Follow Slashdot blog updates by subscribing to our blog RSS feed


Forgot your password?

One, Two, Many - Language Shapes Thought 919

Chuck1318 writes "The Piraha tribe in the Amazon has only three words used in counting, that mean one, two, and many. A psychologist testing them has found that they are unable to accurately perform tasks involving quantities as few as four or five. He says that this shows that, at least for numbers, language shapes and limits how people can think." I can't help but be reminded of the gully dwarves from Dragonlance when reading this.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

One, Two, Many - Language Shapes Thought

Comments Filter:
  • by treehouse ( 781426 ) * on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:02AM (#10021198)
    "We have it...on the authority of African explorers that many Hottentot tribes do not have in their vocabulary the names for numbers larger than three. Ask a native down there how many sons he has or how many enemies he has slain, and if the number is more than three, he will answer 'many.'"
    [ George Gamow, "One, Two, Three...Infinity" 1953 ]
    • by XeRXeS-TCN ( 788834 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:20AM (#10021322)

      Well yes, but if you read the article, it's not claiming to be a new theory, simply *proof* of an existing theory. From the article:

      Experts agree that the startling result provides the strongest support yet for the controversial hypothesis that the language available to humans defines our thoughts. So-called "linguistic determinism" was first proposed in 1950 but has been hotly debated ever since.
      • Babel-17 (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Wun Hung Lo ( 702718 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:41AM (#10021468)
        Samuel Delaney's classic SF book "Babel-17" explored how language shapes behavior. A clandenstine group who wanted assassins who wouldn't question what they were doing created an artificial language and raised children in it. The language had no word for "I" or "no". It was all commands, such as "You will do this." They had no way of saying "No, I won't.", because the concept didn't exist in the language. I recently re-read it after many years and it's still an incredible read.
        • Re:Babel-17 (Score:5, Interesting)

          by shane_rimmer ( 622400 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @09:02AM (#10021659)
          One of the first words my two year old son picked up was no, but before that, he had ways of expressing his reluctance to do something: Cry, yell, flop on the floor, and other general temper tantrum stuff. Much has been written about the frustration children feel when they have no adequate words to express what they are feeling.

          It seems to me, as a layman and parent of two children, that the thoughts and ideas occur anyway regardless of the ability to express them in a language that can convey meaning to others.

          Now, to throw another sci-fi reference into the mix, I seem to recall that Caesar, the ape that lead the revolution in the Planet of the Apes mythology, got his start with a single word: No.
          • Re:Babel-17 (Score:3, Insightful)

            One of the first words my two year old son picked up was no

            That makes sense. Most children probably hear that word more frequently than any other word, so they pick it up quicker.

            Child about to stick fork into light socket. Parent yells "no".

            Child about to feed oatmeal to VCR. Parent tells them "no".

            Child wants another piece of candy. Parent tells them "no" or maybe "yes", but commonly "no".

            Child punches dog in the face. Parent tells the child "no", and maybe dog bites.

            Any number of other scenarios i
          • Re:Babel-17 (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 20, 2004 @10:17AM (#10022588)
            That's your two year old-- who has already been immersed in your language, with those concepts, for two years.

            My 11 month old can understand a lot of words and commands, though she doesn't speak yet.

            I have a two and a half year old who can tell you what she wants, and can understand nearly anything you might tell her. She can even express some abstract ideas "That's amazing", "This is fun".

            It seems to me as a layman, that the only thoughts that occur naturally to children are "Feed me" and "make me comfortable again" (change diaper, make me warm, stop the thing that's hurting me). Everything else seems to be environmentally induced (most of the play I see in the 2.5 year old is mimicry of adult actions).

            But evenso, I find it hard to grasp the concept of a language that goes to anything less than five-- because that's how many fingers you have and it seems to me that someone would want to count them sometime.

            Also, personally, if I see a group of things, and it is five or less, I just know how many it is-- I don't have to consciously count them. Six though, I have to count. I do that by making two groups of three, so it's nearly instantaneous, but it is definitely not just "known".

            On the other hand-- you only have two hands, so you'll rarely if ever manipulate more than two things at a time, so maybe that's it-- one, two, too many to do things with right now.

            But for people who gather fruit and nuts... it seems like it would be a survival necessity to be able to tell the differnce between 4 cashews (I'm going to need to eat more) and 400 (I'm going to be so full).

            And I think they can tell the difference. It seems, based on the article, that they just approximate volume. Because there is no need to tell the difference between 350 cashews and 400-- both of them will give a few people a snack. Similarly, who cares whether you have five avacodoes or six? That's a lot of avacadoes to eat.
        • Re:Babel-17 (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward
          " artificial language and raised children in it. The language had no word for 'I' or 'no'."

          As I recall from my undergrad days, such a language actually exists. I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it is the language of a Native American group (Hopi?). Obviously the people speaking this language have ways of expressing negatives, for example by simply making a contrary statement that expresses their wishes. "Should we go to the store?" instead of "No, we shouldn't." reply "We sh
      • Didn't George Orwell have something to say about "linguistic determinism" in the double-plus good book 1984? (Writen pre-1948.)
      • by timrichardson ( 450256 ) * on Friday August 20, 2004 @09:02AM (#10021656) Homepage
        This is a very old theory in Linguistics, commonly known as the Whorfian hypothesis (look for Sapir-Whorf). It predates 1950; it dates from the 1920s.
        It has been discredited many times, as believable as it sounds. It is however a fascinating story; B.L. Whorf was an amateur linguist who was professionally a insurance claims inspector specialising in fire-related claims. He noticed that several fires where started when workers through cigarette butts into drums that in English we call "empty", even though they contained invisible and explosive fumes. Whorf realised that the workers knew this technically, but he wondered if being forced to think of the drums as "empty" changed their view of the drum. He did lots of research on languages of central america, and came up with interesting theories because many of these languages (eg Hopi) appear to have very different verb tenses; Whorf proposed that this gave their speakers almost-Einstein-like views of time and space.

        A numbers of tests have been down over the years. Some languages have only a few words for color, for example. However, experiments show that this does not impair speakers of these languages from differentiating different shades of colors.

        • Language follows culture, not vica-versa. When electronic mail arrived, we didn't run around flumoxed because there was no word for it. We invented a word. For a while, people were pretty bad with email, even though there was a word for it, because it's a difficult thing to understand. Then, after a few years, everybody "got" it.

          I assume this is the same thing. Nomadic tribes don't deal with a lot of things, because everything they have they have to carry. So there's no need to count above two. If suddenly you ask a guy to keep track of four things, he's gonna have trouble: not because he doesn't have a word for it, but because he's going to have difficulty differentiating between the four things. It's no different than if I moved from driving a car to driving a semi trailer with no training. I'd get some of it, but important, non-intuitive concepts would be lost on me, and I'd probably crash. It's not because I don't have a word for them.

          This is like the Inuit people and their umpteen words for snow. We outsiders can recognize the different types of snow with only a little practice, but since we don't get snow 8 months of the year, there's no need for it. English speakers understand foreign concepts like "esprit d'escalier" (the french term for all the cool things you wish you would have said when you leave somebody's house) or "bokeh" (the japanese term for the photographic effect that occurs with large aperatures in which the foreground is in sharp focus and the background is out of focus and fuzzy, thus drawing the eye towards the focus), even if we don't know what to call them.

          It's experience that drives language, not vica versa -- althought the part of the brain that employees language is also responsible for the most critical human activity: symbolic logic.
          • I think there is definitely some validity to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but it's more subtle than is characterized in this article and in previous posts. Here's an example:
            As a native speaker of American English I perceive a distinction between a pidgeon and a dove. I have a word each, after all. I would eat a dove. I would not eat a pidgeon.
            To the best of my knowledge, German makes no such distinction. There is one word for both: Taube*. The Germans that I have spoken to about this perceive pidgeons and

            • Maybe the reason the Germans have no separate word for pidgeons and doves is that they don't care which is which. In this case, social differences lead to language choice, not vica versa. I guarantee you German bird watchers know the difference.

              In English, we only have one word for "duck," despite the fact that there are many kinds of ducks. They all have different sizes, temperments and flavors, but we call them all "duck." Which leads to some pretty depressed diners, who like one sort of duck meat an
              • If your claim is that language has no influence on the thought of its speakers, I disagree. I think the influence is subtle, but it's there. Language and culture have an influence on each other.

                I'll bet you're right that Germans don't care which is which. The distinction is culturally unimportant. The culture influenced the language. However, since there is no distinction in the language spoken by the general non-bird-watching German public, they are less inclined to perceive a distinction than a speaker o

          • Exactly! (Score:3, Funny)

            by siskbc ( 598067 )
            Language follows culture, not vica-versa. When electronic mail arrived, we didn't run around flumoxed because there was no word for it. We invented a word. For a while, people were pretty bad with email, even though there was a word for it, because it's a difficult thing to understand. Then, after a few years, everybody "got" it.

            That's why I'm figuring, you know, maybe these Amazon fuckers are just bad at math. If you're that bad at math, so bad that using the fingers to count doesn't help, you really don

      • I don't understand why they're jumping to the conclusion that language shapes ability. The more reasonable conclusion seems to be that need shapes ability, with language as an afterthought.

        It seems reasonable that someone who has never needed to count beyond 2 is unable to do so. It also wouldn't suprise me if that same person didn't have a word for 3 or 4 or any way to express any number beyond 2.

        Why would we assume from this that the language develops before the ability? Why couldn't it be the case t
    • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:28AM (#10021378)
      Interestingly enough, there is evidence that crows can count to 7. Test was done by having people enter a blind, then leave. Crow behaviour showed that with up to seven people involved, they knew when there was someone still in the blind. When eight+ people went in, and seven came out, they behaved as if the blind were empty.

      Which makes them smarter than Hottentot tribesmen....

      • Also recently to become only the second species to fashion their own tools out of metal (not kidding).

        A crow given a hook made of metal wire used it to fish a snail out of its shell. A second crow allowed to watch, but given only a straight piece of wire almost immediately grabbed it, put it under one foot and using the other bent it into a hook, then used it to eat the snail it was given.

        Personally, I think maybe congress should outlaw testing on crows. If a few of them get ahold of cell phones for instance, it's difficult to say just what kind of trouble we'd be in for...
        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 20, 2004 @09:12AM (#10021773)
          congress should outlaw testing on crows. If a few of them get ahold of cell phones for instance, it's difficult to say just what kind of trouble we'd be in for...

          nope, it's easy...with crows, it'd be murder!
        • Personally, I think maybe congress should outlaw testing on crows. If a few of them get ahold of cell phones for instance, it's difficult to say just what kind of trouble we'd be in for...

          We'd soon see posts in slashdot about welcoming our new crow overlords?
      • There's a difference. If the number involved is bigger than you can conceive then you have to resort to counting, an algorithmic process. Most "primitive" tribes did know how to count, they just used unary notation. Pebbles, sticks, knots in string, marks in clay, whatever. It's hard to do unary counting in your head, since the length of the number grows O(n).

        If you want to know what's the biggest number you can conceive of, use flash cards with differenct numbers of dots. Flash them for a tenth of a

      • My god! Adam Duritz was right all along!
  • yeah well, (Score:4, Funny)

    by castlec ( 546341 ) <castlec AT yahoo DOT com> on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:03AM (#10021200)
    my computer can only count to one, that never stopped it
    • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:25AM (#10021355) Journal
      It doesn't matter what base you use. Your computer uses base 2 but can count far higher then 1 (the maximum value you can express with 1 digit in base 2.) The maximum value you can express with 1 digit in base 10 (the one most humans use) is of course 9. No one would suggest that most humans can therefore only count to 9.

      If this tribe calculated 0, 1, 2, many, many 1, many 2 or something like it there would be no trouble. Just confusing for base 10 users.

      But it seems this tribe doesn't have/need the concept of higher numbers.

      What I would like to know if they understand the concept of zero. The invention of 0 is a usually considered a pretty big step in western culture and one arabs like to claim as their contribution to the world. If this tribe wich can only count to 2 understands 0 then it would make an intresting find.

      They may not have a need to count higher numbers but me thinks it is very important to know the difference between 1 fish and 0 fish.

      What may also be intresting is that if you need language to count and animals can count does that mean that all animals that can count have a language. And not just a language of "food" "danger" "sex" but a language with "1" "2" "3" etc?

      • by mce ( 509 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @09:03AM (#10021665) Homepage Journal
        me thinks it is very important to know the difference between 1 fish and 0 fish.

        That seems obvious. But then again humanity survived quite a long time without the 0 and when the Arabs finally invented it and later brought it to Europe, it for quite some time was heavily objected against in certain circles as being something devilish and all that.

        There is a major mental difference between "I have no fish" and "I have a number of fish, but it just so happens that this number is 0." That is through even without speaking of performing arithmetic in base X and understanding the special role of that 0 thing in that context.

      • by melkorainur ( 768297 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @09:14AM (#10021814)
        >The invention of 0 is a usually considered a >pretty big step in western culture and one arabs >like to claim as their contribution to the world.
        I'm sorry but that statement is misleading. The 0 is generally accepted to have been invented in the Dravido-Indic cultures, what is currently Southern India. See following URL: Google Cache of Invention of 0 [] This was then spread through the Persian/Arab (Islamic) scientists and eventually to Europe.
  • by caston ( 711568 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:03AM (#10021202)
    A whole tribe of people with the same level of maths as me? I have found my new home!

  • by DJTodd242 ( 560481 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:04AM (#10021212) Homepage
    "One. Two. Many. Lots."

    Of course as soon as I saw the title all I could think about was Detritus the Troll.
    • Re:Discworld... (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:08AM (#10021243)
      Trolls are usually thought to be so stupid they can count only up to 4. [...]
      In fact, trolls traditionally count like this: one, two, three... many, and people assume this means they can have no grasp of higher numbers. They don't realize that many can be a number. As in: one, two, three, many, many-one, many-two, many-three, many many, many-many-one, many-many-two, many-many-three, many many many, many-many-many-one, many-many-many-two, many-many-many-three, LOTS.

      - Men at Arms
    • Or King Arthur of MPATHG: []

      ARTHUR: Right! One!... Two!... Five! GALAHAD: Three, sir! ARTHUR: Three!

  • by tod_miller ( 792541 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:06AM (#10021226) Journal
    I always suspected that the native name of your town, and the local features affected your accent (explains Liverpool and Stoke)

    Perhaps they are not used to takss involving more than 3 items because usually it goes like this:


    Bang over head
    Shag it

    Now I think some of thier ways of going about business is even more refined than ours.
  • by eggstasy ( 458692 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:07AM (#10021231) Journal
    So, let me get this straight. These people have no concept of numbers, and upon testing them for mathematical skills, you found them lacking?
    Why does that not surprise me.
    It's not so much that language shapes thought, it's entirely the other way around. If you and your tribe have never discovered mathematics, it's only natural that you have no words to express them. These people are making it sound like if we recite a list of number names we will become genius mathematicians.
    • by bentcd ( 690786 ) <> on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:12AM (#10021268) Homepage
      They weren't tested for mathematical skills, they
      were tested for practical skills involving
      quantities of items or events larger than 3.
    • by BrotherZeoff ( 776525 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:17AM (#10021300)
      The article states he wasn't testing them for mathematical skills--just their ability to remember four or five items, or remember how many lines were on a piece of paper. They couldn't do these things accurately in quantities greater than three. It is surprising. I'd think that just visually people of any language could group items up to six at least.
      • Everybody remember in 1984, where they were redoing the language to be simple so that the people couldn't think much? Same concept.
      • by thenerdgod ( 122843 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @09:20AM (#10021870) Homepage
        Okay rocket scientist, if it's so surprising that people without a word for, say , "five, six, and seven" can't remember exactly whether there were five six or seven marks on a piece of paper, let's try this:

        Without counting, or saying any number to yourself, or using a word to describe the concept of quantity, or referring to your fingers, tell me how many X's are on the next line:

        X X X X X X

        Think about it. You want to count them up to six, then remember "Six" and not remember " X X X X X X". This is the problem with the study. Language is, by definition, symbolic. That' the whole point of it, to not have to remember each experience in its totality, but to be able to share it symbolically with someone, so it is a) easier to remember and b) easier to transfer. Otherwise you'd be telling stories with models and pantomime. Now then, back to our experiment. How many were there? Draw it. See? Much harder than just saying "Six. I see Six X's" (you might have said "two groups of 3 X's", which you HAVE words for, but still, harder than "Six". The problem is that, as describe above, not that language affects how we think, but our vocabulary affects how we are able to recall and describe the world. You can still tell the difference between five X's and six X's... and you may even be able to build up "groupings" by using your own words for things. Does it mean you're not as smart as people who can describe "six"? No, you just are less able to recall and describe parts of the world you don't have words for.

        I'm sure some day, aliens will come down and say to us "Electrons do not orbit nuclei, fools! Slithy toves gyre and gimbol in the wabe!" and then laugh into their tentacle-sleeves at us. (apologies to David Gribbin)

    • Yes. If language shapes thought then how did we ever get the words for the numbers in the first place? We must have first conceptualised the need for those words, then thought of the words second.
      • I'm guessing that the Piraha tribe have no real bartering or trade within the group, which probably shapes the need for numerical thought process rather than language.

        After all, I would have thought that surroundings have a great deal of importance in how a group of peoples thought process is shaped, and the need for pattern recognition, which is more what the researchers are testing here.
    • They were not tested for math skills.
      One of the tests where to lay out a pile of nuts, and
      the people in question were supposed to lay out an
      equal number of nuts in front of them. With 1,2 and 3 nuts
      they were perfectly able to do that.
      With more than 3 nuts, they were not.
  • by phatjew ( 705716 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:08AM (#10021234) Homepage
    . . . after all, all they have is CAR and CDR.
  • Inca's and Zero (Score:3, Interesting)

    by freak4u ( 696919 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:08AM (#10021238) Homepage Journal
    The Incas (I believe) were the first people to come up with the concept of Zero. Before that, (and during that time) nobody else could understand no objects. They were the first ones to come up with the word, but that was due to being the only ones who understood it. Intersting question now that I think of it is do these tribes understand zero?
    There are 0 spoons
    • by Polaris ( 9232 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:12AM (#10021263) Homepage Journal
      In fact certain Inca tribes worshipped the zero, leading to the inevitable question, Is nothing sacred?
    • by samfreed ( 572658 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:17AM (#10021297) Homepage
      Not incas, Indians, as in from INDIA. The concept of zero is known for AT LEAST 2,500 years there. The way we count now, the decimal system, was invented there, and later learnt by the Arabs, who brought it to the west. That is why we call them Arabic Numerals....

      You see, in American English, you have only one word for Indians, unlike in other languages where they can actually tell the difference between Native Americans and the people who invented the decimal system, grammar, and many other useful things, like "Karma".

    • I am afraid not.Indian mathematicians were the first to postulate Zero []

      Infact the first person to discuss this was Brahmagupta []

      What are commonly known as Arabic numerals were infact Indian Numerals.About 6th century A.D. saw the advent of tradesman in the arab peninsula.Relying on the monsoon winds they would often travel to India,where they found and started using the Indian numeral system.

      When the crusades took place ,European scholars came in contact with the numeral system in use by the Arabs.

  • by prgammans ( 134908 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:08AM (#10021240)
    Please no more replies I just can't keep track of them all.
  • Sapir-Whorf (Score:5, Informative)

    by stromthurman ( 588355 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:08AM (#10021245)
    This idea has been around for a while, originally, insofar as I know, called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis []. It's neat to see it strongly confirmed in some capacity, though.
  • by Zarhan ( 415465 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:10AM (#10021248)
    Terry Pratchett: Men at Arms, page 132, footnote:

    "In fact, trolls traditionally count like this: one, two, three...many, and people assume this means they can have no grasp of higher numbers. They don't realize that many can be a number. As in: one, two, three, many, many-one, many-two, many-three, many many, many-many-one, many-many-two, many-many-three, many many many, many-many-many-one, many-many-many-two, many-many-many-three, LOTS.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:11AM (#10021256)
    The study proves nothing. You can't generalize from a single example. You might indicate something, but that's another story.

    Obviously, this should be self-evident. Sadly, it seems this is not the case.

  • Language is key (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ba3r ( 720309 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:12AM (#10021269)
    Language is the uniting factor in society because it is the basis for complex thought (just try to plan out your day while thinking abstractly); different languages, and dialects, have different grammatical structures that lead thought patterns to be constructed in different ways. Even for me, with German as a second language, I still notice that when i am in Germany (currently i Berlin), and think in German I compose thoughts and analyze my environment differently.

    I can only imagine that one in a completely different society would have a very different thought pattern. The common roots of Western languages indicates a similarity in thought, and people who learn foreign languages are far more adept at understanding and integrating with that society.

    Similarily, in computer languages different grammatical structures lead different programmers to analyze and solve problems differently: i.e. functional vs imperative. Add the context-sensitive nature of human languages, and this becomes substantially more complex.

    Ok, thats longer than my normal post, but this is a really interesting topic :)
    • Re:Language is key (Score:4, Interesting)

      by adzoox ( 615327 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:17AM (#10021299) Journal
      "Language is the uniting factor in society because it is the basis for complex thought"

      No, I can learn how to make a gun, plow a field, fetch water from a well from an Asian person with whom I have no common language - almost as easily as I could with an English speaking person.

      I posted previously to this topic that it's all about the willingness of the people to learn,and the access to information that they are willing to subject themselves to is what forms thought and intelligence.

  • psych 101 (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Angry Black Man ( 533969 ) <> on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:13AM (#10021270) Homepage
    Language in this case has certainly limited their ability to express concepts. Their brains, however, will still recognize the existence of four or five things. Unfortunatly the limitations on their language will keep them from expressing verbally that knowledge. It could even bar their comprehensive abilities.
  • by Smidge204 ( 605297 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:18AM (#10021304) Journal
    I'm surprised nobody's made the "reduced language = reduced ability to form mental concepts" link with Orwell's '1984'. This seems like some strong evidence that it might actually work.


    • > I'm surprised nobody's made the "reduced language = reduced ability to form mental concepts" link with Orwell's '1984'. This seems like some strong evidence that it might actually work.

      When politicians try spin control via calling something what it ain't, does it ever convince anyone who didn't already want to be convinced?

  • by mbrx ( 525713 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:19AM (#10021308)
    So in essense this seem to support the Sappir-Worph hypothesis ( []) that the language strongly affect our ability to think.
    This makes one wonder if a another language would give us the ability to better reason about other things. Would we be smarter if we had a better language in which to think?
    There is an artifical language called lojban ( []) based on predicate logic but which is meant to be used as other "real" languages (compare with eg. esperanto, interlingua and swahili). The question is, would native speakers of lojban be better a rational thought? As far as I know there are no native speakers of lojban but what would happend if I raised my (hypothethical) children to speak if from birth?
    • by jjohnson ( 62583 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:30AM (#10021390) Homepage
      Evidence against the Sappir-Worph hypothesis includes studies showing that people with color words for only dark colors and light colors couldn't reliably distinguish between dark red and dark blue. However, they could be *taught* the difference, and new color words, with no great difficulty, and could easily distinguish colors with those new words, showing that Sappir-Worph describes how language limits thought only circumstantially, not fundamentally. In other words, growing up with a lack of words for something doesn't mean one can't learn those words, concepts, and thoughts later on, so Sappir-Worph doesn't identify something fundamental about language use, only the rather obvious obvious conclusion that you can't put into words what you don't know the words for.

      That's the problem with this psychologist's study--it doesn't say whether or not they learned larger numbers and applied them effectively.
      • 'Evidence against the Sappir-Worph hypothesis includes studies showing that people with color words for only dark colors and light colors couldn't reliably distinguish between dark red and dark blue. However, they could be *taught* the difference...'

        I find this really interesting, but is it that they can't tell the difference, or they don't care? I mean, there's the whole thing about Eskimos having 5 million words (I'm exaggerating 'cause I don't remember the real number) to describe snow. The rest of us who grew up in snowy climates, we could tell you that there are different kinds of snow, fluffier and less fluffy. The fact that I don't have good words to explain doesn't mean I don't perceive the difference. It's just that, when it's snowing, I don't necessarily care what kind of snow it is, and so to me, it's just snow.

        I mean, the fact that the words exist mean someone was thinking about things that they had no good words for, and they invented the words. It seems to me very likely that the proper conclusion is that the life you live shapes both human thought and speech. If the tribe lead lives that needed a number "3", I'd guess they'd come up with it themselves, no problem.

  • by DeadVulcan ( 182139 ) <dead.vulcan@pobo[ ]om ['x.c' in gap]> on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:23AM (#10021343)

    Many fluently multilingual people will tell you that they are a slightly different person when they speak a different language.

    I'm fluent in English and Japanese, and I can attest to this. In fact, there have been occasions when I was out of touch from Japanese speakers for a long time, and I began to miss my "Japanese self" because it hadn't had a chance to surface for so long.

  • So? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rostin ( 691447 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:31AM (#10021394)
    I'm not a psychologist, but to me there's nothing earth-shattering here. There are other instances of people who have words for a wide variety of shades of green (that normal Americans can't differentiate) but who use the same word for the colors we call orange and red.

    But, even knowing that, is anything so dramatic going on? "Western" people with the proper training and experience could tell the difference at a glance between a screen full of C programming and a screen full of FORTRAN. My grandmother would struggle with that task. It would just all look like gibberish to her. Likewise, someone experienced in wine tasting can describe in detail the differences between two wines most of the rest us couldn't even tell apart.

    A lot of what's necessary (or at least very helpful) in learning about programming or wines is the specialized language. When I'm told that the difference between two wines is that one is "fruitier" than the other, I've got something to look for. The nebulous and complex experience of tasting wine is brought into my understanding a little because I can now use a word to identify a part of what I'm sensing.

    My point is, the idea that language affects how we think and what we perceive is not really all that novel.
  • by vidarh ( 309115 ) <> on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:38AM (#10021443) Homepage Journal
    It's too easy to assume that the reason they have problems with the concepts is that they don't have the words - the other way around is frequently the case: you won't have the words if you don't have the concepts, or if cultural differences means you have never had a need to express something.

    One of my favourite examples, as a Norwegian stranded in the UK, a country where people simply does not get the concept of candy with ammonium chloride [], is how to talk about it.

    In the UK, the word "candy" has mostly gone out of use, and usually refers to brown sugar or alt least "old fashioned" sweets based on brown sugar. Instead you'd refer to the different types of confectionary directly, with most of the sugar based confectionary grouped under "sweets".

    Now, ammonium chloride based candy is most definitively not sweets. Though it is always fun to trick Brits into chewing Turkish Pepper or some other Scandinavian ammoium chloride based candy... :)

    The word "confectionary" similarly doesn't really cut it - it's recognised as a grouping, and if you asked people if thy wanted any confectionary they'd wonder what kind you were talking about.

    Scandinavian languages on the other hands have words for this, since it's an integral part of our culture. In Norwegian you'd talk about "godt" or "smaagodt", referring to small sweets, bits of licorice, small chocolate pieces or candy full of ammonium chloride, as well as assorted sour stuff.

    But what would a usable equivalent be in the UK? I usually end up resorting to candy, but Brits then tend to assume that since I'm foreign I'm probably resorting to US English, and talking about sweets...

  • by kurisuto ( 165784 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:39AM (#10021446) Homepage
    The idea that your language determines the way you see the world (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has been around for many decades, and has been the subject of many experiments and much discussion. Language has generally not been shown to affect perception or thought, altho there are occasional special cases where there does seem to be an mild effect.

    Example #1: Different languages divide up the color space differently. For example, Russian divides the color space covered by the English word "blue" into two separate color terms. However, language doesn't appear to affect the way people perceive color. For example, when researchers ask informants to judge color chips as "same" or "different," there appears to be no effect at all from the division of color space in the informant's native language.

    Example #2: Chinese doesn't have a way of marking counterfactual or hypothetical statements as some languages do. One researcher (Bloom) had speakers of English and of Chinese read the same story in their respective native languages, and the speakers of Chinese did in fact have trouble answering whether such-and-such really happened. Bloom took this as evidence that language strongly affects thought. But another researcher said that the problem was just a bad translation into Chinese, and repeated the experiment with a better translation. Now the Chinese speakers had no difficulty saying "Of course such-and-such didn't happen."

    On the other hand, the tense/aspect system of Russian does appear to have an effect on the way that speakers evaluate the temporal relationships in non-linguistic pictures of events. So it is occasionally possible to tease out a case where language does seem to have an effect on non-linguistic thought.

    In sum, a blanket statement that "language determines thought" is much too strong. Even if the finding of the article mentioned above is accurate, the weight of the evidence seems to be that these cases are the exception, not the rule.

    BTW: I'm sure that somewhere in this discussion, someone is going to bring up the idea that the Inuit (Eskimos) have some huge number of words for snow. That claim almost always gets trotted out in this kind of context. This is a kind of academic urban legend that just won't die. The linguist Geoff Pullum thoroughly debunked this whole fable some time back, and traced the series of misunderstandings and exaggerations which had given rise to it. In fact, it appears that Inuktitut has just two words for snow.
    • Sapir-Whorf refuted (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ( 551216 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @09:19AM (#10021863) Homepage

      The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, however, even though long proven wrong, has shaped the thinking of a whole generation of people, including those in the feminist movement, proposing "politically correct" words (female forms e.g.) hoping that they would induce a new thinking.

      Language may be a result of knowledge and cultural concepts, thus reflect it. But it does not shape it, because - and that's known as de Saussure's work - the word is not equal to the concept. Whether you call something a small feline animal or a cat, it's still the same entity that you are thinking of. Whether you call someone a nigger, an african american, a 'brother', a black person -- the name does force us to change our thinking. (It may prompt us to think about misconceptions, of course!)

      Steven Pinker's book "The Language Instinct" is a good read.

      Haven't read Feigenson's original article. But it seems painfully obvious to me that given all the other linguistic evidence, the Brazilian tribe might simply have established a culture of arithmetics that doesn't allow you to count more than two things.
    • Russian colors (Score:5, Interesting)

      by mzs ( 595629 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @10:42AM (#10022934)
      I read that and I was really surprised. I am a Polish speaker/reader and so is my wife. I left Poland at the age of four but my wife only did so four years ago. In fact to become competent in Polish I took two quarters of Polish at Uni. The other students were Russian/Slavic and linguistics concentrators. It was a very bizarre way of learning Polish I suppose, but before that I felt very inadequate about being illiterate and sounding like a four year old whenever I spoke Polish.

      So what I know is that in Polish there are also two words for blue: niebieski and blekitni. (Okay so I had to strip-off the accents because slashcode did not like them.) They are light-blue and dark-blue respectively. (Really niebieski is related to the word for sky so you might think of this word as sky-blue, I do and that is what I meant earlier about learning Polish from a linguist probably was different from a native Polish speakers experience.)

      Now you might think this is simple, well not really. Here is a translation of what happens in practice with some regularity. My wife says, "Bring me the blue one," where blue is the word for either light-blue or dark-blue depending on the color of the object. I oblige but then hear a response of, "No I said the blue one not the green one." Bizarre because notice I wrote blue and green. It is not like she said light-blue and I brought the dark-blue widget. Sometimes she claims I brought the purple thing instead. These exchanges are entirely in Polish because this what we speak predominantly at home.

      Okay now I am not color-blind. For my work I need to pass a test every two years and in the report I always pass all of the tests, even those for which a certain percentage of people that are not typically considered color-blind would not pass. I can clearly distinguish between a wide spectrum of colors.

      After a while of this my mother noticed it once so we did a little test with the family. My mother, father, uncle, aunt, and grandmother were all part of it. All of them had spent the majority of their lives in Poland and almost without fail they would agree with the colors that my wife gave to objects. Then we repeated the test with my brother and his girlfriend who except for a vacation had not spent any time in Poland. They agreed with me the majority of the time.

      Now this test was not scientific in any way and it did involve alcohol because it happened during a family get-together, but I still think that native Polish speakers vs English speakers think of colors as different because of their languages. What I mean is that there are many shades of colors that are sort of between green and blue and others that are between green and purple and given a proper ambiguous color such as this Polish speakers will tend to identify it differently than English speakers.

      So what I am trying to say after all of this is that the example of the Russian language having two words for blue is sort of a red herring. It is irrelevant to the real issues. In fact given two people that are not color blind, one a Russian and one an English speaker, they should not have any extra difficulty in being able to distinguish between color chips as being different or not. What I am saying is that they will think of the same color chip as a different color in their minds. Now this is subtle, and I tend to agree with the parent poster that it is a special case, but definitely an example of how language influences understanding and meaning. Here is a final true story to illustrate this idea.

      My wife's favorite color is light-blue. Once I bought her a gift that was a light blue dress. When she got it she said that the dress was nice, but that, "Don't you know by now that I do not like the way I look in green?" Think about intend and effect in that example and you will see what I mean about language being important.
  • Gully Dwarves (Score:5, Informative)

    by Captain Chad ( 102831 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:56AM (#10021575) Homepage
    For those (like me) who had never before heard of Gully Dwarves [], here is an informative link [] that discusses their counting abilities.
  • Junk Science? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gvc ( 167165 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @08:57AM (#10021586)
    One should never accept a popular-press hearsay account of a research report. Unfortunately my library doesn't carry "Science Express" (an ancillary to the respected "Science") where the paper appears.

    "Science Express" has its own paraphrasal of the paper at its website [] but you have to pay for the full text. There is also a link to "supporting online material" that includes a free document describing some of the methds and results.

    Subject to the caveat that I did not fork over the $$$ for the full article, I'd say the conclusions appear unremarkable. Humans raised in cultures that lack counting can't count beyond 3, and also can't express the concept. I see no experiment that indicates causality between what I consider two aspects of the same phenomenon.

  • Blackadder (Score:3, Funny)

    by slashusrslashbin ( 641072 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @09:06AM (#10021698)
    BLACKADDER: This is called adding. If I have two beans, and then I add two more, what do I have?
    BALDRICK: Some beans.
    BLACKADDER: Yes... and no. Let's try again, shall we? I have two beans, then I add two more beans. What does that make?
    BALDRICK: A very small casserole.
    BLACKADDER: Baldrick, the ape creatures of the Indus have mastered this. Now try again. One, two, three, four. So, how many are there?
    BALDRICK: Three.
    BALDRICK: And that one.
    BLACKADDER: Three... and that one. So, if I add that one to the three, what will I have?
    BALDRICK: Oh! Some beans.
  • And then... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ceeam ( 39911 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @09:45AM (#10022155)
    ... the tribe invited the researchers for a dinner where the tribe has found the researchers to be unable to tell edible roots from extremely poisonable ones.
  • by Colonel Cholling ( 715787 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @09:53AM (#10022264)
    The Kanka-Bono tribe amazingly have no words for basic concepts like "wireless router," "dual opteron server blade," and "network print server." When our team of researchers presented them with these items, they merely tried using them to break open coconuts. The obvious conclusion is that, since their amazingly primitive language lacks the words for these items, their tiny non-Caucasian brains are simply unable to form distinctions among such obviously diffferent objects. Thus the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was vindicated. Then they ate our Dell service rep. And there was much rejoicing.
  • by brandonY ( 575282 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @10:11AM (#10022502)
    They think trolls are stupid because they only count one, two, many, but the counting system is:

    one, two, many, many-one, many-two, many-many, many-many-one, many-many-two, lots...
  • by grikdog ( 697841 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @10:15AM (#10022556) Homepage
    Ethnology is full of traveller's tales which usually boil down to three cases: a) The ethnologist is a white German lady filmmaker and the stud is dusting his dong because the batty crone pays him to, b) The ethnologist is Margaret Mead and the chief of the Gilhoulies is having her on, or c) The ethnologist has delusions of linguistic competence, and -- whilst demonstrating photography to the savages -- translates the perfectly sensible Papuan expression "Hey, that looks like my reflection in water! How you do dat, bub?" as "Funny fellow in water" -- thereby "demonstrating" that Papua New Guineans have no sense of self! Give me a break! I'll draw a major coda under the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis when I see this result vetted by independent grad students who can FIND the same tribe.
  • Evaluate the Study (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tvynr ( 806975 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @10:29AM (#10022759)
    First, I am dubious as to the accuracy of the study involved. The article states that "The Pirahã also failed to remember whether a box they had been shown seconds ago had four or five fish drawn on the top." The article does not, however, state how long the box had been displayed, whether or not the Pirahã had been told that the fish were significant before the box was removed, and whether or not it had been properly conveyed to the Pirahã that different quantities of fish in numbers greater than three were significantly distinct.

    To contrast, let us imagine that the Pirahã are conducting a similar study on a member of another culture. As this site is of the .org domain, I will select Americans for my sample study. The Pirahã may then show an American a box containing a fish and ask what species it is. I personally know little about species distinction in fish, especially those in Brazil, and would fail to answer the question correctly. The point is that it has never been necessary for me to have this information to function in my society. Would it be academic of the Pirahã, then, to assume I was less intelligent for not being able to recognize an Epen Nomin?

    Additionally, the Pirahã have a phrase in their language which indicates a degree of certainty, usually applied at the end of a sentence: /-xáagahá/. If I were to answer the correct species of fish and fail to use that suffix, would it be correct for them to assume I was not confident of my answer?

    My point here should be fairly obvious. We cannot assume that we know the critical details of the study based upon a web article which, between two columns of advertisements, still only takes two pages (on my monitor, at least).

    Second, and more breifly, the assumption that counting capacity defines intelligence is inherently flawed. The Pirahã have no need for counting; this is not to say they are not capable of it. Most Americans don't need to know what a coral snake looks like or that touching the little yellow-and-black frog is a bad thing. This doesn't mean they couldn't learn.

    In summary, while the study definitely presents an interesting idea, one must evaluate it critically before accepting it as fact. Mistakes can be made.

    That was a lot more than I meant to type. Thanks for the time. ;)
  • by Unregistered ( 584479 ) on Friday August 20, 2004 @10:39AM (#10022901)
    In a primitive society, im sure that things only come in amounts of one, two, or many. Think about it. And if they're not used to doing something, they can't do it. The two correlate, but the scientists have the causation backwards. Thy don't deal with other quantities, so that don't have words for them and they aren't really good at dealing with them since they don't.

    Damn, that's confusing. Sorry.

When a fellow says, "It ain't the money but the principle of the thing," it's the money. -- Kim Hubbard