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Numbers and the Making of Us

“Grammatical Numbers”

Our innate numeric ability is limited. Languages evolve to express numbers according to a specific culture’s needs.

As we’ve said, humans everywhere can quickly distinguish small quantities of 1 to 3 without any training, but for quantities greater than 3, we can only distinguish differences if they are significant. An eye-witness may not be able to remember whether there were 6 or 7 assailants but will certainly respond correctly if the difference is between 6 and 12. Counting allows us to accurately distinguish larger quantities, so if that same witness happened to count the number of assailants, he or she could accurately respond when questioned. Our limited innate neurobiology helps explain why what linguists refer to as “grammatical number”:

  • can be found in the vast majority of languages
  • tends to distinguish 1 from other quantities
  • refers to larger quantities in an approximate way

Numbers don’t just come into language in the form of words or symbols for numbers. Quantities can also be inferred by the plurals of nouns, or in the forms of verbs. Ninety percent of the world’s languages have a way of distinguishing between one and many. Nouns may change form depending on whether we are talking about a single item or many, as in one “person” or several “people.” In English we are used to the idea of adding an “s” at the end of a word to make a noun a plural. This is common across many languages, “gato” changes to “gatos” in Portuguese. Plurals can also be formed with prefixes (at the start of the word), and even “infixes.” For example, in the Tuwali Ifugao language woman is babai but women is binabai. The plural is formed by adding -in- within the word.

Languages have words that indicate more than one of a specific type of object, such as a “herd” of animals, a “school” of fish, and a “flock” of birds.
Additionally, verbs and pronouns change to show agreement with the subject of a sentence, for example, we say, “my car is fast,” and “our cars are fast.” Languages have number-like words for specifying approximate quantities, for example we have several words in English such as a couple, a few, several, many, and so on. Languages have words that indicate more than one of a specific type of object, such as a “herd” of animals, a “school” of fish, and a “flock” of birds. Grammatical number is in virtually all languages, requiring people to continually refer to quantities – some may seem quite unusual to us. For example, if a Boumaa Fijan speaker in a village of sixty people is communicating with a few or even over a dozen other people, she will use the “paucal” second person pronoun, dou. In contrast, if she is communicating with everyone, she will use the plural second person, omunuu. A small subset of the world’s languages use what are called trial inflections, used only when exactly three items are referenced.

The limited innate sense that we have for number is borne out by studies of anumeric peoples, like the Pirahã, a small group of hunter-gatherers who live deep in the Amazon rain forest whose society evolved without numbers. Everett emphasizes that this was not because of any mental deficiency – in more recent years, having been exposed to numbers, they have chosen not to change; they see no reason for them. The language they speak has no precise number words, not even “one” or “two.” It also lacks grammatical number terms like “both,” from which you can tell whether the speaker is referring to two of something. While the Pirahã do have some number-like phrases, they are ballpark expressions, like “a few” in English. If you show them a lineup of seven spools of thread and ask them to replicate it, they struggle when creating lineups of five or six or eight. They can tell that a large group of spools is bigger than a much smaller group, but their exact number sense ends after 3. This means that they don’t require quantity differentiation in their housing structures, hunting implements, or in creating or quantifying small artifacts. In fact, they don’t use precise quantity differentiation for any of the tasks in their culture, which, for those of us immersed in a world of numbers is hard to conceive.

Because we are so locked into seeing the world through numbers, we might wonder how for example, Pirahã parents know the age of their children or even how many they have? Everett points out that since every child is known as an individual, and is remembered including the event of his birth, there’s no need to know the number of children anyone has or knows.

Deaf people who have not learned sign language are often anumeric. They use hand gestures to talk to those around them, but their communication often lacks number words. Such is the case with a group of deaf Nicaraguans who have, for a variety of reasons, never had the opportunity to learn a sign language. Instead, they use innovated hand gestures to speak with those around them. Unlike the Pirahã, they live in a numerate culture, and understand the importance of differences between quantities. They can recognize the approximate values of monetary notes and are capable of differentiating smaller and larger bills. Yet, despite such an awareness, and despite their awareness of the existence of precise quantities beyond three, they don’t have their own means of referring to such quantities in precise ways. Like the Pirahã, they show no sign of any cognitive disability, but they obviously had no opportunity to learn number words and practice using them until they could consistently and exactly differentiate quantities greater than three.

About the Book’s Author: Caleb Everett, PhD, is Professor & Chair of the Department of Anthropology at University of Miami, with a secondary appointment in Psychology. His research explores the intersection of language and thought. Numbers and the Making of Us is his second book.

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