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.