Don't Count on It

A small Amazon tribe, the Pirahã, have no number system. Is the reason neurological--they cannot count--or psychosocial--they just do not want to? An interview with Daniel L. Everett
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Daniel L. Everett, professor of phonetics and phonology at the University of Manchester in England, spent seven years with the Pirahã (pronounced pee-ra-HA), a hunter-gatherer tribe of 200 who live in groups of 10 or 20 along the Maici River in the Lowland Amazon area of Brazil. These people call themselves Hiaitiihi: those who stand straight. Everett studied their culture and language--and stumbled on an oddity: the Pirah have no numbers or clear words for quantities, have no differentiated words for familial relationships, and only a few to describe time. They do not read or write, do not talk about abstract subjects, do not use complex sentences and do not learn Portuguese, even though they are in constant contact with the outside world.

Everetts colleague Peter Gordon, professor of speech and language pathology at Columbia University, also carried out speech tests in the Pirahã villages. He found the members had a quantification system with terms for one, two and many. He has argued that the Pirahã have only a few numerical words because they cannot count higher. Everett takes a very different view, which he outlined during an interview with Annette Lessmoellmann.

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