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Is there any reason why we say 1st, 2nd, 3rd and the rest (4, 5,.. 10,..) are all -th except the one ending in 1, 2, 3? Why does it change specifically for 1, 2, 3?

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This is a really good example of a question that would actually be better suited to english.SE rather than ell.SE because StoneyB's answer, below, is basically the platonic ideal of an English Language & Usage answer. –  nohat Feb 18 at 6:46

1 Answer 1

Historical accident.

  • First derives from the same root as fore, before, in the superlative grade—it meant, originally, “fore-est”, that is ‘foremost’.
  • Second derives from Latin secundus, originally a participial form of sequor meaning ‘following’

All the others derive from a common Proto-Indo-European ending -tos, which in Old English was variously realized, depending on dialect and on phonological context, as -þe (þ = {th}, voiced or unvoiced), -te or -de, before it lost its ending somewhere around the transition from Middle English to Early Modern English and settled on -th. The alternate ending -t (‘fourt’, ‘fift’, ‘sixt‘, &c) is still to be heard in many dialects.

  • Third, however, which was regularly thridde or thrydde, started transposing the -rid- to -ird- in 10th-century Northumbria, and in the course of the next four centuries this established itself as the preferred pronunciation. Why? Who knows? But the same thing happened to bird, which was originally bryd.
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This is just awesome, thanks @StoneyB –  Ruban Savvy Dec 20 '13 at 5:24
    
Good answer! Has the shift in pronunciation anything to do with the rhotic "R" perhaps, old English pronounced their Rs more than we do today, if memory serves me correctly. –  Mari-Lou A Dec 20 '13 at 9:47
    
@Mari-LouA Seems likely; /r/ appears to have been particularly frequently involved in metathesis. Perhaps an intrusive central vowel which attracted the stress? –  StoneyB Dec 20 '13 at 13:26
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Excellent answer. Just to add, since I was curious, it seems the word second was borrowed into Middle English from Old French, partially replacing the Old English ōþer, which still survives in modern English as other. Had the borrowing not happened, we might today write 2er instead of 2nd. –  Ilmari Karonen Dec 20 '13 at 13:46
    
But why are eleven, twelve, and thirteen exceptions, taking "th"? –  user6093 Apr 29 at 6:59

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