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.

countingBut 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.

The Joy Of Counting

I keep a coin box on a dresser in our bedroom.  When I come home with change in my pocket, I put it in the coin box.  Then, when the coin box is filled to overflowing, I get to experience one of my great little pleasures — counting the coins and putting them into coin rolls.

IMG_3225Why do I enjoy this little chore so much?  Well, for one, it’s tangible evidence of our thrift.  We’ve saved the coins, after all, rather than frittered them away on lottery tickets or video games, and it’s nice to tote up the amounts every once in a while and see the fruits of our frugality.

There’s also a tactile, sensory element that is enjoyable.  You dump all of the coins out on a surface and hear their jingle and clatter.  You grab a flattened coin sleeve — I usually start with pennies, because there are more of them than any other coin — and pop it open.  My right index finger goes into one end of the coin roll, to stop and straighten the coins that are inserted into the other end.  Then the counting begins, and what a joy it is to count again, to 40 or 50 depending on the coin, like you are back sitting attentively at your desk in first grade.

The counting continues, the rolls fill up, the dollar coins that are given as change at automatic change dispensers get stacked, and the excess coins get put back into the empty coin box, to be counted next time.  Hey, more then $30.  Not bad!