You Can’t Do the Math Without the Words

You Can’t Do the Math Without the Words

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Most people learn to count when they are children. Yet surprisingly, not all languages have words for numbers. A recent study shows that a few tongues lack number words and as a result, people in these cultures have a difficult time performing common quantitative tasks. The findings add new insight to the way people acquire knowledge, perception and reasoning and demonstrate that number words are essential tools of thought required to solve even the simplest quantitative problems, such as one-to-one correspondence.

The Piraha people of the Amazon are a group of about 700 semi-nomadic people living in small villages along the Maici River. According to University of Miami anthropological linguist Caleb Everett, the Piraha are surprisingly unable to represent exact amounts. Their language contains just three imprecise words for quantities: Hòi means “small size or amount,” hoì, means “somewhat larger amount,” and baàgiso indicates to “cause to come together, or many.”

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