PIRAHA AND MUNDURUKU.

I have previously written about the Pirahã and the issues raised by their lack of number words (update here); Mark Liberman has now posted at Language Log an extensive collection of links and analysis about them and the Mundurukú, another Amazonian tribe whose language (part of the Tupí family) has words only for 1, 2, 3, and 4, with pogbi ‘hand’ being used for ‘five or so’ and everything else being ‘some’ or ‘many.’ Mark’s MetaFilter post contains more links and discussion; my favorite bit from Brian Butterworth’s Guardian story is: “…even in the range of their vocabulary, the Munduruku are approximate – ‘ebadipdip’ is typically used for four, but also used for three, five and six.” I just love that word ebadipdip; if it were part of my language, I’d use it for as many numbers as I could.

Comments

  1. When I was young we were told that the people who counted “1,2,3, heap…” were Native Americans, or maybe Polacks. So maybe the urban legend has something behind it?
    My brother, a field geologist, uses a scale something like “1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 75, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 5000…..” Their data are really dirty and excessive exactness is actually misleading.

  2. “ebadipdip” sounds like it should be part of the same number system as “yipyipyipyip” and “shananana”.

  3. In Cantonese, they do have approximate numbers available in addition to the counting numbers. yatyih (lit. “one two”) means one or two, up through baatgau (lit. “eight nine”) means eight or nine.

  4. Some primitive* peoples can count only up to three I’m told and that if they wish to denote more than three people they say “One, two, three and many.” In the early 1990′s an avian researcher found that crows can count up to seven so here we have a bird who can count to higher numbers than some humans!
    *Before anyone starts jumping down my throat over the use of the word “primitive” I would just like to say that there is nothing wrong with the word even if it doesn’t sound politically correct these days. Many people equate ‘primitive with “bad” however, just because something is primitive doesn’t mean that it is bad. Take our sun, for example, astronomers consider it to be a primitive star yet where would we be without it?The sun gives us our heat and light; some of our vitamin D and indirectly the energy we get from the food we eat.
    — Brian

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