As Hard as One, Two, Three, (Four)…

Yea, all those many months ago when I started learning Icelandic, I remember having this sudden, stomach-dropping moment of shock when I saw just how many ways there are to say the numbers one, two, three, and four in Icelandic. Unlike the word for five (and all numbers above five), these words decline, you see, meaning that there are forms for each of the four numbers in each of the four cases, in each of the three genders. And to make things super-duper fun, there are plural forms (in the four cases, in three genders) for the number one. (Wrap your (my) non-Icelandic numerically-challenged mind around that: one is a plural number. This eventually makes some sense: consider one pair of blue jeans. But still…ugh.) And oh, there are also the ordinals to learn (these are number words representing scale, like “first,” and “second.”) These also decline, although after all of the above hoop-jumping, their declensions are rather simple.

Short version of this is that it is a miracle that Icelandic children learn to count before the age of twelve. I am still going over all these forms regularly, hoping not to forget them after so much woeful memorizing last year. As it turns out, though, I have yet more number words to learn.

I was just sent a link to an excerpt from Daniel Tammet’s Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math, called “What is the Icelandic Word for Four?” In the excerpt, Tammet outlines the various forms of the numbers one through four in Icelandic (more elegantly than I do above), and also discusses counting numbers and the abstract concepts of numbers in various cultures and languages all over the world. I was expecting this to be interesting, but not to discover a whole new set of number words. See for yourself:

What about buses? Here numbers refer to identity rather than quantity. In Britain or America, we say something like, “the No. 3 bus,” turning the number into a name. Icelanders do something similar. Their most frequent buses are each known by a special number word. In Reykjavík, the No. 3 bus is simply þristur (whereas to count to three the Icelander says “þrír”). Fjarki is how to say “four” when talking buses in Iceland.

Say what now? I looked up þristur and fjarki, and lo and behold: right there in the dictionary. Buses number three and four. A search for the phrase “bus number” in the online Icelandic-English dictionary yields bus-name-words (shall we call them strætótöluorð?) for busses 8, 5, 4, 9, 7, 10, 2, and 3. But if you look up the declensions of these words (on this awesome site), these new strætótöluorð come up as separate from regular number declensions. So I don’t know where these words came from–whether they are just free-standing words, or derivations of number forms.

I didn’t find a strætótöluorð for bus number 12 in the dictionary, my own beloved route, but in asking around on various message boards, I was told that “tólfan” is the right name for it and that all the strætótöluorð tend to be said in the definitive form. (So, þristurinn – The Three.)

So there you have it. It’s 8:30 AM (where I am) and I’ve already had quite an Icelandic lesson for the day.


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