Counting in the language without numbers

The Pirah√£ are a tribe in the Brazilian Amazon who apparently don’t have words for specific numbers. A recent study reported by Science News suggests that despite this, the Pirah√£ people can do numerical tasks, challenging the idea that we need number words to think about and recognize exact quantities.

The study was led by psycholinguist Michael Franks who was interested in previous reports that the Pirah√£ only have words for ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’.

Previous researchers had put a single object on a table, asked a Pirah√£ participant “How much is this?”, added another, asked again and so on, while responses were recorded when different words were used for different quantities.

Frank did the same, but also counted down, starting with a large number of objects and taking one away each time.

He got different answers for the same number of objects and it transpired that the words didn’t mean ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’, as previously thought, but ‘few’, ‘some’ and ‘more’.

In fact, the researchers noted that the Pirah√£ have no linguistic method whatsoever for expressing exact quantity, not even ‘one’.

In a subsequent part, the researchers asked the Pirah√£ participants to do several matching tasks. Some just involved the researchers lining up several objects and asking the participants to match the quantity with a different type of object, with some variation for position and grouping.

Other tasks involved the researchers counting out objects and then hiding them, or counting them into a can.

The Pirah√£ were easily able to do the more straightforward matching tasks, but as soon as they needed to transform the number of items across position or after a delay, they started making errors.

The researchers argue that this suggests we don’t need number words to think about quantity, but they are useful tools to augment our memory.

In other words, numbers are a culturally developed cognitive technology allowing us to remember and compare information about quantity over time and across situations.

Link to abstract of scientific study.
Link to Science News article ‘Numbers beyond words’.

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