In April 2017 The Conversation published an article that looked at the connection between numbers and languages. The 7,000 languages that exist today vary dramatically in how they utilize numbers — the author presents — and some Amazonian tribes rely exclusively on analogous terms as "a few" and "some" to describe quantity.
What happens when a language has no words for numbers?
As the article outlines:
Without numbers, healthy human adults struggle to precisely differentiate and recall quantities as low as four. <...> distinctions that seem natural to someone like you or me.
However, it doesn't make such adults any less cognitively able or adapted to their environments. Does it mean that number words are not a human universal?
How do we learn numbers as children?
Initially, kids learn numbers much like they learn letters. They recognize that numbers are organized sequentially, but have little awareness of what each individual number means. With time, they start to understand that a given number represents a quantity greater by one than the preceding number.
None of us, as it turns out, is a "numbers person" and unless trained, we would all struggle with even the most basic distinctions. Parrots, by the way, can also be trained to count.
How did we invent numbers?
Transient realisations. 😁 (The same place where all the good stuff comes from)
Number word (one, two, ten) is an abstract figure. For example, our days are ruled by minutes and seconds, but these are not real entities in any physical sense.
Minutes and seconds are verbal artefacts of a base-60 number system from Mesopotamia 😲 (Read this article from Scientific American if you want to know why a minute = 60 seconds and an hour = 60 minutes, but there are 24 hours in a day!)
People needed something very close to them to use as a comparison benchmark. As it turns out, as soon as we started walking upright our own hands became the best candidate. Thus number "five" in many languages is derived from the same word as "hand": five fingers on this hand is the same as five of something elsewhere.
The bulk of the world’s languages use base-10, base-20 or base-5 number systems. That is, these smaller numbers are the basis of larger numbers. English is a base-10 or decimal language, as evidenced by words like 14 (“four” + “10”) and 31 (“three” x “10” + “one”).
Do we have any number people here who could tell about "peculiar" counting systems?