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Team finds language without numbers

  Tags: Number System
 Language Learning Forum : Philological Room Post Reply
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 Message 1 of 13
03 July 2008 at 7:11pm | IP Logged

An Amazonian language with only 300 speakers has no word to express the concept of "one" or any other specific number, according to a new study from an MIT-led team.

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.

The work builds on a study published in 2004, which found that the Piraha had words to express the quantities "one," "two," and "many." The MIT researchers observed the same phenomenon when they asked Piraha speakers to describe sets of objects as they were added, from one to 10.

However, the MIT team decided to add a new twist--they started with 10 objects and asked the tribe members to count down. In that experiment, the tribe members used the word previously thought to mean "two" when as many as five or six objects were present, and they used the word for "one" for any quantity between one and four.

This indicates that "these aren't counting numbers at all," said Gibson. "They're signifying relative quantities."

He said this type of counting strategy has never been observed before, although it may also be found in other languages believed to have "one," "two," and "many" counting words.

The paper is part of a larger project that investigates the relationship between Piraha culture and their cognition and language, testing some claims by Daniel Everett, a linguist at Illinois State University, in a 2005 issue of Current Anthropology.

One other discovery of the project is that the Piraha can perform exact matching tasks as long as there is no memory component to them, but once there is a memory component, they approximate their matches. This suggests that language is a cognitive technology that aids humans in memory tasks.

Lead author of the paper is Michael Frank, a graduate student in Gibson's lab. Other authors are Evelina Fedorenko, a postdoctoral associate at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and Everett.

I enjoyed this article.

Edited by swam on 31 July 2008 at 5:24pm

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Marc Frisch
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 Message 2 of 13
04 July 2008 at 3:34am | IP Logged 
Reminds me of the Trolls in the Discworld novels. They count: one, two, many, lots.
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 Message 3 of 13
05 July 2008 at 7:53pm | IP Logged 
Wow, that's amazing!
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 Message 4 of 13
06 July 2008 at 3:35am | IP Logged 
The wiki page has some very interesting links including
a very interesting pdf grammar/cultural observations (Cultural constraints on grammar in Pirahã). I stumbled across
this a year or two ago. At that time only a Professor from Manchester university and his wife had learnt and
researched the language and many people were extremely skeptical about their claims. It's very
exciting news to have to verified.

Edited by Fat-tony on 06 July 2008 at 3:43am

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 Message 5 of 13
29 July 2008 at 12:19pm | IP Logged 
This makes me think about Russian numbers.
Noun endings depend on if you use 1, 2-4, 5-9...

In Russian nouns are counted like this:

Sobаka - dog - singular
Sobaki - dogs - plural

Odna sobaka - 1 dog
Dve sobaki - 2 dogs
Pyat' sobak - 5 dogs
desyat sobaki - 10 dogs
dvadtsat odna sobaka - 21 dogs

odna and dve must agree with the gender of the noun.

So what's interesting here?
Well, 1 takes the singular "sobaka", 2-4 take the plural "sobaki", 5-9 take the really plural "sobak", but 10-20 take the plural "sobaki" BUT 21 takes the singular "sobaka".

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 Message 6 of 13
29 July 2008 at 1:01pm | IP Logged 
Although superficially similar in form, the systems are very different.
If we look from an historical perspective, we can piece together the reasons for the "jumbled" modern Russian
system. One acts as a adjective, therefore governing the nom. sing. while the other numbers act as quantity
words, similar to skol'ko, mnogo etc, and as such govern the genitive. The noun always agrees with the nearest
number, quite logical (Different to English, but still logical, easy to image young natives learning "odna sobaka"
as a unit regardless of what precedes it). I would guess that the genitive usage was variable after the other
numbers and that the modern genitive singular is similar to the old dual form, and over time the dual form
merged into the new genitive singular and became standardized after two-four while the gen. plural was
"preferred" for 5-9.
The excitement about the Piraha system is that the tribe seem to have a completely different way of viewing the
number concept to any other documented human society, which means... well, I don't know, maybe they were
isolated for dozens of generations, or... well, erm, no one's really sure what it could mean.
Anyway,in summary, Russian is a different way of expressing the concept of counting, but the Piraha simply lack
the concept altogether.
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 Message 7 of 13
11 August 2008 at 2:19pm | IP Logged 
Well ... when I think of Arabic or Hebrew, which have singular, dual, and plural ... one wonders ... could the dual have at some point in history been a "more"-form, while the plural was the "most"-form? I mean, do we know that historically, a Hebrew dual was always exactly two? Maybe, at some point in time, it just meant "more than one", while the plural was "much more than one".

That would make many Biblical interpretations uncharted territory once more.

Interesting article, thanks swam.
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William Camden
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 Message 8 of 13
24 August 2008 at 4:38pm | IP Logged 
Tasmanian Aborigines reportedly had a very reduced counting system, but the last full-blooded one died in 1876, after her people received treatment from settlers that some have characterised as genocide.

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