LINGUIST List 5.1079

Mon 03 Oct 1994

Sum: Nine/New

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Trey Jones, 9/new

Message 1: 9/new

Date: Thu, 29 Sep 94 17:08:48 ED9/new
From: Trey Jones <treyBRS.Com>
Subject: 9/new

For those of you who weren't here last week, here is my original posting:

A couple of years ago, I was a TA for a History of Math course, in which
the professor, who is a mathematician and amateur polyglot, told the class
that there was a strong relationship between the word for "new" and the
word for "nine" in many languages, and that this was (according to his
theory) because people got along with 8 numbers for a long time (because
they had eight fingers) and then needed a "new" number.

He cited, of course, Spanish "nueve"/"nueva,nuevo" (9/new) and French
"neuf"/"nouveau", and even English "nine"/"new". The Spanish case is the
only one that looks readily believable.. though I suspect it is more of a
chance resemblance due to historical accident.

Does anyone know the Latin to Spanish/French history of these words?

And, just for kicks, how many languages can we come up with that have 9/new
similarities (however spurious or vague they may be) that support the
I got some good responses concerning (the history of) Romance. First, as
Nigel Love pointed out:
>You can do better than that with French: alongside "nouveau" 'new",
>there's also ... "neuf" ('new' in sense of 'newly-made', 'brand new')

Marc Picard summed up the Romance case well:
> Latin had NOVEM 'nine' and NOVUM/NOVAM 'new'. In Spanish they
>became respectively NUEVE and NUEVO/NUEVA. French lost final -E and -O so
>that they wound up as NEUF and NEUF/NEUVE. The latter are still bery much
>in use along with NOUVEL/NOUVEAU/NOUVELLE which stem from the suffixed forms

Thanks also to Bert Peeters and Margaret Winters.

As to the validity of the 9/new "theory", Robert Hartsuiker, Nigel Love,
Bert Peeters, and Henk Wolf provided interesting (Indo-European) data:

 _new_ _9_
Dutch nieuw negen
German neu neun
Low German nig(e) negen
Italian nove nuove
Norwegian ny ni
Sanskrit navah na'va
Welsh newydd naw
West Frisian nij njoggen

I also received some good non-IE data:

>From Larry Trask:
>Basque has <berri> `new' and <bederatzi> `nine'. The second is
>problematic, but no one wants to relate it to <berri>, which is
>phonologically and grammatically impossible. The first element in
>the numeral is probably just <bat> `one' < *<bade>.

>From <>
>Finnish nine - yhdeks"an - is often claimed to be a derivative of
>one - yksi,yhden - meaning 'one below ten'. Eight and two - kahdeksan;
>kaksi, kahden - have a similar relation.

Larry Trask has found the root of the problem (excuse the pun):
>Calvert Watkins reconstructs the PIE root for `new' as *newo-, and
>that for `nine' as *newn (with a syllabic final nasal). Because of
>this resemblance in the proto-language, it's hardly surprising that
>many IE languages should continue to show similarities in their words
>for `new' and `nine'. But I'm not aware that anyone has ever
>seriously proposed a common origin for the two PIE roots.

Thanks also to Marc Picard and Daniel Radzinski.

Some people took my posting a little too seriously, but most seemed to get
the light-hearted spirit in which the request was made. Some various

>From <>
>... all languages I know except English categorize the thumb as a finger.

>From Bert Peeters
>I suspect there may be more truth in your professor's assumption than you
>think (eight fingers = two hands without the thumbs), and eight is also the
>number of notes in an octave. I am not sure whether you should try and look
>beyond the Indo-European languages, though.

>From Daniel Radzinski
>Looks to me like pathetic folk etymology if there ever was one, but ... I
>guess no one knows or can ever know anything like this for certain.In any case,
>the distiction/similarity exists much before Latin. Indo_European 'nine' is
>newn while 'new' is newo (Calvert Watkins' American Heritage Dictionary of
>Indo-European Roots, 1985, Houghton Mifflin). Now, perhaps a derivation like
>your prof suggested took place much before this time. Bear in mind though,
>that humans have been using language only for about 50,000 years or so.
>Don't you think primates have had pinkies longer than that?

>From Steven Berbeco
>Your math teacher was on crack. You should track him down and say there is
>some interstellar relationship between Resort in Indonesia (military base)
>and any Club Med. And then poke him with Mambo in a South Australian
>aboriginal language which means Dog Fart. Follow this up with Hebrew Mee
>meaning "who" and Hoo meaning "he" and Hee meaning "she".

>From Roger Norum
> If I were you, I would completely (well, at least partially) disregard
>that message you recieved from Steven Berbeco. He came to me over the
>weekend with your message, and told me straight out that the person who
>came up with even the idea that nine could have something to do with the
>word new was completely and utterly out of his mind. He said, "Mention
>one, JUST ONE non IE language that has an even remote relationship between
>the words for *nine* and *new*. Well, as Steven has never studied Finnish
>before, he could obviously never have known that the word in Finnish for
>nine is "yhdeks"n" with inflected form "yhdeks"s-" and the word for new,
>"uusi" with inflected form "uuden-". Also, he couldn't have realized that
>yhdeks"n contains part of the suffix "eksi" which is one of the case
>endings in Finnish which translates somewhat like "in to" or "for" Like
>"Suomea" 'Finnish', "Suomeksi" 'in Finnish' (which may explain at least
>part of the difference between the two words, at least on the surface.)
>There's a whole lot more to the historical background behind these things,
>but as I am no historical linguist, and certainly don't claim to be, I
>can't really rightfully go on about exactly what the realtionship is. In
>any case, I hope this helps you eventually reach your goal of proving the
>relationship in the worlds languages between nine and new, and my goal of
>trying to teach Steven that he should think twice before he opens his
>linguistically-trained mouth. Chance resemblance based on historical
>accident OR proof? You decide! Good luck

> I suspect that most if not all Indo-European languages will manifest
>a similarity between the two since it dates back to Proto-IE *newn and *newo.
>The latter is related to *nu- 'now', but there is no evidence for a relation
>between 'nine' and 'new'. If this were the case, I'd sure like to know
>what 10 is supposed to mean.

Finally, some last evidence for and against the 9/new connection:

>From James Dempsey
>In several hundred Sino-Tibetan languages I've examined I see no such
>connection. Sometimes '9' seems to connect with 'all' or 'complete'.

>From Mark Hansell
>It sure isn't universal, in fact in Chinese it's the opposite:
>"nine" resembles "old". In most dialects the two are homophones except for
>tone, as in Mandarin _jiu3_ "nine", _jiu4_ "old".

>From Lance Eccles
>In Mandarin the number 9 "jiu3" is very similar in sound to "jiu4" -- old.
>So there.

>From Gary G. Jason Busset
>With tongue in cheek, I herewith contribute some new,
>amazing evidence for the nine/new hypothesis:
>Chinese (Pinyin transcription)
> nine : jiu
> new : xin
> Words both have one syllable!
> Words would both be high-scoring in Scrabble!
>Japanese (native roots)
> nine : kokonotsu
> new : atarashii
> Words are both amazingly hard to pronounce! (Mere coincidence??)
> Words have same number of letters when transcribed into English!
>Japanese (foreign roots)
> nine : kyuu
> new : shin
> Words both look funny!
> Same number of letters!

Our guess the main conclusion to be drawn here is that linguists do, in fact,
have a sense of humor.

Again thanks to:
??? <>
Steven Berbeco <>
Jason Busset <>
James Dempsey <>
Lance Eccles <>
Mark Hansell <>
Robert Hartsuiker <hartsuikerNICI.KUN.NL>
Nigel Love <>
Roger Norum <>
Bert Peeters <>
Daniel Radzinski <>
Alain Theriault <theriaalERE.UMontreal.CA>
Larry Trask <>
Margaret E. Winters <GA3704SIUCVMB.SIU.EDU>

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