This question came up on the way home this evening. On the back of the tandem, my daughter was experimenting with counting in French. Things were going fine until we got to sixty-nine. And then I explained that French for seventy is soixante-dix, literally, ‘sixty ten’. Without turning round, I could feel the look of bewilderment on her face.

I asked the same question of my French-speaking grandfather when I was about her age. He gave me an explanation that I believed at the time. He told me that the French counting system evolved from shepherds counting sheep. Flocks of traditionally had a maximum of sixty-nine sheep and so there was no need for a higher number. He explained to me that when more numerous things started to be invented, the shepherds couldn’t keep up, and they had to resort to saying things like ’sixty-eleven’ and ‘sixty-twelve’.

Thirty years later, I now know my grandfather liked a good yearn, and this explanation, which I hadn’t really thought about since, didn’t stand up to scrutiny. So this evening I have gone looking for the answer.

My search was unlocked when I discovered the word ‘vigesimal’, meaning based on twenty. I rad that a great many languages use or have used a vigesimal system in the linguistic structure of their numbers – including Celtic languages that pre-dated modern French. In fact, so many older European tongues have a vigesimal system that maybe the question ought to be, why do we only stick to base ten in English?

No mention of sheep on the vigesimal Wikipedia page. But I was reminded of a Jake Thackray song in which he sings of sheep being counted in the Yorkshire Swaledale dialect:

Yan, Tan, Tether, Mether, Pip, Azer, Sezar, Akker, Conter, Dick, Yanadick, Tanadick, Tetheradick, Metheradick, Bumfit, Yanabum, Tanabum, Tetherabum, Metherabum, Jigget.

I read that, being based on Celtic, most of these sheep counting systems were vigesimal.

And then I read this,

‘they usually lack words to describe quantities larger than twenty; though this is not a limitation of either modernised decimal Celtic counting systems or the older ones. To count a large number of sheep, a shepherd would repeatedly count to twenty, placing a mark on the ground, or move his hand to another mark on his crook, or drop a pebble into his pocket to represent each score.’

I look over at the photo of my grandfather on the shelf and smile, because I have found the element of truth that served as the inspiration for his explanation, and I thank him for this lesson, concluded score and ten years later, in how to spin a good yarn.