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Cardinal numbers

This topic deals with cardinals. Cardinal numbers are numerals used for counting things. Examples are ien one, tolve twelve and hûndert hundred. This topic consists of eight sections. The first section explains how cardinals are formed. The second section gives an overview of the allomorphs that can occur within the cardinals. The third section deals with the word order within cardinals: in English it is twenty-five, but in Frisian 5 is pronounced first and linked to 20 by a coordinating conjunction en and. This results in fiifentweintich five.and.twenty.

Cardinals may occur in some elliptic constructions: as clocktimes (fourth section): fiif oer fiven five minutes past five, as persons (fifth section): mei har fjouweren with the four of them and as parts (sixth section): it skip bruts yn trijen the ship broke into three parts.

Cardinals can also occur in the idiomatic construction in N of Num: in dei of tsien ten days or so; this wil be dealt with in the seventh section. Finally, in the eighth section, the morphological potential of cardinals will be discussed.

[+]Building blocks and semantics

The cardinal numbers are productively formed on the basis of fourteen free morphemes:

Table 1
Free morphemes Translation
ien one
twa two
trije three
fjouwer four
fiif five
seis six
sân seven
acht eight
njoggen nine
tsien ten
alve eleven
tolve twelve
hûndert hundred
tûzen thousand
and a few bound morphemes: -tich -ty, -en- and, -oen -on, -ard -ard, milj- mill-, bilj- bill-.

The suffix -tich (pronounced [təχ]) makes names for powers of ten. It is like English -ty (as in forty), German -zig (as in vierzig forty) and Dutch -tig (as in veertig forty) in that it is etymologically related to -tien, -ten, -zehn. The bound morphemes-oen -on and -ard -ard are used with milj- mill-, etc. to build internationalisms like miljoen million, miljard billion and biljoen ten to the power twelve.

Morphemes are combined by something that looks like compounding but with a different semantics: it is not intersective but is rather additive (sech(s)-tjin = 6+10) or multiplicative at other times (seis-hûndert = 6*100). The element -en- looks exactly like coordinating en and but it has a restricted, i.e. additive, semantics: twa-en-tritich two.and.thirty thirty two, hûndert(en)seis hundred.(and).six one hundred and six. The conjunction element en can be omitted in numbers above 100. For example, hûndertentsien one hundred and ten and hundertsien are both grammatical. In numbers below 100, the conjunction element is obligatory: ienentweintich twenty-one vs *ientwintich twenty-one. Another difference between these numbers is that above 100, the <e> in en is pronounced as [ɛ], below 100 it is pronounced as [ə].

The following table gives an impression of the basic pattern:

Table 2
1 ien 12 tolve (tolf) 30 tritich
2 twa 13 trettjin 40 fjirtich
3 trije 14 fjirtjin 50 fyftich
4 fjouwer 15 fyftjin 60 sechtich
5 fiif 16 sechtjin 70 santich
6 seis 17 santjin 80 tachtich
7 sân 18 achttjin 90 njoggentich
8 acht 19 njoggentjin 100 hûndert
9 njoggen 20 tweintich 1000 tûzen
10 tsien 21 ienentweintich 1.000.000 miljoen
11 alve (âlf) 22 twaentweintich miljard
The cardinal numbers are never inflected, except ien one in the expression de iene the one (in contrast to de oare the other).


Some of the vowels of the single numbers that undergo shortening or breaking display allomorphy among them as a result, when they are used as the left-hand member of a higher number. Twa [twa:] two may be shortened to [twa] if used attributively, for instance in twa boeken two books. It has an allomorphtwein- or twin- in tweintich/twintich twenty. For trije three there is tret- in trettjin thirteen and tri- in tritich thirty; for fjouwer four there is fjir- in fjirtjin fourteen and fjirtich forty; for fiif the vowel is shortened tofyf- /fif/ or even further rounded to /fyf-/ in fyftjin fifteen and fyftich fifty; for seis six there is sech(s)- in sech(s)tjin sixteen and sech(s)tich sixty. Sân seven is shortened to san- /sɔn-/ in santjin seventeen and santich seventy and for acht eight there is tacht- in tachtich eighty. Njoggen [njoɣən] nine may be heavily shortened in njoggentjin 19 and njoggentich 90 to [njon], or also with a centralizing diphthong to [njo.ən]. Frisian has a few more numbers with allomorphs than Dutch. For more information about shortening and breaking, see Allomorphy in Frisian: 'broken and 'shortened' forms.

The number ien one undergoes breaking when it becomes part of a larger number. So the number ienentritich one.and.thirty thirty one is pronounced as [jɪnn̩tritəx], also with a syllabic consonant [n]. Furthermore, tsien ten was historically subject to breaking in the numbers trettjin thirteen, fjirtjin fourteen, fyftjin fifteen, sech(s)tjin sixteen, santjin seventeen, achttjin eighteen and njoggentjin nineteen.

[+]Word order in cardinals

In cardinals between 12 and 20, the word order is low-high (five plus ten: fyftjin fifteen) and the semantics is additive. In the names of the units of 10, the order is [stem]-tich. If we assume that -tich means '10', the semantics is multiplicative: sech(s)-tich 6*10 sixty. Between 21 and 99, the structure is small-and-large and the semantics is additive: trije-en-sech(s)tich 3+60 sixty-three. In units of 100, 1000 and higher, the order is small before large again, but the semantics is multiplicative: trijehûndert 3*100 three hundred, seistûzen 6*1000 six thousand, fjouwerentritich-miljoen 34*1000000 thirty four million. Complex numbers larger than 100 are built from the building blocks just described: the number 363 is trijehûnderttrije-en-sechtich (3*100)+(3+60) three hundred-sixtythree.

The formation of cardinals can be schematized as follows (according to Booij (2010)):

  • 13-19: no overt conjunction, lower number before higher number;
  • 21-99: conjunction, lower number before higher number;
  • > 100: optional conjunction before the last numeral, higher number before lower number.
Some numbers can be pronounced in more than one way. The number 1421 may be tûzen fjouwerhûndert ienentweintich thousand four.hundred one.and.twenty or preferably fjirtjinhûndert-ienentweintich fourteen.hundred-one.and.twenty. When the number is used in names of years, there is a third possibility, as hûndert hundred may be left implicit: fjirtjin ienentweintich fourteen one.and.twenty. One cannot use the otherwise well-formed expression tûzen fjouwerhûndert ienentweintich for denoting the year 1421.

[+]Cardinals as clocktimes

In temporal expressions (phrases of time), the cardinals get the suffix -en:

Example 1

a. kertier foar fjouwer-en
quarter before four-SUFF
a quarter to four
b. healwei trij-en
halfway three-SUFF
half past two
c. nei fiv-en
after five-SUFF
after five o'clock

A condition is that the cardinal should stand alone; it may not be followed by a noun:

Example 2

*nei fiv-en oere
after five-SUFF hour
after five o'clock

In this case oere o'clock is expressed, and the cardinal does not get the suffix -en. In case of an elliptic construction, when the noun oere is omitted, the suffix -en is obligatorily added to the numeral.

A condition for the presence of the suffix is that the numeral should be preceded by one of the following prepositions: foar before, nei after, tsjin against, by near, om ... hinne around and healwei half past. In spoken Frisian, om around of the circumfix om ... hinne around can be left out, as in acht oere hinne stapten wy yn 'e auto around eight o'clock we got into the car.

The preposition tusken between may be used when the elliptic clocktimes are coordinated:

Example 3

tusken fiv-en en seiz-en
between five-SUFF and six-SUFF
between five and six o'clock

The construction om NUM-en en NUM-en, for instance in om trij-en en fjouwer-en around three-SUFF and four-SUFF somewhere between three and four o'clock is slightly idiomatic.

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Comparison with Dutch

Although Dutch has a comparable construction, the Frisian system is more elaborated. Dutch lacks the suffix if exact clock times are involved, like half past or a quarter to:

Example 4

a. *Half zess-en
half six-SUFF
Half past five
b. *Kwart voor zess-en
quarter to six-SUFF
A quarter to six
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The preposition healwei half past not only denotes a temporal phrase, but can also be used as a place indicator:

Example 5

Healwei de dyk fan Boalsert nei Snits krige er in lekke bân
halfway the dike from Boalsert to Snits got he a flat tyre
Halfway between Boalsert and Snits he got a flat tyre

See: Hoekstra (1988).

[+]Cardinals as persons

In Frisian we find a collective construction in the form of an Adposition Phrase (PP) with the preposition mei with. This PP consists of a possessive pronoun and a numeral. To the numeral an ending -en is attached. There is a coreference relation between the possessive pronoun and the subject of the sentence, as in the following examples:

Example 6

a. Hja kamen mei har fjouweren
they.3PL came with their.3PL four-en
They came with the four of them
b. Wy geane mei ús trijen
we.1PL go with us.1PL three-en
We go with the three of us

The suffix -en is usually dependent on the existence of the preposition. An independent phrase *ús fjouweren is ungrammatical. An exception is the first person plural subject pronoun wy we, which may be followed by a suffixed numeral, for instance in:

Example 7

Wy trij-en steane garant foar in moaie foarstelling
we tree-SUFF stand surety for a beautiful show
The three of us guarantee a fine show

The suffix can also be attached to the quantifiers alle all, beide both and in stikmannich a few, as in the sentence: wy geane mei ús allen we go with us all-SUFF we go all together. In the following quote we also see an added adjunct:

Example 8

Se (matte) mei hjar stikmannig-en fen kammeraten er moal (...) troch gien wæze
H.G. van der Veen, De kaertlizzer 20 [1856]
They must with their few-SUFF of comrades there wild (...) through gone be
It is said that with their comrades they must have gone on the rampage

The adjunct fen kammeraten further characterizes the subject se they. Another example of such an adjunct headed by the preposition fan of is mei ús trij-en fan boeren with us three-SUFF of farmers, which means with the three of us, being farmers. This kind of adjunction seems to be disappearing in the present-day language, however.

The ending -en is the normal plural suffix that we also find in nouns. However, as Booij (2010:234-235) points out with respect to the comparable construction in Dutch, there is a problem here. In Frisian and Dutch, there is a regular distribution between the two available plural suffixes -en and -s. The suffix -en is attached to stressed syllables and -s to unstressed ones. According to this system, fjouwer four, with a schwa in its second syllable, would regularly take the plural suffix -s. This is clear from an example in which fjouwer really acts as a noun:

Example 9

It famke hie trije fjouwer-s op har rapport
the girl had three four-PL on her report
The girl had three grades 4 on her report

Hence, it appears from this particular construction that -en is not the ordinary plural morpheme, but something else. This 'something else' makes sense if we analyze the construction as a case of ellipsis. It seems that something like PERSON has been omitted here. The ending -en, then, would be an instance of special morphology connected to ellipsis. This view makes the more sense because of the coreference relation with the subject, which might then be viewed as a kind of antecedent, although not in the standard way. This could also be an explanation of the fact that such pluralized numerals cannot act as a subject themselves, as Booij (2005a:12) also notes for Dutch:

Example 10

*Fjouweren kamen te let
four-SUFF came too late
Four people came too late

The preposition that preferably combines with the possessive pronoun + numeral+-en is mei. The possessive pronoun is obligatory: *mei fjouweren. The phrase can not be expanded by an adjective:

Example 11

*mei ús fjouwer aardig-en
with our four nice-SUFF
with four nice people

Frisian also has a construction by + Numeral + -en which means in groups of [numeral] persons. For example:

Example 12

Wy komme by ien-en, by twa-en en by trij-en yn 'e tsjerke
we come by one-SUFF, by two-SUFF and by three-SUFF into the church
We come to the church in groups of one, two and three persons

The ending -en may also be found after the preposition fan of, in an adjunct after a noun denoting a set, as in in ploech fan fjouweren a group of four. Note that after these prepositions the possessive pronoun is lacking.

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Dutch influence

Dutch has the same construction as described above, but there is also a comparable construction in this language which is lacking in Frisian ((Popkema 2006:172). In this Dutch variant, the possessive pronoun is independent of the subject, it is always z'n his. In Frisian, the possessive pronoun fully depends on the subject (see for example (6a)). However, under the influence of Dutch z'n his, constructions like the one below tend to increase in present-day spoken language.

Example 13

?Wy geane mei syn fjouwer-en
we go with his four-SUFF
We go with the four of us
[hide extra information]

More information on this elliptic construction can be found in Dyk (2011:64-65).

[+]Cardinals as parts

In Frisian, as well as in Dutch, we can find the following elliptic construction:

Example 14

It skip bruts yn trijen
the ship broke in three-en
The ship broke into three parts

As can been seen in (11) and (12), apparently, something like the concept 'part' has been left out. Again, there is a suffix -en involved, and again it is attached to a number. Usually, the preposition yn is used as the head of the PP, although its counterpart út is not excluded:

Example 15

In goede preek bestiet út trijen
a good sermon consists out three-en
A good sermon consists of three parts

Quite idiosyncratic is the idiom yn twaen falle, literally to fall in two-en, i.e. to get a baby.

The suffixed numeral fjouwer-en four-SUFF has a special sense in that it can refer to the feet of a horse. The adverbial phrase út 'e fjouwer-en out the four-SUFF means at a gallop. Op fjouwer-en sette on four-SUFF set is fit a horseshoe. The phrase op fjouwer-en be-slein wêze on four-SUFF PREF-hit be being shoed has an extra metaphorical meaning: know how to go about things.

[hide extra information]

More information on this construction can be found in Dyk (2011:66-67).

[+]The construction in N of Num

Frisian has an idiomatic construction in N of Num, as shown in the examples below:

Example 16

a. in oere of tsien
an hour of ten
around ten o'clock
b. in meter of fiif
a metre or five
five metres or so
c. in kear of sân
a time or seven
seven times or so

Of cannot be replaced by, for example, en or noch, so in N of Num is a fixed expression:

Example 17

a. *in oere en tsien
an our and ten
around ten o'clock
b. *in meter noch fiif
a metre nor five
five metres or so

The two variable parts of the construction are the noun and the numeral. The noun is always morphologically singular, while it can be interpreted as plural, and cannot easily be modified (as can be seen in the two examples below). The numeral is always semantically plural.

Example 18

a. ?in sâlte hjerring of tsien
a salt herring or ten
ten salt herrings or so
b. *in boek oer yndianen of tolve
a book about indians or twelve
twelve books about indians or so

Of is the most 'useless' element in the construction. It does not have a grammatical function, which will be the reason that it can be reduced or deleted. It is mostly deleted when there are two numerals in the construction:

Example 19

in dei twa trije
a day two three
two or three days or so

In case the numeral in this construction is twa two, of is often deleted, for example:

Example 20

de earste dei twa
the first day two
the first two days or so

Next to this example, there is one case where of is deleted obligatorily:

Example 21

in deimannich
a day-some
a few days

This lexicalised expression is not very recognizable as an in N of Num construction, but it has some properties which are characteristic. The main one is the element in at the beginning. Furthermore, the noun has the same properties and restrictions as other nouns in this construction. Thus we also find expressions as in in oeremannich a couple of hours or in kearmannich a few times.

Instead of a numeral, the quantifier wat can also appear in the construction in N of Num:

Example 22

a. in dei of wat
a day or some
a few days
b. in kilo of wat
a kilo or some
a few kilos

Here, deletion of of is out, in contrast to the construction with the quantifier mannich in (21). Also modification of wat is not possible:

Example 23

a. *in kilo wat
a kilo some
a few kilos
b. *in drip of moai wat
a drip or nice some
lots of drips

The expression in stik of wat functions as a quantifier in itself, meaning some or a couple of. Therefore the expression may be followed by a noun that is quantified, for instance in in stik of wat jierappels a couple of potatoes. Next to the construction in stik of wat, the position of wat can be occupied by a numeral:

Example 24

in stik of tsien jierappels
a piece or ten potatoes
about ten potatoes

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Literature on this construction can be found in Hoekstra (1992).

[+]Morphological potential of cardinal numbers

Cardinal numbers can also be used as names for ranks, scores, bank notes etc. (ik hie in tsien I had a ten I had the highest score) and then they behave like nouns, with the possibility of diminutive formation, pluralization etc. In diminutive formation, the cardinal gets an diminutive suffix, as in: tsientsje ten guilder/euro bill (or the Dutch loanword tientje), healtsje half a serving, certain coin and twake two eggs in a nest.

Multiplicatives are expressed by the cardinal numbers plus kear time: trije kear fjouwer is tolve three times four is twelve. The noun kear always remains singular: ien kear once, trije kear three times. Kear time may also occur with ordinals: de tweintichste kear the twentieth time. The suffix -ris ( [rəs]) likewise indicates how many times something has happened: twaris two times or trijeris three times (see (25)). Nowadays the suffix -ris is mainly restricted to written Frisian. The same goes for the suffix -resom [rəsom] (see (1) in -resom). This affix can be used to define the size of the group: trijeresom in/with a group of three.

Example 25

a. Se gienen twaris yn it jier nei tsjerke
they went two.times in the year to church
Two times per year they went to church
b. Wy gienen trijeresom nei it feest
we went three-re-sum to the party
With a group of three we went to the party

The cardinals hûndert one-hundred, tûzen thousand, miljoen million and miljard billion can be considered a subset of the category of measure nouns (Booij (2010)). They have properties of nouns, in that they can be pluralized: hûnderten hundreds and tûzenen thousands. Hûndert one-hundred and tûzen thousand are different from miljoen million and miljard billion, in that they can be used without a preceding numeral (a), where miljoen and miljard cannot (b) and (c):

Example 26

a. hundert / tûzen boeken
hundred / thousand books
b. *miljoen / miljard boeken
million / billion books
c. fjouwer miljoen / miljard boeken
four million / billion books

Note that also the indefinite pronoun may count here as "preceding numeral":

Example 27

in miljoen / miljard boeken
[hide extra information]

More information about the syntactical aspects of cardinals may be found in Attribution of the Frisian Syntax.

  • Booij, Geert2005Construction-dependent morphologyLingue e Linguaggio431-46
  • Booij, Geert2010Construction morphologyOxford/New YorkOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert2010Construction morphologyOxford/New YorkOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert2010Construction morphologyOxford/New YorkOxford University Press
  • Dyk, Siebren2011The morphology of Frisian nominal ellipsis
  • Dyk, Siebren2011The morphology of Frisian nominal ellipsis
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1988Hoe let is it?Friesch Dagblad20-08Taalsnipels 82
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1992In dei of trije : tusken leksikon en syntaksisPhilologia Frisica anno 1990, Fryske Akademy63-89
  • Popkema, Jan2006Grammatica FriesUtrecht/ LjouwertUitgeverij Het Spectrum BV Prisma Woordenboeken en Taaluitgaven/ Fryske Akademy