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This has puzzled me for a long time. In Russian, we count objects in a weird way:

  • Один камень
  • Два камня
  • Три камня
  • Четыре камня
  • Пять камней
  • ...
  • Двадцать камней
  • Двадцать один камень

Then, the pattern repeats for every 1, 2-4 and 5-0.

There are two interesting things here: the "1, 2-4, 5+" pattern is present in several slavic languages, but not in English. The other thing is special treatment of the numbers from 11 to 20 - many languages seem to treat the "teens" differently from the other tens.

Does anyone know the origins of such oddities?

  • To expand on the answer you’ve already received, here’s some more information on dual number in Slavic languages that I had found: russian.stackexchange.com/a/1759/69 – theUg Jul 9 '13 at 14:16
15

In Old Church Slavonic numerals didn't constitute a distinct part of speech, numbers 1-4 were numerical adjectives, numbers bigger than 5 were numerical nouns, that is why numbers 1-4 agreed in gender and number with the following noun, the noun being in singular after 1, in dual after 2, and in plural after 3 and 4:

  1. єдинъ чловѣкъ (m.), єдина жєна (f.), єдино сєло (n.) - Singular
  2. два чловѣка (m.), двѣ жєнѣ (f.), двѣ сєлѣ (n.) - Dual
  3. триѥ чловѣци (m.), три жєны (f.), три сєла (n.) - Plural
  4. чєтырє чловѣци (m.), чєтыри жєны (f.), чєтыри сєла (n.) - Plural

Numbers bigger than 5 were numerical nouns, so the nouns that followed them were attributes in the Genitive case, and, naturally, in the plural:

пѧть чловѣкъ (m.), пѧть жєнъ (f.), пѧть сєлъ (n.) - Gen. Plural

Later, when numerals formed as a part of speech and the noun declension paradigms got leveled by analogy, the gender distinction of numbers 3 and 4 got lost, and the noun forms after numbers 2, 3, and 4 became the same (namely, always ending in -a).

The traces of this old state of things which is reflected in the Old Church Slavonic examples I gave can be seen in all the modern Slavic languages, although the leveling went on in slightly different ways in each of them, for example in Ukrainian after 2, 3, 4 the Nominative Plural is used, only the stress in that case is the same as in the Genitive Plural.

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  • 3
    Thanks for your answer, and especially the comment about Ukrainian. Russian and Ukrainian are my native languages, yet I never noticed that "дві жінки" and "якісь жінки" differ only by stress. – orlenko Jun 18 '13 at 20:12
  • 3
    +1, but why do you think it's a Church Slavonic influence? Polish for instance is hardly influenced by CS but still observes similar features. – Quassnoi Jun 18 '13 at 20:14
  • 2
    @Quassnoi - I'm sorry, but I didn't mean to say anything about the Church Slavonic influence. Church Slavonic is the oldest documented Slavic language, and, since orlenko asked for the origin of those endings, I thought using Church Slavonic material is a good way to explain that. Besides, in the 10th century all the Slavic languages differed but slightly, mostly phonetically, my examples are from the earliest translations into Church Slavonic. – Yellow Sky Jun 18 '13 at 20:28
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    @YellowSky: ok, but "traces of OCS ... in all the modern Slavic languages" is quite confusing. – Quassnoi Jun 18 '13 at 20:59
  • @Quassnoi - Ok, really, I'll edit that, thank you for pointing it out. – Yellow Sky Jun 18 '13 at 21:21

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