We learned some things so long ago that we have no recollection of the process. The words “Mom” and “Dad” and the names of our siblings. That you don’t stick your hand into an open flame or onto a glowing red burner. Simple temporal concepts, like “today” and “yesterday” and “tomorrow” and “later.”
And basic words. Anybody who has children knows that kids typically learn the words “yes” and “no” some time before the age of two and then stubbornly and infuriatingly speak, shout, or scream the word “no” exclusively for the next 12 months.
But counting comes later, along with learning your ABCs. Counting is a building block for math, just like learning the alphabet is a building block for reading and spelling. When you think about it, counting is a fairly sophisticated concept. First you grasp the difference between none, one, and many — and then you learn that specific words and symbols represent precise numbers of, say, the little meatballs in the Chef Boyardee spaghetti that your Mom served for lunch.
One of the challenges of counting, of course, is that the words that represent the numbers, and their progression, aren’t intuitive. I thought of counting and its challenges when I stumbled across this article about the words “eleven” and “twelve” and their history. For many kids, the numbers between 10 and 20 are the big challenge because they’re weird and not consistent with the concepts that come before (between 1 and 10) or after (for 20 and up). To this day, I think the only reason I know the world “delve” is because of the rhyme I learned about counting as a kid. (“Eleven, twelve, dig and delve.”)
So where did eleven and twelve come from? According to etymologists, both come from the root word “lif,” which apparently meant “to leave” — the concept being that 11 would mean one left after 10, and 12 would mean two left after 10. It’s weird, and something that would forever after cause kids learning to count to stumble and hesitate after then got to 10, but it’s not unique to English — when you learn how to count in French, at least, you encounter the same issue and strange words just after “dix”.
That suggests that, in the early days among the common folk, most people didn’t need to routinely count up to 573, or for that matter much past ten. That makes sense, because we’ve got ten fingers and kids learning to count often do so using their fingers. Our ancestors created special words for the numbers just past ten, but at a certain point they probably just shrugged and settled for “many” rather than going for precision.
Lots of kids learning to count would like to have taken the same approach.