Numerals and counting in Estonian

Keywords: numerals, Estonian dialects, old literary Estonian, Finnic languages, ­language contacts

Modern Estonian numerals demonstrate the typical Finno-Ugric decimal system: the first ten digits are referred to by simple words, after ten come teen numerals, and from 20 on the count goes by tens followed by simple numbers as (and if) necessary (e.g. twenty-one, thirty-three, eighty-eight etc.). However, this has not always been the case. According to the old Finnic tradition, numbers from eleven to nineteen were counted as ones of the second ten, numbers from 21 to 29 as numbers of the third ten, from 31 to 39 as numbers of the fourth ten, etc. Nowadays the traditional system has only survived for the Finnic teens (11–19), not for greater numbers. The change can be associated with the advent of the Lutheran Reformation and the introduction of Arabic numbers due to which the Finnic system (one of the third ten) was gradually replaced by the Indo-European pattern (twenty-one).

In the article, the transition from the old counting system to the new one is described on examples from grammars, calendars and textbooks of the period from 1637–1884, adding abundant data from Estonian dialects as well as from other Finnic languages. As can be inferred from Estonian grammars, it was in the 17th–18th centuries that the transition occurred in literary Estonian. As for popular language (dialects), the old traditional way of counting was practised well into the 20th century, in particular when counting fish, threads, or years of life. Yet, sooner or later the Indo-European way of counting has been accepted in use not only in Estonian but also in all other Finnic languages.


Jüri Viikberg (b. 1953), PhD, Institute of the Estonian Language, Senior Lexicographer (Roosikrantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn),