Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Language Without Numbers: Amazonian Tribe Has No Word To Express 'One,' Other Numbers

Date:
July 15, 2008
Source:
Massachusetts Institute Of Technology
Summary:
An Amazonian language with only 300 speakers has no word to express the concept of "one" or any other specific number, according to a new study from an MIT-led team.

A Pirahγ man participates in an experiment that MIT researchers say indicates his language contains no number words.
Credit: Edward Gibson

An Amazonian language with only 300 speakers has no word to express the concept of "one" or any other specific number, according to a new study from an MIT-led team.

The team, led by MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences Edward Gibson, found that members of the Piraha tribe in remote northwestern Brazil use language to express relative quantities such as "some" and "more," but not precise numbers.

It is often assumed that counting is an innate part of human cognition, said Gibson, "but here is a group that does not count. They could learn, but it's not useful in their culture, so they've never picked it up."

The study, which appeared in the June 10 online edition of the journal Cognition, offers evidence that number words are a concept invented by human cultures as they are needed, and not an inherent part of language, Gibson said.

The work builds on a study published in 2004, which found that the Piraha had words to express the quantities "one," "two," and "many." The MIT researchers observed the same phenomenon when they asked Piraha speakers to describe sets of objects as they were added, from one to 10.

However, the MIT team decided to add a new twist--they started with 10 objects and asked the tribe members to count down. In that experiment, the tribe members used the word previously thought to mean "two" when as many as five or six objects were present, and they used the word for "one" for any quantity between one and four.

This indicates that "these aren't counting numbers at all," said Gibson. "They're signifying relative quantities."

He said this type of counting strategy has never been observed before, although it may also be found in other languages believed to have "one," "two," and "many" counting words.

The paper is part of a larger project that investigates the relationship between Piraha culture and their cognition and language, testing some claims by Daniel Everett, a linguist at Illinois State University, in a 2005 issue of Current Anthropology.

One other discovery of the project is that the Piraha can perform exact matching tasks as long as there is no memory component to them, but once there is a memory component, they approximate their matches. This suggests that language is a cognitive technology that aids humans in memory tasks.

Lead author of the paper is Michael Frank, a graduate student in Gibson's lab. Other authors are Evelina Fedorenko, a postdoctoral associate at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and Everett.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. The original article was written by Anne Trafton. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. "Language Without Numbers: Amazonian Tribe Has No Word To Express 'One,' Other Numbers." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 July 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080714111940.htm>.
Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. (2008, July 15). Language Without Numbers: Amazonian Tribe Has No Word To Express 'One,' Other Numbers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080714111940.htm
Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. "Language Without Numbers: Amazonian Tribe Has No Word To Express 'One,' Other Numbers." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080714111940.htm (accessed August 20, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Researcher Testing on-Field Concussion Scanners

Researcher Testing on-Field Concussion Scanners

AP (Aug. 19, 2014) — Four Texas high school football programs are trying out an experimental system designed to diagnose concussions on the field. The technology is in response to growing concern over head trauma in America's most watched sport. (Aug. 19) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Kids' Drawings At Age 4 Linked To Intelligence At Age 14

Kids' Drawings At Age 4 Linked To Intelligence At Age 14

Newsy (Aug. 19, 2014) — A study by King's College London says there's a link between how well kids draw at age 4 and how intelligent they are later in life. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Mental, Neurological Disabilities Up 21% Among Kids

Mental, Neurological Disabilities Up 21% Among Kids

Newsy (Aug. 18, 2014) — New numbers show a decade's worth of changes in the number of kids with disabilities. They suggest mental disabilities are up; physical ones are down. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Fake Weed Wreaks Havoc In New Hampshire

Fake Weed Wreaks Havoc In New Hampshire

Newsy (Aug. 17, 2014) — New Hampshire's governor declared a state of emergency after more than 40 overdoses of synthetic marijuana in one week throughout the state. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins