Most European languages have a decimal counting system (counting in tens); however a small number of European languages have a vigesimal counting system (counting in twenties).
The main language groups in Europe which retain the vigesimal counting system are Basque and the Brythonic Celtic languages (Welsh, Cornish, Breton); while some remnants of the system are also found in French and Danish.
The vigesimal system is much more typical of non-European languages.
Semitic languages of western Asia, eg. Arabic have a decimal counting system. This system has entered northern Africa with the spread of Islam; however the older vigesimal system remains in some Berber languages of north Africa.
The vigesimal counting system is a common feature of many Niger Congo languages of western tropical Africa.
It has been previously suggested that there are a number of morphological similarities shared between certain Niger-Congo languages (Atlantic and Mande groups]; Berber languages in north Africa; the Basque language in south-western Europe; and Celtic languages in the British Isles.
Given the absence of the vigesimal counting system in eastern Europe but its presence in western Europe; and its absence in western Asia but presence in parts of northern and western Africa, maybe these regions share a common origin of the vigesimal system (ie. people crossed the Mediterranean Sea or sailed around the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Europe in prehistoric times).
Leaving aside genetic and archaeological evidence for prehistoric contacts between Africa and Europe (which is outside the scope of this blog), what linguistic evidence do we have for a common origin of the vigesimal counting system in Africa and Europe?
I believe that I have found evidence for this, and this evidence is unlikely to be a coincidence.
Please see below:-
The Word “Twenty” in Different Languages:-
Bambara [Mali, W Africa]: “mùɡan“
Jula [Burkina Faso & Côte d’Ivoire, W Africa]: “mugan“
Kakabe [Guinea, W Africa]: “múɡan“
Kuranko [Sierra Leone & Guinea, W Africa]: “mogan“
Yalunka [Guinea, W Africa]: “mɔ̀kɔ̀ŋɛ́“
Jowulu (Jo) [Mali, W Africa]: “kɔ̃ne“
**Yoruba [Nigeria, W Africa]: “ogún“**
**Welsh [Wales, UK]: “ugain“**
North Riding Sheep-Scoring Numbers [Yorkshire, NE England]: “gun–a-gun“
Cornish [Cornwall, SW England]:“ugens“
Breton [Brittany, NW France]: “ugent“
Gaulish [extinct – France etc.]: “uoconti“
Tiv [Nigeria, W Africa]: “ikundu“
**Latin [Latium, West Central Italy]: “viginti“**
**Kanuri [Niger/Nigeria, W Africa]:”fíyìndì“**
Maasina Fulfulde [Mali & Ghana, W Africa]: “no:gay“
Western Niger Fulfulde [Niger, W Africa]: “noogaj“
Pular [Guinea, Senegal, & Mali, W Africa]: “noogaj“
**Edo [Nigeria, W Africa]: “ùɡié“**
**Basque [Basque Country, N Spain & SW France]:“hogei“**
In my opinion the shared origin of the vigesimal counting system between western Africa and western Europe can’t be denied, and is reflected in very similar words for “twenty” shared between languages in these regions which couldn’t easily be explained by chance alone. My theory is that vigesimal counting systems and the very similar words for “twenty” might have spread from northern/western Africa into southern/western Europe with pastoralism [sheep/goat/cattle-rearing] during the Holocene epoch around 6,000 – 8,000 years ago. Further research is required.