Viking Math

[In this post I include a comic drawn by Humon Comics. Their Scandinavia and the World series sheds the much-needed light on the Scandinavian psyche and the differences between Scandinavian countries. Whenever I’m confused about something I refer to Scandinavia and the World.]

Vikings are known for a lot of things – pillaging, burning villages, beards, progressive gender roles, being the first Europeans in the Americas, really good boats – but they’re not known for being great mathematicians. Still, they navigated the seas a lot, which would lead one to believe that their mathematics were fairly advanced.

Even though they did not record their findings in math, they did invent a convoluting numbering system, based on 20 (vigesimal). [Note that this ‘invention’ is not limited to the Vikings. Vigesimal systems were also used by Mayans, Aztecs, some people in East Asia and are common in Africa.]

Danes – unlike Swedes and Norwegians – decided to cling to this weird system of understanding the numbers. While Swedish and Norwegian languages evolved to be more easily understood, in Danish vigesimal still rules.


Here’s an example: Number 3 is ‘tre’ in Danish. Number 60 is ‘tres’. The reason for this is that ‘tres’ is short for ‘tre-sinds-tyve’, meaning ‘three times twenty.’ (‘s’ does not indicate a plural in Danish, so although it may sound like ‘threes’ to an English speaking person, tres does not mean ‘threes’).

But that one’s easy though.

Now how about 50? Fifty is ‘halvtreds’, which stands for ‘half third times twenty’. (I tried doing this calculation, but even with my calculator, I’m completely lost. Half third is 0.166 and if you times that 20, you get around 3.32, not 50) The problem here is not 3.32, but the fact that ‘halvtreds’ sounds an awful lot like ‘half of sixty’ (it’s not. It just sounds like it.)

Are we having fun yet?

How about 70? Seventy is ‘halvfjerds’, which stands for ‘four and a half times twenty’, which – again – is completely wrong! Because four and a half times twenty is actually 90.

But wait! Let’s say you see the numbering system based on 20 and you’re like: ‘okay, that makes total sense.’ Well, not so fast! Because here comes 40. Forty should logically be called something like ‘two times twenty’, right? Wrong. Vikings were not logical people.

The number 40 in Danish is ‘fyrre’. And this means ‘four times ten.’ WHY? Why not. (That’s just Vikings showing off that they can also count by 10, I think…)

But it isn’t just vigesimal that makes Danish numbers problematic. Also, when saying a number such as twenty-five or thirty-eight, you need to reverse the numbers. So twenty-five becomes five-and-twenty (femogtyve) and thirty-eight becomes eight-and-thirty (otteogtredive). It takes considerable skill to reverse the number order in your head. It will take me some time (maybe years) before I can go to a bakery or a pharmacy, take a number, and actually understand it when my number is called.

How the Vikings ever got to North America remains a mystery





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