Could we count if we had no words for numbers?

September 6, 2017 by Alison Tunley

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no words for numbers?

A recent blog post looking at the differing international conventions for number formatting prompted me to revisit the topic of different cultures and their approach to number concepts. While it might be inconvenient for the translator to tackle the reformatting required to turn commas into decimal points and full stops into commas to ensure their readers can make sense of the figures presented in a text, at least most of the countries requiring financial report translations are working from a similar perspective when it comes to mathematical systems. In some cultures the very concept of a numbering system is alien and our ability to impose a mathematical structure on the world around us has been closely linked with language itself. What happens if a language has no words for numbers at all?

Linguists have identified tribes still living in the Amazon today who speak languages which purportedly have no counting system at all. Pirahã is one such language, having neither cardinal nor ordinal numbers. What is more, there are very few words in the Pirahã vocabulary which relate to quantity at all: there is hói, a “small size or amount,” hoí, a “somewhat larger size or amount,” and baágiso, which can mean either to “cause to come together” or “a bunch.” A question which has fascinated linguists is whether a person who has no mathematical vocabulary is actually capable of categorising the world around them in terms of numbers of items. The answer would seem to be – only insofar as their limited linguistic numeracy system will allow.

Anthropological linguist Caleb Everett spent some of his childhood living with his missionary parents alongside the Pirahã people. A few years ago he conducted a series of simple experiments to assess the tribe’s non-linguistic numerical abilities. He devised tasks which involved setting out a row of items on a table and then asking the test subject to create an identical line of objects. In a second version of the task the example line was shown and then concealed before the subject created their own replica. And in a third variation, a clapping task was used to investigate the subject’s ability to reproduce sequences of varying lengths. The results for each of the tests were very similar. No mistakes were made provided the lines/sequences contained no more than 2-3 items. But for numbers exceeding 2 or 3 the proportion of correct responses dropped significantly. English speakers, by contrast, made no mistakes until the task involved around 7 or more items and only then if the items were shown and concealed very rapidly.
The concept of an existence which is “immune to the tyranny of numbers” (as an article in the online magazine Slate describes the Pirahã) is almost unthinkable to most of us. And yet our obsession with quantifying the world around us is relatively recent in terms of human history. In his book “Numbers and the making of us”, Caleb Everett explores the evolution of counting systems and examines cultural developments such as agriculture and trade, and even writing which he argues were facilitated by the coevolution of quantitative systems and the accompanying linguistic vocabulary. So while numbers and the concepts they describe are not innate, the world as we know it would be inconceivable without them and our ability to impose a numerical order on our surroundings seems to be closely tied to the language we use to do so. If we have no words for numbers, that ability is severely impacted.

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