The number words and languages
works@Lingvist

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”).

The original article and its highlights.

Do we have any number people here who could tell about "peculiar" counting systems?

It really bugs me that we say the 10's before the 1's in German!

146 is "Einhundertsechsundvierzig"/ "Onehundred-six-and-forty" instead of "Einhundertvierzig(und)sechs".

That is so stupid! Why would you want to know the six before the forty? We need to change this...

works@Lingvist

@ThePikmania

I totally agree!
What authority can we contact to change the numbering system in German?

And by the way, we should ask the French too! They even ask us to do math: quatre-vingt dix-neuf (80+19)! What's up with that?! Calling Macron asap. ;-)

works@Lingvist

Well, check this site out by TAKASUGI Shinji who has collated a list of number systems of the word!

It will make French and German counting look like primary school exercises.

In Danish, 51, or enoghalvtreds, is, apparently 1 and (2½ times 20). Wait until you get to 71, or enoghalvfjerds, because it is no less than 1 and (3½ times 20).

And if this looks complex, try doing trade with the Oksapmin people from New Guinea, who use base-27 body part counting, referring to 27 body parts:
base-27 counting

Here's a 4-th grader, solving the 16-7 equation with such body system:

You have 16 pigs; you give seven away; how many left? The 4th grader begins his solution of the problem with the ear-on-the-other-side (16). He indicates that this (ear (16) is given away, and corresponds to the thumb (1); the eye on the other side (15) is given away, and that corresponds to the index finger (2); the nose (14) is given away, and that's the middle finger (3)... the child proceeds to the shoulder (10) is given away and that's the forearm (7), leaving biceps (9), the answer. In the Cultural Development of Mathematical Ideas, this approach is referred to as a "double enumeration" strategy. Children are not taught the approach; it's an approach that emerged as Oksapmin children made efforts to make sense of the mathematics taught in school in the post-colonial approach to schooling. (1980)

References:
The Cultural Development of Mathematical Ideas
The Mental Floss article by ARIKA OKRENT from Dec 12, 2012
Photo courtesy of Austronesian Counting

last edited by Marina
works@Lingvist

@Marina Holy Cow!
That is amazing Marina. Thanks for that linguistic culture lesson. Pulling my request to Marcon and Merkel back right away. Thank God for German counting then ;).

works@Lingvist

I was looking for a giphy, requesting images for "cognition comes through comparison" but only found this:

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I think my mom is better at finding giphies :D

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