When learning French, one thing that stands out the most linguistically and numerically is the rather unique formation of the French numbering system.
It’s something that many of us just accept as being the way that it is without questioning it – but the origins of the unusual way of counting really are interesting.
Self-proclaimed ‘TikTok’s math teaching drag queen’, Kyne, has delved into the world of explaining how the French numbering system uses relics from an ancient language.
Kyne Santos is a Canadian drag queen who competed in the initial series of Canada’s Drag Race and can be seen in the video in full glam with Halloween inspired makeup in front of the dramatic backdrop of Quebec City.
Alongside Kyne’s love for drag, the TikTok star claims to have fallen in love with maths while at high school, rising to the top of the class and winning a full scholarship in order to study maths at university.
The clip begins with the glamorous Kyne stating: “I’ve always wondered what is up with the French number system.”
Kyne then runs through some examples of numbers that seem a little out of the ordinary. Kyne points out that 70 is known as ‘soixante-dix’, meaning ‘sixty ten’, 80 is ‘quatre-vingts’, meaning ‘four twenties’ and continuing the confusion, 90 is ‘quatre-vingt-dix’, meaning ‘four twenty ten’.
Kyne then takes viewers into the history of the numbers, saying: “Historically the French used to use a vigesimal system which they likely inherited from the Gauls and that counted by twenties.”
The Gauls were a group of Celtic peoples of Continental Europe in the Iron Age and the Roman period.
Kyne then begins to speculate why this use of groups of twenty may have been in place, suggesting that they simply may have found it easier to group numbers into twenties or have originally counted all fingers and toes and therefore became attached to the number 20.
Kyne continues: “30 was twenty ten, 40 was two twenties, 60 was three twenties.
“When the Romans invaded, they tried to force the French to use their decimal system but it only partially worked. Today the numbers from 70 – 99 are relics from the ancient language and the ancient way of counting.”
Giving an example of this numerical system in use, Kyne points out that in Paris there’s a hospital named ‘l’hôpital quinze-vingts’, essentially meaning ‘the hospital of 15 20’ because it had 300 beds.
On 19 November 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address and famously commenced the speech by saying: “Four score and seven years ago”. Lincoln was referencing 87 years ago, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Kyne brings this up to finish the video, commenting: “When Abraham Lincoln said four score and seven years ago, what he was really saying was four twenties and a seven, so you do the math.”
The TikTok, shared with Kyne’s one million followers, really got people talking in the comments. One user typed: “I came for the math. I stayed for the math. The fashion is a bonus.”
Another remarked: “So cool! I’m French and I didn’t know this piece of history”.
A third added even more depth to the French numbering system, explaining: “In Belgium and Switzerland, they use septante, octante and nonante which makes so much more sense”.
And indeed they do, the Belgians, Canadians and the French-speaking Swiss all have differing words for the numbers, 70, 80 and 90. They call them ‘septante’, ‘huitante’ or ‘octante’ and ‘nonante’.