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There are two 訓読み readings of 歳: とし and とせ. Looking at はたち (二十歳), a reasonable hypothesis would be "ち is a contraction of とし". I know very little about sound shifting in Japanese. Is とせ more recent than とし? Is /si/ -> /se/ (or /i/ -> /e/) a common phenomenon?

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I know I've seen とし in classical Japanese texts before; don't know about とせ offhand. That said, the few examples I can find in the dictionary using とせ all pair it with native Japanese numbers (一年【ひととせ】, 百歳【ももとせ】, 千歳【ちとせ】, etc.), which suggests that its history is close to as long. As such, my hypothesis would be that it's something of a counter variant for it, kind of like how Chinese numbers would use 年【ねん】 or 歳【さい】.

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But はたち looks like a contraction of はたと, or is that just me? –  Earthliŋ Mar 21 at 1:55
    
Found it: sf.airnet.ne.jp/ts/language/number/ancient_japanesej.html If you look at the second chart in the column marked 個数, it appears there. So in other words, while it's written as 二十歳 since it deals with age, it's actually an extension of 〜つ, it seems. –  Kaji Mar 21 at 2:33
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@Earthliŋ 旺文社古語辞典 agrees that ち in this word is a suffix like つ (and it gives the same kanji for both suffixes, 箇・個). It lists two meanings, にじゅう and 二十歳, which suggests it was not contracted from とし. Also, I suppose it would have been とせ rather than とし if that were the case, since とせ was the suffix that attached to numbers. –  snailboat Mar 21 at 11:15

Classical Japanese is not necessarily my forte but here is what I do know.

I would say that the two readings are just as old as each other because they both appear in Classical Japanese. As far as I know, the reading depends on the positioning of 「歳」 in a word. Needless to say, I am only talking about [大和言葉]{やまとことば}, not loanwords from Chinese.

When 「歳」 appears at the beginning of a word or it is used by itself, it is read 「とし」.

「[歳]{とし}」= "year"

「[歳返]{としかへ}る」= "the year changes" or "the new year comes"

「[歳長]{とした}く」= "to get old"

When 「歳」 appears in another place in a word, it is read 「とせ」.

The examples that @Kaji listed

「[幾年]{いくとせ}」= "(how) many years"

「[千歳飴]{ちとせあめ}」= "a candy for kids that people buy to pray for longevity"

There might be exceptions out there that I am not aware of. I ask the experts here to feel free to correct me.

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