “one,” and the Proto-Indo-European root “*leikw-” which means ‘to leave.’

Twelve has a similar background as well, except one would replace the “ain-” with “dwo,” which means, obviously, two. The PIE root is the same. Two left over from ten, basically. Interestingly, this formation is not unique as Lithuanian also uses a similar formation with -lika.

Numbers thirteen from nineteen steer away from this and use the base ten system: ten plus 3 – 9 to form the number. -teen is a suffix meaning ‘ten more than,’ and comes from Old English ‘-tien’ or ‘-tiene,’ and further from Proto-Germanic ‘*tekhuniz.’

English is a very nuanced Germanic language, and so I hope this article helps you understand why we use eleven instead of onety-one. But, please, do continue sharing that meme. We absolutely love it here.

Should I Use Cognates To Learn A Language?

There are a lot of ways to learn a language. Some good, some not so good. Comparative linguistics is one way of looking at various languages and understanding the similarities and differences between them. Major breakthroughs in our understanding of languages happens through the field, and I, myself, absolutely love it, choosing to study it to get better understandings of how grammar works.

Some people theorize that it is possible to learn languages through other, similar languages. Taking their native language, and, with enough cognates (words with shared linguistic origins such as Mudder in German and mother in English), try to learn another language through it. Sure, it is useful for finding cognates between languages and helping find words that you can pick out of any text or language program. You can easily pick up a few words in French by going over French words in English texts. However, that is the problem. FEW.

There is considered, generally, about 10,000 words in English that have been borrowed or derived from French. Of these, about 1700 words have both the same meaning and look exactly the same. It is super useful to study French through the context of English because there are so many words that you can pick up through the study. A recent news article claims that the English government was looking to remove all words of French origin from official documents to make it all more English-y. A popular reactionary meme takes the image of the text proclaiming it and then highlighting the dozens of works that actually come from French thus removing most of the meaning from the proclamation. We all had a real kick out of it, of course. The point is that there is so much of French inside English that removing French influence would absolutely cripple the English language.

This sheer influence translates to recognizing so many words that it is a real boost to individuals trying to study French. However, a few things get in the way to prevent a user from being able to look at the cognates and really learn just from cognates. With French, the biggest challenge for anyone, regardless of background and native language, is the phonetic system and the difference in spelling and pronunciation. The casual listener and reader on will notice that sounds will not match phonemes the way that English would, even with words that look exactly the same between the languages.

Attention in French and attention in English sound very differently but not so differently that someone would struggle too hard with it. The key to these words is by specifically attacking the pronunciation system and memorizing the many pronunciation rules and the many exceptions to those rules. It is very difficult to go through French without an understanding of those rules. You want to know the differences in spelling between languages and potential rules in changes. For instance, -tion becomes -cion in Spanish and -cao in Portuguese, making it a little easier to translate some of the words you already know.

The best way for a person to learn a language is through context. Seeing a word repeatedly in the context of several sentences, as in going through regular reading, is the best way of understanding how a word works. This is how children learn it, through repeated usage over time. Rote memorization does not work unless you specifically contextualize the word in a way to make it make sense to you. Bartosz Czekala at Universeofmemory.commakes it clear that you cannot use flashcards to memorize words if the flashcards are not designed by you. You need to make your own sentences for every word that you are attempting to learn.

This brings us to the next obstacle of the cognate strategy: grammar. Grammar isn’t always important. You don’t need it starting out for basic word acquisition. Knowing the word ‘o cachorro’ as ‘dog’ in Portuguese is enough to know the word. However, to advance your understanding and context of the dog, as in the dog runs, you must be able to:

  1. Know the word for dog.
  2. Know the word for runs.
  3. Know the appropriate conjugation for runs in the context of the subject.

The dog run. The dogs runs. Neither of these are correct because the verb does not apply in form to the subject. There is no subject-verb agreement. It can be dangerous to thus learn run out of context because you take the risk of learning the word wrongly. Of course, it is simple enough to be corrected by a native speaker to then say “runs” instead of “run.” However, if you take your learning as a whole and you learn a lot of words outside of context of sentences and grammar, then you will be forced to go back and relearn everything from scratch.

I made this mistake when I was very young and trying to learn French verbs. I didn’t realize there was a complex conjugation system where the difference in subject changes the ending of the verb. Je monter un cheval. I to-ride a horse. I did not realize I would need to change the ending to monte. If I wasn’t careful, I could potentially use rouler which also means ride but means ride in a different way as in riding in a car. Is it better to memorize a bunch of words now outside of context and then relearn it through grammar later? I do not believe so. Context matters, and is too important to ignore.

Take a look at the following article by Thoughtco for more explanation about German to English cognates and a better explanation of cognates in general!

Be sure to go our Patreon and subscribe to Silly Linguistics Magazine for more content just like this!

Subscribe To NativLang On YouTube!

Firstly, this is not sponsored content. We had interviewed NativLang, the YouTuber, a long time ago for Silly Linguistics podcast, not because we expect money from them but because their videos are so intensely interesting that we binge-watch them for hours in a row. The first video I had watched of them, personally, was watching their video on Hungarian, where he drew and described how Hungarian was unrelated to nearby languages. I was, of course, fascinated.

He is part of a large community of YouTubers who make educational content with animated videos. His style is very unique, with large bulging eyes on characters and a very funny yet photorealistic parody of himself drawn into the videos describing what is going on. The content itself isn’t just advanced… Don’t get me wrong… very advanced. But it is also very beginner-friendly and useful to those just starting out with linguistics. A lot of it is comparative. How does one language compare with other languages? There are typically history lessons involved, all seamlessly placed within them!

There are personal anecdotes from his college career and intensely human stories of real people doing linguistic work, such as when he described how linguists perform first-contact with undocumented languages and natives who speak them and how linguists need to put together languages from context clues. With interesting stories and anecdotes in every video, NativLang puts a sense of uniqueness at the heart of every video.

That is why we ask you to support NativLang by subscribing to their channel. We believe fully that, in order to get more interesting and creative content out of the communities, we need to support the artists and teachers who create that content best and enjoy creating it just as we enjoy consuming it! We are a huge fan of mindless videos as much as the next person, but, with NativLang, you get both entertainment and education!

For some starter videos, enjoy these works by them. These are videos that we would recommend watching first:

First Contact Survival Kit – learn an undocumented language from scratch

What Latin Sounded Like And How We Know

Hungarian Explained

When you are finished with that, you can check out our Patreon Magazine, Silly Linguistics, where we create interesting content ourselves and give it as cheaply as we can sell it to make it accessible to everyone!


-Steve The Vagabond

Towards a better language learning approach

I have been thinking about language learning. I started out being really bad at language learning. I daydreamed about being able to speak other languages but learning them felt extremely intimidating. Later on I decided to start learning German (my dad’s first language) and I just dived in. I read magazine articles, watched TV shows and read comics. I didn’t understand everything but I just kept going.

Learning a language is a journey and it never really ends but my German is a lot better now than it was back in the day. Going about language learning in the right way will greatly improve your language learning. I was lucky that I had the determination and discipline to keep going in the beginning of my learning because it can be really frustrating in the beginning to read stuff and not understand much of it.

Having learned more about how languages work and having tried out lots of different methods I can definitely learn language more quickly now. I come from a programming background. There are lots of rules and structures. I am used to looking at long lists of commands. I didn’t realise how much linguistics has in common with programming. Both have some very complicated parts that rely on rules and structure.

I came across this idea called comprehensible input. It means to read material at your level. If you are just starting out then you will only understand very simple sentences or maybe just individual words. I am a tinkerer and an explorer. I am always looking at new ways to do things and to see what works and what doesn’t. So I asked a friend of mine to translate these following sentences into Portuguese.

Eu sou um homem. I am a man.
Eu sou uma pessoa. I am a person.
Eu sou um cachorro. I am a dog.
Eu sou uma mulher. I am a woman.
Eu sou um americano. I am an American.
Eu sou um brasilineiro. I am a Brazilian.

From these sentences can you work out what “eu”, “sou” and “um” mean?

If you can it’s because you are finding links between the portuguese and the english. This is actually how machine translation works. Vast amounts of texts is fed into the system and it does statistical analysis on the text. It asks the question: given “eu” on the portuguese side, what is the most likely word to appear on the English side.

After going through all the text, it will probably conclude that the answer is “I”. Machine translation actually works really well for domains that use a limited vocabulary such as weather reports because the answer to the question “What is the most likely English version of this word in another language” has a pretty simple answer.

But in a sentence like “Hey man, what’s it like to be a shithead?” trying to find a proper equivalent will be really difficult because this sentence is very idiomatic. It pretty much just a way of calling someone an idiot. Machine translation doesn’t translate word for word. It can work out how strings of words relate to each other and how those can be translated together but it is not as good at this.

Also, the more different the target language is to the source language the more difficulty the machine translator will have understanding the links between languages.

I want to find new ways of learning and also teaching languages. So I wanted to ask you all, what are a set of simple sentences that can show off all the different things a language can do in a small number of sentences?

For English it would probably be something like

I am a man
He is a man
They are men
I was a man
We were young
They were young
What is that?
Who are you?

Here we show off how the pronouns work in English, how verbs work, how adjectives work and how questions work.

What is a set of sentences we can use to show off how a language works? What do you think is the minimal set of sentences that we can get a translation of that can show us how all the different parts of a given language work?

It’s not an easy question to answer but it’s something I thought I would put out there. If we can work this out then we can use that to make powerful new language learning techniques and material.

Using the format “I am a man” I taught you the words “eu”, “sou” and “um” and how to use them to make identity statements (thos which tell someone something about ourselves, like that we are programmers or writers). We can use translations of “I am a man” to teach other languages.

What are some other sentences that we can use to teach people parts of other languages? What are some good sentences to show how accusative, dative and genitive work in Indo European languages?

Feel free to put your ideas and comments below. You are also welcome to send me an email at

Thanks for reading and keep studying languages!