"Forty" in Indo-European and Turkic

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Mehmet Oguz Derin writes:

Recently, while reinspecting the numerals, I found that the case of forty in Turkic is a bit more challenging (kırk/qwrq). It made me wonder, could this possibly be a very early borrowing from Indo-European, from the same stem that produces the quaranta word with the same meaning? Maybe the base got in with the kır- part as somehow verbalized and then nominalized again within the framework of language family using -k coda, or directly from a nominal functioning base. Or would that be a too-far-fetched idea to think?


From Ottoman Turkish قرق(kırk, forty; many), from Old Anatolian Turkish (kırk, forty), from Proto-Turkic *kïrk (forty).


Italian surname

Quaranta (forty in Italian). The Quaranta family is an ancient and noble Italian family, with its origin in Scandinavia, established at the end of the 11th century in the district of Salerno. This surname now has roots that spread all over the world. When researching the Quaranta name, several different variations of the name can be found. Language changes and carelessness contributed to this. Additionally, high instances of illiteracy contributed to the numbers of ways a name may have been spelled and articulated. Many times a town clerk would spell names the way they sounded. Because of this, surname dictionaries list such spelling variations as Quarantelli, Quaranti, Quatanto, Quarantas, Quartarara, Quaranto, and Quartararo which all stem from the root surname Quaranta.


From Late Latin quarranta, from Latin quadrāgintā, from Proto-Indo-European *kʷetwr̥(d)ḱomt (four-ten).



Proto-Indo-European root meaning "four."

It forms all or part of: cadre; cahier; carillon; carrefour; catty-cornered; diatessaron; escadrille; farthing; firkin; fortnight; forty; four; fourteen; fourth; quadrant; quadraphonic; quadratic; quadri-; quadrilateral; quadriliteral; quadrille; quadriplegia; quadrivium; quadroon; quadru-; quadruped; quadruple; quadruplicate; quarantine; quarrel (n.2) "square-headed bolt for a crossbow;" quarry (n.2) "open place where rocks are excavated;" quart; quarter; quarterback; quartermaster; quarters; quartet; quarto; quaternary; quatrain; quattrocento; quire (n.1) "set of four folded pages for a book;" squad; square; tessellated; tetra-; tetracycline; tetrad; tetragrammaton; tetrameter; tetrarch; trapezium.

[T]he hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit catvarah, Avestan čathwaro, Persian čatvar, Greek tessares, Latin quattuor, Oscan petora, Old Church Slavonic četyre, Lithuanian keturi, Old Irish cethir, Welsh pedwar.


See also kwetwer- in The American Heritage Dictionary Indo-European Roots Appendix.

The Corps of Forty (Persian: گروه چهارده, Urdu: گروہِ چالیس), also known as Dal Chalisa or Turkan-e-Chahalgani was the council of 40 mostly Turkic slave emirs who administered the Delhi Sultanate as per the wishes of the sultan. It was the first regular ministerial body in the history of Indian subcontinent. Although all power was vested in the sultan, as the head of state, head of government, commander of the sultanate's armies and the final decision-maker in the judicial system, he needed help ruling his kingdom effectively.



Selected readings


  1. Olaf zimmermann said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 11:50 am

    Open Sesame!

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 11:57 am

    Good catch, Olaf!

  3. cameron said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 2:14 pm

    The Persian text quoted above (from wikipedia?) is inconsistent with the translation given. It says گروه چهارده, i.e. goruhe chahârdah. But that means "group of fourteen". If it's supposed to mean forty, it should be گروه چهل – goruhe chehel

  4. anhweol said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 3:16 pm

    Russian сорок is also an unexpected word for 'forty', possibly not a numeral etymologically at all. Perhaps the Turkic too is ultimately from another semantic field, rather than a foreign borrowing from a '40' word?

  5. AG said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 9:07 pm

    Related Indian words that might be known to English speakers include "chaturanga" (an early chess game and, I think, a yoga pose) and charpoy (a cot)

  6. Christopher Straughn said,

    June 15, 2022 @ 6:48 am

    Rasmus Bjørn has a paper out on how the numeral "7" (among other terms) could be a Wanderwort in Eastern Eurasia. Intriguing.
    One of the main problems with Indo-European vocabulary in Turkic is that it doesn't neatly align with either Iranian or Tocharian. Bjørn proposes that the language spoken by Afanasievo culture could explain this.

  7. Rodger C said,

    June 15, 2022 @ 10:15 am

    Western Eurasia?

  8. Mehmet Oguz Derin said,

    June 15, 2022 @ 11:44 am

    First, I'd like to thank Professor Mair for structuring a well-written post to my question. Corps of Forty was frankly news to me, an exciting chapter from history. It made me wonder where my reading was at all these years after recently finding out about Tulunids (or Tolunogullari) too! And then thanks to everybody for starting the conversation.

    For seven etymology there, I find the postulation in the paper a bit dismissive of internal dynamics, the at-a-hand's-distance analogy of 20 "twenty" (yegirmi) and others, and a bit too-conveniently not inspecting the duplicate consonant t reconstruction variant other than listing. Such criteria put me into more careful inspection of forty because modulo the potential of unrelated origins of semantic, not much analogy or comparable exists. Is there a study of semantic shifts to form numerals?

  9. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    June 15, 2022 @ 4:54 pm

    I have a small favour to ask from the contributors to this [b]log, many of whom are undoubtedly more erudite than I:

    in German, we have "vier, vierzehn, vierzig" (anyone struggling with the German language should read Mark Twain's essay, which is spot on.)
    in French we have "quatre, quatorze, quarante", again perfectly plausible (even though some snobs in my time derided it as mere 'vulgar Latin.)
    yet in English we have "four, fourteen, forty". When, where, and why was the 'u' elided?
    According to the OED, the spelling of "forty" has been current since time immemorial (just about). But in British English we also find a gratuitous 'u' insertetd in words like col[u]r, labo[u]r, etc.
    I'm aware of the fact that this is not strictly speaking an etymological issue and has more to do with decreed orthographical conventions, But it has stumped many an E2eller I had to deal with.

  10. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    June 15, 2022 @ 5:01 pm

    First God created astigmatism. This was for practice. Then he created keyboards.

  11. Philip Anderson said,

    June 15, 2022 @ 6:02 pm

    @Olaf Zimmermann
    The ‘u’ in colour etc was not “gratuitously inserted” in English, but borrowed when that was the way it was spelt in French (now spelt coleur), indicating a sound change from the Latin pronunciation. Then the Americans decided to gratuitously omit the ’u’.

  12. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    June 16, 2022 @ 8:14 am

    @Philip Anderson
    Thank for your considered and considerate reply.
    Even though I was not around at the time and therefore have to place my trust in historians' accounts, I'm quite sure that in Anglia the Romans preceeded the Normans. What you are suggesting is that, in the case of "colour", the English spelling was the result of a vowel shift (cf. couleur) rather than for political expedience (which would make the American spelling all the more intriguing). It'll keep me busy over the weekend, heatwave notwithstanding.

    But I'm still struggling with "forty".

  13. Rodger C said,

    June 16, 2022 @ 8:59 am

    I suspect the spelling of "forty" dates from a time when "four" was a dissyllable (as it still is in some dialects) and "forty" had a different vowel than "four."

  14. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    June 16, 2022 @ 9:57 am

    @Rodger C
    Thank your for pointing me in that direction. Perfect for tea time.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    June 16, 2022 @ 10:11 am

    Western Eurasia?

    No, eastern. The paper is in open access, and although it contains a few failures of peer review, I recommend it overall. Prof. Mair will no doubt be particularly interested in the idea that the East Asian "horse" words (Old Chinese *mˤraʔ and the like) are indeed Indo-European borrowings – just not from Tocharian, Celtic or Germanic, but from Northeast Iranian, where the inherited "horse" word was replaced by a derivative of "carry", *bāra-ka-. Schuessler (2007) is cited as noting that early Sinitic routinely borrowed [br]- and [bl]- as *[mr]-.

    Oddly, Jacques (2014) is cited, but its argument that the OC "honey" word was not *mit but *mrit, and borrowed from a Tocharian descendant not of *médhu but of the other IE honey word, *mélid, is completely ignored. That paper is in open access here.

    I'm quite sure that in Anglia the Romans preceeded the Normans.

    Yes, but English has very few loanwords directly from British Latin. Rather, Latin color became colour (koh-LOW-r) in medieval Norman French, but couleur (koo-LER) in medieval Parisian French; the former was borrowed into English (and its stress shifted to the first syllable in the process), the latter developed into the modern Standard French word. And then Noah Webster found that a simple "r" was spelled -our, found that annoying, and decided to change it to the Classical Latin -or to make things simpler.

    and "forty" had a different vowel than "four."

    It still does in those few Englishes that haven't had the horse-hoarse (NORTH-FORCE) merger. I have no idea why forty has that vowel, but its spelling is perfectly justified.

  16. David Marjanović said,

    June 16, 2022 @ 10:16 am

    Oh, back to the original topic: the Russian word for "40", which is completely unlike all other numerals in the language and has nothing to do with "4" or "10" or with the (perfectly regular) word for "40" in other Slavic languages, is a borrowing that originally referred to a package of 40 squirrel pelts. The fur trade was a major part of the economy of the entire Eurasian boreal zone for at least 2000 years and has had an enormous impact on its history.

  17. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    June 16, 2022 @ 11:54 am

    Quoth @David Marjanović:
    "the Russian word for "40", which is completely unlike all other numerals in the language and has nothing to do with "4" or "10" &c …
    which leads me to understand why a Saussure adopted most of Courtenay's nomenclature but stopped short of 'morpheme'. (unless I'm completely off-track.)

  18. Chris Button said,

    June 16, 2022 @ 12:03 pm

    @ Christopher Straughn

    Thanks for sharing that article by Rasmus Bjørn. The ideas there that “honey” and “horse” may be PIE loans in Old Chinese aren’t surprising, but the discussion of “seven” is a new one to me! The challenge with the OC form is that it reflects a hardening of an earlier -s coda.

  19. Chris Button said,

    June 16, 2022 @ 12:09 pm

    @ David Marjanović

    We’ve discussed Jacques’ proposal regarding “honey” on LLog a few times before. It was discredited, and I also recall reading somewhere that Jacques backtracked on it as well. The standard comparison still stands.

  20. Yves Rehbein said,

    June 19, 2022 @ 6:46 am

    Blažek's treatise on PIE numerals has comparisons eg. with "quarters", four walls, in reference to the isolated Hittite root that disagrees with the rest of PIE.

    If this squares fairly with "square" and "quary" from the same root, if chateaus are built predominantly from stone, it could as well belong with a verbal root and productive affixes, if the root isn't backformed on itself from some compound

  21. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    June 20, 2022 @ 12:39 pm

    I wonder if there's any relation between, "(kırk/qwrq)", and the russian "сорок"?

  22. Mehmet Oguz Derin said,

    June 28, 2022 @ 4:57 am

    Thanks for the discussion, everybody! There are some very useful references in the comments for further reading.

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