What are French numbers?
Modern French numbers are the same as English number. Both are from the Indo-Arabic decimal system. The Romans did impose Roman numerals on the French but this was abandoned in the 900s when the Indo-Arabic system came to Europe and was adopted in most countries including France. Learning French numbers is similar to learning numbers in any language.
Differences between English numbers and French numbers
There are several differences between French and English numbers. The most noticeable is the use of the period ( . ) and comma ( , ) to separate thousands and to mark decimals. The French system is the reverse of the English system.
- English: 1,000,000
- French: 1.000.000
- English: 1.25
- French: 1,25
So, if something cost four-thousand three hundred Euros and eighty cents it looks like this:
Another difference is the word billion, which you probably will not be using much in your travels. In French, the word for billion is ‘millard’. And we expect French words to be different than English words. What creates some confusion is there is a French word called ‘billion’ but it is what American English calls trillion. Other Romance languages such as Italian use similar wording.
Really these differences are not too difficult to deal with. The confounding difference between French numbers and English numbers lies in the 70s, 80s and 90s and I will discuss those in detail below. But first, let’s look at a strategy for learning French numbers.
How to learn French numbers
Foundation numbers first
The ‘foundation numbers’ are the ones place, 1 – 9. Most number systems are built on these first nine numbers. Frustratingly, French numbers have some name changes, again similar to most Romance languages such as Spanish, and several other quirks that make their system more complex. But learning the first nine numbers will take you a long way in the French number system.
Don’t learn the numbers in order
Most language apps, programs, and classes teach numbers in cardinal order 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. and you may be thinking of learning this way too, but it’s a mistake. Don’t do it. If you learn the numbers as you count them, then you are learning to count, which is different than learning the numbers.
The problem is that we use most numbers out of order such as addresses, age, phone numbers, or the price of something. And if all you have learned to do is count you may have to sort through the beginning numbers first to remember the number you want to say.
So, when you are learning 1 – 9 learn them randomly, any order but consecutive order.
Because numbers are all around us, I suggest learning the fist nine numbers by saying any number you see as you go through your day. With so many numbers around, you will quickly learn them.
Here are the numbers 1 – 9 in French
Ten through nineteen
In many languages, such as German, the numbers ten through nineteen are very easy to learn because they are just a combination of the word ten and the word for the ones place. French numbers use this system for 17 – 19 but not for 11 – 16. For the numbers 11 – 16 you need to memorize new number names.
Here are the names for 10 – 16 in French
Seventeen through nineteen use the ten-ones pattern. For example, seventeen is Ten-Seven. It would be so much easier if 11 – 16 were like this.
Here are the names for 17 – 19
Twenty through sixty-nine
Twenty through sixty-nine are really fairly easy to learn because there is a logical and consistent pattern with a few exceptions, of course,
For this set, all that is required is to learn the words for 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 and then insert the correct foundation number (1 – 9).
The tens names are
So, to say 22, for example, it’s vingt (20) deux (2), vingt-deux. Thirty-five is trente-cinq.
The exceptions are 21, 31, 41, 51, and 61 in which case you need to add ‘and’ (et). For example, 21 is vingt et un, ‘twenty and one’.
- 21 vingt et un
- 31 trente et un
- 41 quarante et un
- 51 cinquante et un
- 61 soixante et un
Seventy through ninety-nine
Now comes the ‘interesting’ part about French numbers. French-French, as opposed to say Swiss-French or Belgium-French, does not have words for 70, 80, or 90. So counting from 68 to 73, for example, goes something like this:
Sixty-eight, sixty-nine, sixty-ten, sixty-eleven, sixty-twelve, sixty-thirteen . . .
Seventy is literally ‘sixty ten’: soixante dix.
Here are 70 – 79
Eighty through eighty-nine are a little crazier. Eighty in French is ‘four twenty’ (quatre-vingt) because 4 X 20 = 80. For example, eighty-one is four-twenty-one, quatre-vingt-un.
Here are 80 – 89
Ninety through ninety-nine continues with the four twenties concept but now you have to add 10 – 19 to get the extra 10. So, 90 is four-twenty-ten, quatre-vingt-dix. Which makes complete sense because 4 X 20 +10 = 90.
Here are 90 – 99
If you are headed to Switzerland, Swiss-French has names for 70, 80, and 90, as do some parts of Belgium. Those names are
- septante: 70,
- octante or huitante: 80
- nonante: 90
A word of warning, if you are traveling to Switzerland, Belgium, or other French-speaking countries most language apps won’t include these number names.
So, why this strange French system for 70 – 99? It’s based on the vigesimal system which is a 20 base number system rather than a 10 base number system. At some point, someone was using their toes and fingers to count and developed the 20 base system. Both the Celts and the Vikings had a 20 base system and both of these cultures were heavily involved in what is today France. Thus, 70 – 99 may be a vestige of these cultures.
Hundreds, thousands, and millions
Now back to some sanity. The hundreds, thousands, and millions all use a straightforward consistent pattern.
Hundred in French is ‘cent’. Two-hundred is deux-cent, 300 is trois-cents, and so on.
Thousand in French is ‘mille’. Two-thousand is deux mille, 3,000 is trois mille, and so on.
Million in French is ‘million’. Two-million is deux millions, 3,000,000 is trois millions, and so on.
Now you can say, for example, 9,876,543:
Neuf millions huit mille soixante-seize cinq cent quarante-trois.
By the way, the French word for 0 is ‘zéro’.
6 steps to learn French numbers
- Do not learn the numbers in consecutive order
- Learn the foundation numbers (1 – 9) first
- Learn the numbers 11 – 19
- Learn the pattern for numbers 20 – 69
- Learn the pattern for number 70 – 99
- Learn the words for hundred, thousand, and million