Ainu numbers

The Ainu counting system is simple but the etymology is intriguing. There are lots of pages in Japanese with tables of data which you can consult for the details, but the summary is: there are roots for the numbers one through five (/sine/, /tu/, /re/, /ine/, /asikne/), ten (/wan/), and twenty (/hot/). Everything else is (etymologically) a combination of those roots.

As Kirsten REFSING puts it in The Ainu Language,

6 to 9 are derived by deducting 4, 3, 2, and 1 respectively from 10. I-wan is this "four (i < ine) - ten (wan)"; and arwan should be "three - ten", where ar < re, according to Chiri (1936). Tupesan [8] and sinepsan [9] are usually interpreted as tu/sine + p + e + san, i.e. "two/one - thing - thereby - ten", where san < wan. However, a more likely interpretation of these last two numerals is suggested by Patrie (1981). He traces their origin back to an alternate morpheme for "ten", namely upis, which is found in Kurile Ainu as documented in the 18th century by Krascheninnikov and Steller independently (see Murayama: 1971). Thus tupesan is from tu-upis and sinepesan from sine-upis. The final -an remains to be accounted for, but it may perhaps be connected with the existential verb an.

Meanwhile, /asikne/ (five) is probably related to a word meaning "hand" or "finger", and "hot" apparently has something to do with a word meaning "set" (as in, one person's full set of digits, I suppose.)

Interestingly, "six" (the first number without its own morpheme) is the official Ainu number for "lots and lots", kind of like "eight" in Japanese.

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Fascinating. Only two other language groups in the Pacific that I know of have subtractive counting patterns for the numbers between 6 and 10: Yapese in Micronesia, where 7 = and-3, 8 = and-2, 9 = and-1; and the Admiralty Islands languages in Papua New Guinea (all Austronesian). Must be the Ainu substratum.


Looks like a hybrid base-20 with a sub base-5. Common in Polynesia as Joel says, but other variants of base 20 are quite popular worldwide.
There are even remnants of it in English (4-score and seven years ago), and French (quatre-vingts).


Yeah, the base-20 part isn't as uncommon or interesting (so I didn't talk about it). Thanks for the additional info, Joel!


Fascinating! I just read Vovin's A Reconstruction of Proto-Ainu, and found myself unsatisfied with his thinking that both san and wan derived from *hdan. As far as I can tell, the san/wan alternation is the only evidence he has for positing a proto-cluster *hd at all. It makes more sense to me that they were separate words, which perhaps started to resemble each other from constant association.

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