Distracted by a bird while ordering a Currywurst.

You will learn numbers very quickly or perhaps you already know a few, for in theaters and in opera nothing goes without them. Rows, seats and ranks in the opera house and the ranks in its hierarchy are arranged by number. You will need to talk about the numbers presented to you in a contract, especially in the income section. You will have to understand the fractions the Kapellmeister shouts at you when he or she wants you to sing certain notes. You will have to grasp the telephone numbers, dates and times, a stressed-out agency secretary rattles through to you on the phone.

First of all, believe it or not, there are two words in German for number (well, that’s what a number is all about, isn’t it?): die Zahl and die Nummer.

Die Zahl has no meaning, no content; it’s a naked number without purpose. 10 or 250 or 5 Millionen whatever. Zahlen (plural) are the result of calculations. We read them on the calculator’s display.

Nummern (plural), however, have a meaning. They tell you how to reach someone on the phone (Telefonnummer), what house you are living in (Hausnummer), where your money has gone (to your landlord’s Bankkontonummer or Kontonummer).

The Cardinal Numbers

When it comes to numbers greater than twelve, the cardinal numbers are formulated differently in German than in English.

1 eins … 11 elf, 12 zwölf; and then to speak the numbers between 12 and 20 we take the number zehn and precede it with the single number:

dreizehn, vierzehn, fünfzehn,

sechzehn (here we drop the s and pronounce -ch like in lächeln or München)

siebzehn (here we drop the -en from sieben)

achtzehn, neunzehn, zwanzig

We form the numbers greater than 20 in the reverse order to that used in English. In English we say twenty one but in German we say einundzwanzig

22 = 2 + 20 zweiundzwanzig, 33 = 3 + 30 dreiunddreißig, 44 = 4 + 40 vierundvierzig.

On it’s own the word zig, , stands for umpteen.

In New York habe ich zig tausend Dollar verdient. (In New York I made many thousands of dollars.)

English-speakers tend to confuse the endings. Instead of -ig they say -zehn. They want to express the number 99 but might say neunundneunzehn, or they might say siebzehn when they mean 70. The difference in sound may be small, but the difference on the contract will surprise you after the agent has scribbled down your idea what you wish to earn in the next production of “Hänsel und Gretel”.

Also, English-speakers use the word Zeit when they want to express the frequency of events or actions. In German, the word is mal.

Ich habe die Turandot zehn mal gesungen.

I’ve sung Turandot ten times.

Next update on Sunday, April 15th : Welches Datum haben wir heute?  The Numbers. Part II.