Can You Count Without Numbers?

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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