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I always found it funny how the counter for people, , has the special cases [一人]{ひとり}, [二人]{ふたり}, but then continues [三人]{さんにん}, [四人]{よにん}, ...

However, this summer I came across a neat bit of info. If you go to bunraku plays or similar performances, like Doh theatre performances, they will say [四人]{よったり} instead. I heard this phrase also survives in some regional dialects in mordern Japanese, although I don't know which ones. This has lead me to conjecture that in the past, people were counted as the following, or a variation thereof.

[一人]{ひとり}、[二人]{ふたり}、[三人]{みったり}、[四人]{よったり}、[五人]{いったり}、[六人]{むったり}、[七人]{ななたり}、[八人]{やったり}、・・・

Does anyone know whether there is any evidence for this in old Japanese?

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Please note that the nature of writing using Chinese script often makes it impossible to know how the word was originally pronounced. Generally the only real way of knowing is by having glosses written in kana. In Old Japanese, neither hiragana nor katakana were yet invented, though man'yoogana does indicate the pronunciation. That said, I can only find hitori and futari in Old Japanese, though the corpus is relatively small compared to the other periods.

If you expand the search a few centuries, citations for most of the other terms are easier to come by. Note that there are multiple manuscripts for the same text, some containing kana readings that other manuscripts do not. That is why the same text appears multiple times below with different dates. I gave the manuscript name when relevant.

  • mitari: 金光明最勝王経 (西大寺 c. 830), 観弥鞘上生経 (c. 850), 大唐西域記 (c. 950)
  • yotari: 金光明最勝王経 (石山寺旧蔵 c. 1050), 金剛頂瑜枷中略出念誦経 (c. 1065)
  • itori: 東大寺諷誦文 (c. 830), 観弥鞘上生経 (c. 850)
  • mutari: 法華論義草 (c. 950)
  • yatari: 日本書紀 (兼永本 c. 1200)

I variously searched for two days through my resources but did not immediately come up with anything for 7人 or 9人. A lack of evidence, though, is not evidence in itself. I figure I have spent enough time on this already though, so I am calling it quits here.

  • There's this online version of 日本書紀 published by 岩波書店, and I found a couple of this たり-form readings. For example, in part 2 of chapter 22, there's mention of 十二人(とたりあまりふたり), 八人(やたり), 一十人(とたり), 七十五人(ななそぢあまりいつたり), among others. Not sure how reliable this is though. – 3 to 5 business days Oct 29 '14 at 18:48
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    @3to5businessdays There is no evidence for the readings, though. I'll quote the original: "十六年夏四月。小野臣妹子至自大唐。唐国号妹子臣曰蘇因高。即大唐使人裴世清。下客十二人。従妹子臣至於筑紫。遣難波吉士雄成。召大唐客裴世清等。為唐客、更造新館於難波高麗館之上。 [...] 十七年夏四月丁酉朔庚子。筑紫大宰奏上言。百済僧道欣。恵弥為首、一十人。俗人七十五人。泊于肥後国葦北津。是時。遣難波吉士徳摩呂。船史竜、以問之曰。何来也。対曰。百済王命以遣於呉国。其国有乱不得入。更返於本郷。忽逢暴風、漂蕩海中。然有大幸、而泊于聖帝之辺境。以歓喜。" There is no way to know how 十二人 or 七十五人 is supposed to be read here. Same with the other passages. – Dono Oct 29 '14 at 20:55
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    [Continued] There are several later manuscripts that do give kana readings for several numeral terms in 日本書紀. One I gave above is the 13th century 兼永本. Note that 日本書紀 was written in 720, but a 13th century annotation does not mean that the original 8th century text was actually read using that reading. – Dono Oct 29 '14 at 20:59
  • Does it not imply that at some point in time that such reading might have been used for the numbers though (say in the 13th century instead of the 8th century)? – 3 to 5 business days Oct 29 '14 at 22:38
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    @3to5businessdays Sure, the possibility exists. that's why I listed sources for such usage; the older the better. – Dono Oct 29 '14 at 23:27

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