Can You Count Without Numbers?

Even if you’re not a “math person,” counting seems like a such a basic skill that it’s almost instinctive. But is it, really? Could you count without having words for numbers?

This has been a subject of much debate within the linguistic community, as a few indigenous groups speak languages without words for numbers.  Do people who grow up in these cultures have the ability to count without numbers? A recent study of an Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã suggests that the ability to count (and to perform tasks based on counting) is indeed dependent on language.

The Pirahã speak an unusual language, the last survivor of the Mura language family. It is at once one of the world’s simplest languages, with the fewest phonemes and the fewest consonants, and one of the most complex.  In a feature article for the New Yorker, writer John Colapinto explains that “it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.”

One distinctive feature of the language is that there are no words for numbers, only for “a small amount,”  a “larger amount” and “a lot.” As linguist Caleb Everett, who has worked with the Piraha for years, explained to Science Daily,

“The Pirahã is a really fascinating group because they are really only one or two groups in the world that are totally anumeric. This is maybe one of the most extreme cases of language actually restricting how people think.”

But does their language actually restrict how they think? Can they perform tasks that require you to count without having a word for each specific number, or even for the concept of counting?  Earlier research was inconclusive, with some studies showing that the Pirahã performed normally at these tasks, and others showing the opposite.

In an attempt to clear the matter up, Everett repeated the earlier tests. He found that the Pirahã were unable to consistently perform tasks involving counting.  In earlier studies where they were able to perform the tests, the test subjects had actually worked with an American missionary, Keren Madora, who had used the Pirahã language to introduce words for numbers. So, it seems that in order to perceive specific quantities accurately, you first have to have the vocabulary to do so.

Interestingly, an earlier study on Aboriginal children in Australia found that children born into cultures without numerical systems could perform counting-dependent tasks as well as English-speaking children. However, unlike Piraha, these languages all had words for “one,” “two,” “few” and “many.” Perhaps it’s enough for the language to contain some acknowledgement of the concept of counting?

One important thing to understand about this research: it’s not that the Piraha can’t count-it’s that they have no concept of counting unless it is introduced by a foreigner, as in the case of the villagers taught by Keren Madora.  As Everett noted in Science Daily, “When they’ve been introduced to those words, their performance improved, so it’s clearly a linguistic effect, rather than a generally cultural factor.”

Isn’t it interesting how much the language we speak can influence how we see the world?

Image Source: Attribution Some rights reserved by attercop311

New spelling in Brazil

Could you imagine what would happen if you had to adopt a new set of spelling and grammar rules? Well that’s exactly what has just happened in Brazil.

I’m sure you know that Portuguese is different in Brazil and Portugal. It all stems from 1911 when Portugal (and its territories) commissioned a standardisation of the writing system (orthography) for Portuguese; this was known as the orthographic reform of Gonçalves Viana.

Due to various disagreements and logistic issues Brazil set up an orthography of its own in 1934, with the same general principles as the Portuguese orthography, but not entirely identical to it, which lead to differences between the two languages.

Over the remaining 20th Century various moves were made to reform the languages and bring them closer together, many positive steps were taken. The main change was the signing of the Orthographic Agreement in 1990 by seven Portuguese speaking nations.

Orthographic Agreement of 1990

The agreement sets out new spelling rules for the language in an attempt to standardise its use across its 250 million users. This means that as from this week some Brazilian Portuguese spelling and grammar rules will be different.

The changes include,

  • Ruling out of letters c and p from the European/African spelling when silent
  • The removal of the diaeresis mark from Brazilian spelling
  • The elimination of the acute accent from the diphthongs éi and ói in paroxytone words
  • Spellings such as anónimo and anônimo, facto and fato, both will be considered legitimate, according to the dialect of the author or person being transcribed.
  • Common guidelines for the use of hyphens and capitalization.

What will it mean to you?

International websites such as BBC Brazil will be adopting the new way of spelling as soon as possible. If you sell/operate in this market make sure that you have your copy reviewed by a translator.