Bridging the gap between nine and eight

Numberphile: Bridging the gap between bet eight and nine
© Pixabay

Numberphile: Neu and neun – New and nine

Have you ever wondered why they sound so similar despite having seemingly little in common? It’s time for a little etymological journey. Including a journey over all of your eight fingers.

Wait, what? All of my eight fingers? We’ll get to that, first things first: My fascination for the number nine. In German it is referred to as neun, and it sounds similar to the word for ‘new’, neu. If you happen to know any other Indo-European languages, you might have noticed that the words for nine and new are somewhat similar. Let’s have a look at some languages:

English           nine    new

German          neun    neu

Dutch              negen    nieuw

Swedish          nio    ny

Danish             ni    ny

Icelandic        níu    nýr

French             neuf    neuf

Italian              nove    nuovo

Spanish           nueve    nuevo

Latin                 novem    novis

Kurdish           neh    nû

Persian            noh    now

(See the entry for nine in Wiktionary)

Across all these languages we find a striking similarity to the respective words for ‘new’. Doesn’t this make you wonder what’s so inherently new about the number nine? (Oh and by the way, yes! Kurdish and Persian (also known as Farsi) are indeed Indo-European languages and share a great deal of similarities with English and German.)

Now stop nodding for a moment and take a look at your hands. Ideally you’ve got five fingers on each hand, so when you count objects in front of you, you can use these fingers to represent one object each. Five fingers times two, that’s ten, so using both of your hands combined can “hold” ten objects, so to speak. For any quantities higher than that you’ll need a new set of hands, so you’d go “one set of hands plus one”, giving you the number eleven (which also is an interesting word to have a closer look at another time). If you choose to go with this finger-procedure, there it is: the base-10 (or “decimal”) number system that is so ubiquitous today.

Base-10 is, however, merely one of several systems to count in. For us who have grown up in a base-10 world, it might seem like the one and only system there is, but behold. The fact that the words for the number nine in so many Indo-European languages is similar to the word for ‘new’ is evidence that the people back then used a different way of counting.

Above I stated that the hand has five fingers attached to it: Index finger, middle finger, ring finger, little finger and the thumb. But wait… Did you spot the odd man? The only finger that’s not explicitly referred to as a ‘finger’ is the thumb. The little finger is often referred to as ‘pinkie’ or ‘pinkie finger’, but ‘thumb finger’ sounds just awkward. The same goes for German: Zeigefinger (‘index finger’), Mittelfinger, Ringfinger, kleiner Finger (‘little finger’), but Daumen (‘thumb’) stands out as separate. It seems that, for some reason, our ancestors didn’t quite consider the thumb as a finger. For further discussion on the thumb being a finger or not, check out this article and video by Oxford Dictionaries.

Which this kind of mindset in place, you’ll be able to count up to eight objects, after which one set of hands is depleted, and you’ll need a new set of hands for any quantities greater that 8. Every set of hands thus represents eight things. Welcome to the base-8 number system! In this way of counting there is no concept of the number nine: Nine objects are just one set of hands plus one. So formally there is no difference compared to base-10. For base-8 people the number nine is a novelty, so this might be why they referred it as “new (number)”.

These are, however, merely pieces of evidence as to how our present number system came about linguistically, and it remains scientifically disputed. Nevertheless, I have found this topic quite fascinating as it gives us an idea of the immense creativity of mankind throughout history and, in turn, provides us – the modern, reading, speaking, working human beings – with fresh perspectives outside the box.

How to address a German properly – Sie or Du

Duzen or Siezen? Photo via Pixabay / Unsplash

Talking to German People Properly: Formal and Informal Speech

In English, “you” is just “you” – whether formal or informal. It’s great for when you don’t know your relative social status or want to make a point of equality; however, a lot of languages make a distinction between people, and encode social status and considerations into the language itself. German is one of these languages. Here are two of the most important examples:

Sie and du

Sie or du? Both mean “you”, but du is for your friends and family – and also children and pets. Sie is for everyone else – at least until you make friends with them! And even then, if you’re speaking to them in their professional capacity (such as talking to a professor or a teacher, lawyer or doctor), please use Sie.

How do you know when to change from Sie to du?

It used to be that people would have get-togethers over schnapps to celebrate moving from Sie formalities to using du with each other. It was a sign of intimacy – not necessarily the intimacy between married couples, but the intimacy of friendship, of knowing a person well. In fact, if you look in literature and in plays, the transition between Sie to du becomes a key plot point.

With social media being as popular as it is, though, do not be surprised if you see people using du on Twitter or on Facebook. That seems to be the trend across different languages – whether it is a function of the Internet or an influence from other languages, such as English, remains to be seen.


Even though aristocracy ended in the German speaking areas in the early 1900s, the idea of respecting authority and social hierarchy still persists. Therefore, if the person you are speaking to has earned a professional title, it is good German manners to address them using that title. Your Dr Schmidt is still going to be Dr Schmidt – she earned the doctorate or medical degree and has a degree of authority and knowledge in society. To English speakers, this can seem overly formal, but it is just a way to respect the person who received that title. This goes when you are studying in Germany also – when in doubt of their official title, ask them what you should call them. Academic ranks in Germany are very different than in the United States (or even the United Kingdom) and a professorship is a major career milestone: by law, depending on the area of Germany, it takes up to 5 years of service before an academic can use Professor as a title.

Should Learning German be Fun?

Is learning German with fun desirable?
der Gummistiefel / – / Image from Pixabay

Thank you all for participating in my little survey. Below are the results of about 500 answers. Below the image you’ll find how scientists answer the question and why you should be skeptical when someone tries to sell you German learning with fun.

Click image to vote yourself

Interesting was also to see that most of those who pledged for “fun” also took the “easy path” in the ( newsletter. I have a very critical view on all those “Learn German with fun” approaches. I understand that it is necessary to entertain learners when the content is dry and possibly difficult. But the German language itself is amazingly beautiful and learning something new is incredibly motivating by nature. There’s no need to add any more “fun” to it.

Honestly spoken, I’d say that it is the school setting that makes it necessary to entertain German learners despite their initially strong motivation. You can compare it with normal schools for children and teenagers and the question arises whether language schools are actually doing the German language a “Bärendienst” (lit.: bear service, disservice). The talk by Sir Ken Robinson at the bottom of this post dives a bit deeper into this topic.

They say: “The best way to learn German is to fall in love with a German.” I read this like: when your motivation is right, the circumstances are “zweitrangig” (secondary). I’d simply remove the article “a” from this statement: “The best way to learn German is to fall in love with German.” I’m in love with my own language because I have understood it to a degree that reveals its full beauty to me. And I’m happy to share my insights with you so that you can, too, one day fall in love with it or if you are already infatuated keep this feeling alive forever.

Last but not least I’d like to recommend Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning to you if you got a few hours to spare and if you are interested in learning German for a longer period of time. If you are an educator of any kind, this book is a must. It provides a solid and understandable overview of relevant studies about learning efficiently. I have read hundreds of books and articles over the last years and this one sums it all up.

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