A Language Without Numbers

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Photo by Flickr user jontintinjordan.  (CC BY 2.0)
Photo by Flickr user jontintinjordan. (CC BY 2.0)

Linguistics is a topic that has always been fascinating to me. I adore the English language, and love studying word origins, the evolution of language, and other related topics.

A few years ago, I read about a culture that didn’t communicate by using words such as “left” or “right” because everything in the language Guugu Yimithirr was described as being in a cardinal direction. Languages whose words innately have a gender also affect how every day items are thought of. Languages affect the way we learn and think, and they even shape the way we see the world. They have a huge influence on our culture, and our lives.

What would our lives be like without numbers?

A recent article on Slate talks about the Pirahã culture in Brazil, where they have no words for numbers. They have a couple of words for general quantities, and one to combine two groups of something together, but imagine not being able to count, or to think in terms of numbers. How would that affect how you think? Can you even fathom it?

More than not being educated in math, having no numbers eliminates the possibility of a conventional currency, or being able to keep track of a medium or large group of items. The Pirahã culture seems happy to hold on to their culture and way of life, however. Being born into languages with numbers, it’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like to not have them. But if you’ve never had them, would you feel like something was missing? Read the Slate article to learn more.

A couple of fascinating articles related to this topic are from three years ago, one at The New York Times, and one at The Wall Street Journal. If you weren’t previously curious about language, these articles will likely convert you.

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