Language That Has No Words for Numbers

Can you imagine a language without any word for "one" or any other numbers? Aren't numbers so important that life would be nearly impossible if you don't have words to express them?

Apparently not, as scientists found one such number-less language:

The team, led by MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences Edward Gibson, found that members of the Piraha tribe in remote northwestern Brazil use language to express relative quantities such as "some" and "more," but not precise numbers.

It is often assumed that counting is an innate part of human cognition, said Gibson, "but here is a group that does not count. They could learn, but it's not useful in their culture, so they've never picked it up."

The study, which appeared in the June 10 online edition of the journal Cognition, offers evidence that number words are a concept invented by human cultures as they are needed, and not an inherent part of language, Gibson said.


(Photo: Edward Gibson)

Barbaric natives! Quickly, we must teach them our civilized western ways and religion through spread of disease, sexual exploitation of their women and children, enslavement, etc. Let's start off as goodwill missionaries.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
I wonder how hard it must be to set up a dinner party for those folks.

"Honey, how many of them are coming over for dinner because I need to know how much chicken to bake?"



"Ok, many!"

"I hate you..."
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Notice that they don't say that they have no concept of three-ness, just that they don't have a word for 'three'. Surely they have something equivalent to "I'll trade you {holds up three fingers} goats for your cow."

I've spent the last few minutes thinking of all the math that can be done without numbers. You can certainly have a set without numbers, you can partition it. You could have an equivalence relation without numbers. I think there's quite a bit.

Note that I'm not saying these people did or even could invent math without inventing words for numbers first, but isn't it an intriguing idea?
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
I'm from the 'language is a social construct' camp. Linguistic determinism is the hypothesis that language shapes thought. Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sapir & Whorf provide some interesting reading on this topic. For example: What we cannot say, we cannot think. What we cannot say must be passed over in silence. The words we possess determine the things that we can know. If we have an experience, we are confined not just in our communication of it, but also in our knowledge of it, by the words we possess. You can find the above on Wikipedia Linguistic Determinism page.

As a side note, if you ask the Aymara of central America to point to the future, the point behind themselves. We would point straight ahead.

I reckon there is some crucial knowledge out there that shows us our true relationship with the universe but we are yet to develop the language or the scientific measuring instruments (categorisation systems) to understand it.

Interesting stuff indeed.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Terry said,

"As a side note, if you ask the Aymara of central America to point to the future, the point behind themselves. We would point straight ahead."

You would point ahead? I would point up.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
I have to disagre with that point. I'm fully capeable of experiencing or concieving things that I have no words for.

In fact, all human have this potential. We did as babies. And look at Hellen Keller - before she learned language she certialy was able to think as much as any human (just not communicate her thoughts to others). And she stands as one example of any number of humans who didn't learn any language but can still think, concieve, experience, and understand.

Language can *shape* how people think, certianly, but it's not perfect barrier of understanding.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.
Click here to access all of this post's 17 comments

Email This Post to a Friend
"Language That Has No Words for Numbers"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More