Review: von Mengden, Cardinal Numerals

This review appeared originally in the LINGUIST List at

AUTHOR: von Mengden, Ferdinand
TITLE: Cardinal Numerals
SUBTITLE: Old English from a Cross-Linguistic Perspective
SERIES: Topics in English Linguistics [TiEL] 67
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2010

Stephen Chrisomalis, Department of Anthropology, Wayne State University


This monograph is a systematic analysis of Old English numerals that goes far
beyond descriptive or historical aims to present a theory of the morphosyntax of
numerals, including both synchronic and diachronic perspectives, and to
contribute to the growing linguistic literature on number concepts and numerical

The volume is organized into five chapters and numbered subsections throughout
and for the most part is organized in an exemplary fashion. Chapters II and
III, where the evidence for the structure of the Old English numerals is
presented, will be of greatest interest to specialists in numerals. Chapter IV
will be of greatest interest to specialists in Old English syntax. Chapter V is
a broader contribution to the theory of word classes and should be of interest
to all linguists.

The author begins with an extensive theoretical discussion of number concepts
and numerals, working along the lines suggested by Wiese (2003). Chapter I
distinguishes numerals (i.e., numerically specific quantifiers) from other
quantifiers, and distinguishes systemic cardinal numerals from non-systemic
expressions like ‘four score and seven’. As the book’s title suggests, cardinal
numerals are given theoretical priority over ordinal numerals, and nominal forms
like ‘Track 29’ or ‘867-5309’ are largely ignored. Cardinal numerals exist in
an ordered sequence of well-distinguished elements of expandable but
non-infinite scope. Here the author builds upon the important work of Greenberg
(1978) and Hurford (1975, 1987), without presenting much information about Old
English numerals themselves.

Chapter II introduces the reader to the Old English numerals as a system of
simple forms joined through a set of morphosyntactic principles. It is
abundantly data-rich and relies on the full corpus of Old English to show how
apparent allomorphs (like HUND and HUNDTEONTIG for ‘100’) in fact are almost
completely in complementary distribution, with the former almost always being
used for multiplicands, the latter almost never. This analysis allows the
author to maintain the principle that each numeral has only one systemic
representation, but at the cost of making a sometimes arbitrary distinction
between systemic and non-systemic expressions. This links to a fascinating but
all-too-brief comparative section on the higher numerals in the ancient Germanic
languages, which demonstrates the typological variability demonstrated even
within a closely related subfamily of numeral systems.

Chapter III deals with complex numerals, a sort of hybrid category encompassing
various kinds of complexities. The first sort of complexity, common in Old
English, involves the use of multiple noun phrases to quantify expressions that
use multiple bases (e.g. ‘nine hundred years and ten years’ for ‘910 years’).
The second complexity is the typological complexity of Old English itself; the
author cuts through more than a century of confusion from Grimm onward in
demonstrating conclusively that there is no ‘duodecimal’ (base 12) element to
Old English (or present-day English) — that oddities like ‘twelve’ and
‘hundendleftig’ (= 11×10) can only be understood in relation to the decimal
base. The third is the set of idiosyncratic expressions ranging from the
not-uncommon use of subtractive numerals, to the overrunning of hundreds (as in
modern English ‘nineteen hundred’), to the multiplicative phrases used
sporadically to express numbers higher than one million. Where a traditional
grammar might simply list the common forms of the various numeral words, here we
are presented with numerals in context and in all their variety.

Chapter IV presents a typology of syntactic constructions in which Old English
numerals are found: Attributive, Predicative, Partitive, Measure, and Mass
Quantification. In setting out the range of morphosyntactic features
demonstrated within the Old English corpus, the aim is not simply descriptive,
but rather, assuming that numerals are a word class, to analyze that class in
terms of the variability that any word class exhibits, without making
unwarranted comparisons with other classes.

In Chapter V the author argues against the prevalent view that numerals are
hybrid combinations of nouns and adjectives. While there are similarities,
these ought not to be considered as definitional of the category, but as results
of the particular ways that cardinal numerals are used. Because it is
cross-linguistically true that higher numerals behave more like nouns than lower
ones, this patterned variability justifies our understanding the cardinal
numerals as a single, independent word class. It is regarded as the result of
higher numerals being later additions to the number sequence — rather than
being ‘more nounish’, they are still in the process of becoming full numerals.
They are transformed from other sorts of quantificational nouns (like
‘multitude’) into systemic numerals with specific values, but retain vestiges of
their non-numeral past.


This is an extremely important volume, one that deserves a readership far beyond
historical linguists interested in Germanic languages. It is not the last word
on the category status of cardinal numerals, cross-linguistic generalizations
about number words, or the linguistic aspects of numerical cognition, but it
represents an exceedingly detailed and well-conceived contribution to all these
areas. While virtually any grammar can be relied upon to present a list of
numerals, virtually none deals with the morphosyntactic complexities and
historical dimensions of this particular domain that exist for almost any
language. Minimal knowledge of Old English is required to understand and
benefit from the volume.

The specialist in numerals will be struck by the richness and depth of the
author’s specific insights regarding numerical systems in general, using the Old
English evidence to great effect. Because it is one of very few monographs to
be devoted specifically to a single numeral system, and by far the lengthiest
and theoretically the most sophisticated (cf. Zide 1978, Olsson 1997, Leko
2009), there is time and space to deal with small complexities whose broader
relevance is enormous. The volume thus strikes that fine balance between
empiricism and theoretical breadth required of this sort of cross-linguistic
study rooted in a single language.

With regard to the prehistory of numerals, we are very much working from a
speculative framework, and where the author treads into this territory, of
necessity the argument is more tenuous. It may be true that for most languages,
the hands and fingers are the physical basis for the counting words, but
Hurford’s ritual hypothesis (1987), of which von Mengden does not think highly,
is at the very least plausible for some languages if not for all. These issues
are not key to the argument, which is all the more striking given that they are
presented conclusively in Chapter I.

A potential limitation of the volume is that, by restricting his definition of
numerals to cardinals (by far the most common form in the Old English corpus),
the author is forced into an exceedingly narrow position, so that, ultimately,
ordinals, nominals, frequentatives, and other forms are derived from numerals
but are not numerals as a word class, but something else. But the morphosyntax
of each of these forms has its own complexities — think of the nominal ‘007’ or
the decimal ‘6.042’ – that deserve attention from specialists on numerals.
Numerals may well be neither adjectives nor nouns, but omitting the clearly
numerical is not a useful way to show it. Similarly, the insistence that each
language possesses one and only one systemic set of cardinal numerals is
problematic in light of evidence such as that presented by Bender and Beller

When comparing with other sorts of numerical expressions, e.g. numerical
notations, the author is on shakier grounds. It is certainly not the case, as
the author claims that the Inka khipus had a zero symbol, and it is equally the
case that the Babylonian sexagesimal notation and the Chinese rod-numerals did
(Chrisomalis 2010). Similarly, the author seems to suggest that in present-day
English, any number from ‘ten’ to ‘ninety-nine’ can be combined multiplicatively
with ‘hundred’, whereas in fact *ten hundred, *twenty hundred, … *ninety hundred
are well-formed in Old English but not in later varieties.

It is curious that von Mengden does not link the concept of numerical ‘base’ to
that of ‘power’, but rather to the patterned recurrence of sequences of
numerals. Rather than seeing ’10’, ‘100’ and ‘1000’ as powers of the same base
(10), they are conceptualized as representing a series of bases that combine
with the recurring sequence 1-9. But a system that is purely decimal, except
that numbers ending with 5 through 9 are constructed as ‘five’, ‘five plus one’
… ‘five plus four’, would by this definition have a base of 5 even though powers
of 5 have no special structural role and even though 5 never serves as a
multiplicand. This definition is theoretically useful in demonstrating that Old
English does not have a duodecimal (base-12) component, but as a
cross-linguistic definition will likely prove unsatisfactory.

Because the Old English numerals are all Germanic in origin, with no obvious
loanwords, it is perhaps unsurprising that language contact and numerical
borrowing play no major role in this account. Yet on theoretical grounds the
borrowing of numerals, including the wholesale replacement of structures and
atoms for higher powers, is of considerable importance cross-linguistically.
Comparative analysis will need to demonstrate whether morphosyntactically,
numerical loanwords are similar to or different from non-loanwords.

The author has incorporated the work of virtually every major recent theorist on
numerals, and the volume is meticulously referenced. There are a few irrelevant
typos, and a few somewhat more serious errors in tables and text that create
ambiguity or confusion, but no more than might be expected in any volume of this

This monograph is a major contribution to the literature on numerals and
numerical cognition. Its value will be in its rekindling of debates long left
dormant, and its integration of Germanic historical linguistics, syntax,
semantics, and cognitive linguistics within a fascinating study of this
neglected lexical domain.


Bender, A., and S. Beller. 2006. Numeral classifiers and counting systems in
Polynesian and Micronesian languages: Common roots and cultural adaptations.
Oceanic Linguistics 45, no. 2: 380-403.

Chrisomalis, Stephen. 2010. Numerical Notation: A Comparative History. New York:
Cambridge University Press.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1978. Generalizations about numeral systems. In Universals
of Human Language, edited by J. H. Greenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hurford, James R. 1975. The Linguistic Theory of Numerals. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Hurford, James R. 1987. Language and Number. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Leko, Nedžad. 2009. The syntax of numerals in Bosnian. Lincom Europa.

Olsson, Magnus. 1997. Swedish numerals: in an international perspective. Lund
University Press.

Wiese, Heike. 2003. Numbers, Language, and the Human Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Zide, Norman H. 1978. Studies in the Munda numerals. Central Institute of Indian

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

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