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The Amazon tribe that speaks language without numbers

Tue, 01 Jan 2008 ANI

London, July 18 (ANI): Forget algebra, equations and fractions, for there exists an Amazonian tribe that does not have any idea of numbers and counting.


Tribal adults of the Piraha are no better than infants or even some animals, as far as numbers are concerned, as their language, of which there are only 300 speakers, has no word even to express the concept of "one" or any other specific number.


Headed by Edward Gibson, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that members of the Piraha tribe in remote northwestern Brazil do not have any numbers and instead they make use of language to express relative quantities such as "some" and "more."


While counting is believed to be an inherent trait of human cognition, "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 Telegraph quoted Gibson, as saying.


In fact, this study establishes that number words are a concept, which is not an innate part of human language, but is developed by human cultures because of their need.


This new study builds up on a previous study published in 2005 by Prof Everett, which discovered that the Piraha used words for quantities "one," "two," and "many."


While the currents study supported the earlier findings, but gave a new angle to the theory. Starting with 10 objects to be count down by tribe members, they found that the subjects 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.


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


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


Prof Stanislas Dehaene of the Coll?ge de France in Paris, who did the work with Prof Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University said believes that studies of the Piraha have "totally underestimated" the amount of "proto-mathematical" knowledge that is shared by people who lack the language to express these ideas.


The study appeared in the latest issue of the journal Cognition. (ANI)


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