Let’s talk about the Russian language again – some of its everyday words surprise and puzzle foreign learners. Here is one of them - the simple numeral 40.

The history of the numeral 40

Every time I go through Russian numerals with my students, there is one number that always provokes the reaction “But why? It sounds nothing like the rest of them!” This is of course the numeral 40 – “sorok”. Yes, it is completely irregular, and linguists are not quite sure why, but here is an explanation that sounds quite plausible.

In Russian, like in most other Indo-European languages, the system of numerals is almost regular. The numbers from 1 to 10 form the basis of the system. The numbers from 11 to 19 are compounds, meaning “one on ten”, “two on ten” and so on. 20 and 30 are also regular – “two tens” and “three tens”. And then suddenly, the logical sequence is broken. For 40, instead of “four tens”, we suddenly have a completely unexpected word “sorok”. Where did that come from?

Why is number 40 different in Russian?

Linguists have different theories about that. According to a more interesting one, the word “sorok” appeared about 700 years ago, to replace the regular word “chetyre desyate”. In the old days, the word “sorok” was used for counting sable and other precious fur pelts. The word “sorochka” in modern Russian means a “shirt”, and in old Russian it meant an undershirt which was used (I presume, by hunters originally) for keeping sable pelts, and one could stuff 40 pelts in it. “Sorok” is just another (masculine) form of this word. One of the important items of trade with other countries in Russia were precious furs, that came mostly from Siberia, in the form of taxation of local people. The first assessment of skins brought in by hunters in “soroks” was made in Siberia, after which they would come to Moscow and get recounted and sorted into new packs of “soroks” – “forties”. When the tsar wanted to give a gift to a foreign monarch, or send a gift bearing mission to another state, the best sets of “soroks” were chosen. With time, “sorok” became a counting unit and replaced the regular numeral. I think that the fact that it is short and easy word must have helped.

According to another theory however, the word “sorok” was borrowed from Turkish languages.

Сорок сороков

The expression “sorok sorokov” – “forty forties”, that is, 1600, is a traditional Russian expression for something so numerous that is difficult to count. It was applied, for example, to the number of churches in old Moscow (although there were never as many as 1600 of them at any period in time!) Some people say that the expression “sorok sorokov” could have been made at the time when huge Easter procession in Moscow were held. Great crowds of people would turn up – all the clergy with their parishes (supposedly, there were 40 of those).

The Russian word “sorokonozhka” (a 40-legged creature) means a “centipede” – not because it has exactly 40 legs, but because the legs are numerous and difficult to count.

The significance of number 40

It is also interesting that the numeral “forty” has a special significance in other cultures, indicating a great number of something, which is not exactly 40, but numerous. It is used, for example, in the Bible: the rain in the Great Flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights; Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, Moses was leading his people through the desert for 40 years. And, in the Russian Orthodox tradition a deceased person is remembered and mourned for 40 days after death, because it takes 40 days for the soul to stop wandering around and go to rest.

After 40, the logical system is restored – we have “five tens”, “six tens”, and so on, until we reach 90.

The numeral 90

What’s the story with ninety? Students expect it to be “nine tens”, like all the other numerals but we suddenly get “девяносто - devyanosto!” It is not quite clear why and at what time in history replaced the regular form by the irregular one. The word “devyanosto” literally means “ten to a hundred” – “dyesyat do sta”. With time, the sound “s” was replaced by “v”, thus giving us the modern word “devyanosto”.

What are other Russian numerals like?

All the other Russian numerals, I am pleased to tell you, are regular. But I should warn you that they all decline (i.e. change their form in different cases), and the declension of big complex numbers is so difficult that even quite well educated Russian native speakers get them wrong regularly! Therefore, in colloquial Russian we try to avoid phrases in which complex number declensions would be necessary. So instead of saying something like “I went to the shop with two thousand three hundred and forty roubles in my pocket”, which would require the use of the instrumental case for all the components of this long number, we would say something like “I went to the shop, and I had two thousand three hundred and forty roubles on me”. Additionally, the numbers 1 and 2 have genders, and “one” is actually an adjective grammatically, and declines accordingly. But do not get too scared – all Russians know how difficult the numeral declension is, so everyone will understand it even if you get it wrong…

So welcome to learning Russian, and let’s get counting!