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Math Science

Amazonian Tribe Has No Word To Express Numbers 482

Posted by kdawson
from the how-many-fingers dept.
In 2004 we discussed the Piraha, a tribe in the Amazon, when a study appeared characterizing their language as a "one, two, many" language. Now reader mu22le informs us of a new study of the Piraha pointing to the possibility that they use no number words at all. Instead they seem to use the word formerly thought to mean "two" to represent a quantity of 5 or 6, and the "one" word for anything from 1 to 4. The language has about 300 native speakers. "The study... 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."
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Amazonian Tribe Has No Word To Express Numbers

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  • Few, many, Lots (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tom90deg (1190691) <Tom90deg@yahoo.com> on Monday July 14, 2008 @08:15AM (#24179543) Homepage

    Seems that what they're calling "Numbers" are the same as our quantity descriptors. Small number, medium number, and large number. Seems reasonable, I'm no anthropologist, but I think that numbers really start when you have a lot of trade going on, when you have to KNOW that 5 ears of corn is worth 1 basket of peas.

  • by Opportunist (166417) on Monday July 14, 2008 @08:22AM (#24179599)

    When numbers play no role because what you need is either abundant or nonexistant, i.e. "there" or "not there", you have no need to invent a word for it. What matters is whether there is enough or not enough. And appearantly the "a little" "a little more" "much more" separation works sufficiently.

    The best example is the omnipresent claim that Inuit have dozens of words for snow. Or Ferengi having a few for rain, but none for "crunchy". What matters is the context you're living in. I dare say that the need for numbers stems either from the needs of trade, administration or simply the urge to show off. And even for that, the basic system of "one, few, many" works out quite ok until the system and your "tribe" reaches a certain size.

  • by rohan972 (880586) on Monday July 14, 2008 @08:27AM (#24179651)
    Possibly also for agriculture, counting time for seasons (although seasonal changes are probably enough for simple agricultural systems) and harsher climates, counting stores of food to be sure they will last through the winter.
  • by pieterh (196118) on Monday July 14, 2008 @08:29AM (#24179667) Homepage

    The previous study had the same basic flaw: they asked the Piraha to count objects that they never normally had to deal with (it was batteries, I think).

    What westerners often forget is that many cultures have different numbering systems for different types of things.

    If they asked instead, "how many children do you have", or "how many people are there in that hut", they would most likely discover (shock! horror!) that the Piraha count people exactly as you or I. (If we know the individuals we can count up to 10 or so, if we don't, we count up to five or six, then switch to "many").

    These experiments look designed to prove something bogus, namely that counting is not an innate skill.

  • Re:Oblig. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Flying Scotsman (1255778) on Monday July 14, 2008 @08:51AM (#24179831)
    EXIT_SUCCESS. Let stdlib.h worry about those "numbers."
  • by WingedHorse (1308431) on Monday July 14, 2008 @08:59AM (#24179887)

    Mod parent up. I'm tired of seeing this "Inuits have many words for snow" myth constantly when it doesn't hold true.

  • Re:Oblig. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by nem75 (952737) <jens@bremmekamp.com> on Monday July 14, 2008 @09:08AM (#24179985)
    Zero being a fairly abstract concept, I doubt they are aware of it.
  • by The Master Control P (655590) <`ejkeever' `at' `nerdshack.com'> on Monday July 14, 2008 @09:16AM (#24180071)
    If I might come in with a computing/neural perspective...

    I think that baboons counting 1/2/many is an indicator of the difficulties with bioneural networks: As fundamentally analog systems, they can't subdivide values finely and retain accuracy for any length of time. Thus, they can store 0/2, 1/2 and 2/2 over time, but for more than that they just set an "overflow bit:" there's a lot of 'em.

    You can observe the same thing in humans. Look at your mouse cursor, right now - is it on the left or right half of the screen? Obvious. Which third? Easy enough. Which fourth? A little harder. You couldn't really tell me which tenth it's on without measuring. It gets really difficult because your brain's analog systems have difficulty accurately dividing something up that finely.

    From that perspective, I think that counting (which implies an increasingly accurate absolute reference for "one" as the max rises) was something born of necessity, because brains are bad at absolute comparisons. They're really good at comparing short-term differentials (there's an edge here, this texture is different, there are more hunters now than immediately before), but they drift almost without bound over time - thus the baboon's arithmetic fudges that "many - many = zero." It's great for adaptability, but bad for being able to hold more than a few single-digit numbers in your head.
  • Re:Not surprising. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by phasm42 (588479) on Monday July 14, 2008 @09:39AM (#24180349)

    Two tests: Give the Amazon natives sufficient food and water and safety from other people, and see how long they can comfortably survive in lands where English is spoken.

    Then give native English speakers sufficient food and water and safety from other people, and see how long they can comfortably survive in the Amazon region.

    All this really says is that we have higher living standards.

  • by Sabz5150 (1230938) on Monday July 14, 2008 @10:25AM (#24180935)

    So they're one ahead of your average /. reader, who can only count to two. One. Two. One and two. Two two's. Two two's and one....

    That's "Zero. One. Zero. One." you insensitive clod!

  • by Nerdposeur (910128) on Monday July 14, 2008 @10:31AM (#24181021) Journal

    Two tests: Give the Amazon natives sufficient food and water and safety from other people, and see how long they can comfortably survive in lands where English is spoken.
    Then give native English speakers sufficient food and water and safety from other people, and see how long they can comfortably survive in the Amazon region.

    If you're trying to show that Amazonians aren't inferior to us, I agree. If you're trying to show that they're superior, I disagree.

    Each of us knows what we need to know. Getting "food and water and safety" is the primary task of every individual in a society like that, and you betcha they know a lot about it. We live in a very very specialized society, where a person can spend his whole career getting letters and numbers to appear on a screen correctly and never know where his food comes from.

    Trying to get a programmer to live as an Amazonian is more hazardous than trying to get an Amazonian to live as a programmer, precisely because most of the Amazonian's "job" is "try to stay alive." And it is very hard - I'm sure their life expectancies are shorter than ours. If syntax errors made computers explode into shrapnel, it would be more even.

  • May I Say (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dcollins (135727) on Monday July 14, 2008 @10:32AM (#24181037) Homepage

    "The study... 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."

    As a mathematician, may I say... "duh".

    If you look in our own culture at the evolution of our number system, and the sequential invention of counting numbers > integers > rational numbers > real numbers > complex numbers > etc., it follows the exact same progression.

  • by mblase (200735) on Monday July 14, 2008 @10:35AM (#24181081)

    Without a doubt. However, hunter/gatherers still need a certain ability to count -- for instance, does my tribe have more fighters than the enemy tribe right in front of me? Or, are all my children here or is one missing?

    It's actual mathematics and arithmetic that had to be invented, and yes, they were developed first for purposes of commerce. It's still interesting that this particular language has (or may have) no distinct words for the quantities one, two and three, which previously were believed to be the only inherent number concepts.

  • Re:LT? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Tubal-Cain (1289912) on Monday July 14, 2008 @10:40AM (#24181169) Journal

    42

  • by David Chappell (671429) on Monday July 14, 2008 @11:23AM (#24181775) Homepage

    Another problem with this kind of research is that people do not always answer questions about their native language correctly. When asked "how does one say X?" they will often answer "You can't say X." They will get hung up on the mode of expression and lose sight of the idea being expressed.

    For example, there is a Russian stand-up comic (whose name I have forgoten) who does a routine about his visit to the USA. He cites the interesting fact that the English language has no word for "soul". How did he arrive at this absurd conclusion? It appears he tried to ask Americans how to say, "that is not in accord with my doosha." and attempted to explain the meaning of the word "doosha". When nobody could understand what this expression might mean, he concluded that the word "doosha" (soul) is untranslatable. It seems nobody realized that he wanted to know how to say, "I don't care for that very much."

    Another problem is that native speakers often understand that the learner is seeking guidance but do not correctly understand what kind of guidance he wants. So when he asks how to say X, he may be told to say Y, not because it is impossible to say X but because saying X sounds silly or crude.

  • by AP31R0N (723649) on Monday July 14, 2008 @11:46AM (#24182127)

    i've wondered sometimes what would happen if we took a gaggle of chimps and removed all predators and ensured a good food supply. Maybe they'd take up painting with berries.

    One of my personal theories is that morality is a luxury and a technology. We can afford to discuss a woman's 'right to choose', because we aren't desperate for members of a hunting or gathering party. We can choose to allow someone we don't like to live another day, because food is plentiful. We can discuss Nietzsche and Nietzsche could afford to BE Nietzsche because food, shelter and security are pretty much handled. People living in gang infested ghettos have to deal with problems like "Will I eat today?" and "Was that a gun shot or a jalopy with a bad engine?". How could they devote time and thought to existentialism when survival is an issue?

  • Re:Not surprising. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Devout_IPUite (1284636) on Monday July 14, 2008 @01:14PM (#24183331)

    Heart Disease, Cancer, Drunk Drivers, Cell phone drivers, etc... Knives are VERY low on my concern list.

  • by Nerdposeur (910128) on Monday July 14, 2008 @01:57PM (#24184067) Journal

    One of my personal theories is that morality is a luxury and a technology... How could they devote time and thought to existentialism when survival is an issue?

    I think there are at least two major ways of disagreeing with this statement. One, from an evolutionary/materialist point of view, some people argue that morality IS a survival mechanism. They would say that humans survive well because we take care of one another.

    From a philosophical/spiritual point of view, I would note that "humanity" can be used as a synonym for "compassion," precisely because we feel it to be an essential human trait. Few things are as moving as accounts of people's kindness in the face of death. I would not like to subscribe to a worldview that reduced such unselfishness to illogical inefficiency.

  • Re:Not surprising. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nahdude812 (88157) * on Monday July 14, 2008 @02:09PM (#24184247) Homepage

    If the Amazonian gets food and water and safety in the city, why doesn't the city guy get those in the Amazon?

    How about this? Don't give either one anything. I suspect success would be pretty similar for both.

    Some city guys would eat something poisonous, drink some impure water without boiling it (and die of dehydration from dysentery), or die of exposure. But also, some city guys would figure out how to rig themselves a shelter, observe where the animals are drinking and remember that he probably should boil that, figure out how to start a fire, and identify some fruits that the monkeys are eating.

    I think it would be hard for an amazonian to survive the winter in the city without the benevolent provider and protector you provide them. I think it would be even harder for an amazonian to avoid being arrested let alone shot. He'd walk around without sufficient clothing, he'd point a self-made spear in someone's face, he'd steal food from a convenience store, and when it started getting cold, he'd start a fire.

    If he's especially lucky he gets your benevolent protectorship in the form of a state funded room in a mental hospital. If he's not lucky he wouldn't know where to get winter clothes, or he'd get shot by a wacko or store clerk.

  • by amRadioHed (463061) on Monday July 14, 2008 @03:24PM (#24185513)

    i've wondered sometimes what would happen if we took a gaggle of chimps and removed all predators and ensured a good food supply. Maybe they'd take up painting with berries.

    It's been done, you've just described the zoo down the street from me. I'm not sure if the Chimps have done any painting yet, someone needs to set them up with some brushes and canvas maybe.

  • The parent commenter should get some sort of prize. His comment indicates that if there are enough people someone will know the answer.

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