The Piraha people of the Amazon don't seem to use individual numbers, only words for relative amounts. Karen Hopkin reports, assisted by Mel F. Louis
[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]
Counting is one of the first things we teach our kids. I mean, every parent’s probably said, “You had better be in that bed by the time I count to three.” Followed by “One…two…two-and-a-half…” But counting might not be as universal as it seems. Because scientists from M.I.T. have found that a tribe living in the Amazon has no words for numbers.
Back in 2004, the M.I.T. team reported that the Piraha people seemed to have terms that described “one,” “two,” or “many.” This was based on asking tribe members to count objects, like sticks or nuts or AA batteries, as the researchers laid them out. This time, the scientists had the subjects count backward as they removed things. And they discovered that tribe members used the word previously thought to mean “two” for as many as five or six objects. And they used the word “one” for anything less than that. So the words don’t stand for numbers, so much as relative amounts. The findings appear in the online edition of the journal Cognition.
Although the Piraha people might not need numbers, think of what they’re missing. “A large number of trombones led the big parade, with an even larger number of cornets close at hand…”
—Karen Hopkin, assisted by Mel F. Louis
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