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Thread: Conservativism in Indo-European Numerals

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    Conservativism in Indo-European Numerals

    The other day, the fact that there was an unusual lexical conservativism (that is, the fact that the original words have been preserved) in the numerals of Indo-European languages came to the discussion, and I began to think why that was. I came to the conclusion that the most probable reason was that, being since their origins a pastoral livestock raising folk, numerals had a great importance in their daily lives, and that is why PIE numerals were so consistently preserved. For example, it must have been important to count sheep to see if none had gone astray...

    What do you think?

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    Well, this is a very interesting question. I've wondered on this before because such a rigorous preservation of a number system as we find it in the Indo-European languages is by no means the norm. It's for example a great difficulty in the Turkic languages, and as I mentioned, there is the hypothesis (under the assumption that the two languages are not closely related) that either Basque or Iberian might have completely borrowed the numeral system of the other (I must admit that I am rather sceptical of this, however). On the other hand, it is definitely interesting to look where the part of the number system were not preserved.

    One (semi-)example I would like to bring up would be loan-translations from Etruscan into Latin:

    18 - 'Duodeviginti' ('two away from twenty') - Etruscan 'Eslem Zathrum'
    19 - 'Undeviginti' ('one away from twenty') - Etruscan 'Thunem Zathrum'

    The interesting (and amusing) part is that the Romance languages have reversed this Etruscanism (sucha s French 'dix-huit', Spanish 'dieciocho'). However, this is also not really an example of a divergence from the PIE numeral system since the IE root words are perserved in the loan translations anyways.

    Regarding a reason for the overall conservativism, the pastoralist explanation certainly seems like very reasonable explanation at first glance.

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    Hmmm... Interesting example, and given that Romance Languages come from Vulgar Latin, it cannot I think be ruled out that the borrowing only happened among (at least in the beginning) the Etruscan-influenced ruling classes while the lower classes or countryfolk maintained the form that is seen in Romance languages today.

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