by Don  

Numbers... numbers are funny things, and human languages have all sorts of quirks in regards to them. For instance, the Ya̧nomamö tribe in South America has only three number words: one, two, and “more than two.” In Arabic grammar a feminine noun agrees with a masculine number and vice-versa, at least for the numbers three to ten. English has a word for a dozen dozens. Lusatian and Slovene have not only singular and plural noun endings, but also dual. And among the quirks of the Slavic languages is this little gem: Russian has a word that means “one and a half,” and that word is полтора/полторы. It declines like this:

Masc, neut Fem
Nom полтора полторы
Gen полутора

Like the numbers два/две, три, and четыре, this number is followed by the genitive singular of the noun that it quantifies. Sample sentences:

Нефть подешевела на полтора доллара. (source) [The price of] oil has fallen by a dollar and a half.
Через полторы недели вернусь к работе. (source) In a week and a half I'll return to work.
Романчук получил полтора года. (source) Romanchuk received a year and a half [of imprisonment].
ГАЗ предлагает за полтора миллиона рублей отреставрировать "Победы". (source) GAZ will restore “Pobeda” automobiles for one and a half million rubles.¹
Полторы тысячи пассажиров итальянского судна отбили атаку шести сомалийских пиратов. (source) One and a half thousand passengers of an Italian vessel repelled the attack of six Somali pirates.

Upon reflection one might wonder how the heck a language comes up with a single word for “one and a half.” After all, a caveman is not going to go out looking for one and a half yaks, and a prehistoric Slav never looked for one and a half wives. So why a number for “one and a half”? The reason is simple: it originally came from two words. The Old Russian word for half was полъ, where the final letter was a spoken vowel. The word for second was вторъ, which in the genitive case was втора. When speaking of quantities, ancient Russians talked about “half of the second” «полъ втора» item, and they assumed the listener knew that if they were talking about half of the second, they of course also meant all of the first item as well. Or if talking about a feminine thing they used вторы, which is the feminine genitive form of second. Eventually the vowels ъ and ь started vanishing from the language, which meant in terms of pronunciation they were left with полвтора and полвторы. Languages have the tendency to simplify consonant clusters, and the в eventually vanished (which is the same reason we pronounce здравствуй as [zdrastvuy] not [zdravstvuy].

¹ ГАЗ = Горьковский автомобильный завод = the Gorky Automobile Factory.


Comment from: Anyse [Visitor]

I was teaching a Russian English yesterday and the word полтора came up and I asked her what the part тора came from as I al ready knew that пол meant half. Well she did not know! Now I will send her this link so that she will know as well.

Thank you!

03/01/11 @ 03:05
Comment from: Martin [Visitor]

I agree with Kris. Nice post indeed. Moreover it is much easier to remember new word if you know how it’s been created.

09/09/09 @ 23:43
Comment from: LV [Visitor]

This quirk is not exclusive to Slavic languages. German has the word anderthalb “one and a half", from ander “other/second” and halb “half". Formerly there were even words like vierthalb “three and a half” (from viert “fourth") and so on. Apparently the -t- in anderthalb was added by analogy with the other ordinals ending in -t.

Don responds: Now that is interesting! Old Russian also has “half of the third” and “half of the fourth” constructions, but I have not encountered them in any modern text.

09/09/09 @ 23:22
Comment from: Kris [Visitor]

Great post Don! I love it when you describe where a word came from and how it evolved over time. I think this gives a real insight into Russian culture and even into the Russian mind (if one can make such a generalisation).

09/09/09 @ 01:35

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