A study just published in Science (scroll down to “Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia; Peter Gordon; Published online August 19 2004; 10.1126/science.1094492″—linked article and abstract only available to subscribers; brief Scientific American story, longer Science Daily piece) attempts to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in terms of number:

During the late 1930s, amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf posed the theory that language can determine the nature and content of thought. But are there concepts in one culture that people of another culture simply cannot understand because their language has no words for it?
No one has ever definitively answered that question, but new findings by Dr. Peter Gordon, a bio-behavioral scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University, strongly support a “yes” answer. Gordon has spent the past several years studying the Pirahã, an isolated Amazon tribe of fewer than 200 people, whose language contains no words for numbers beyond “one,” “two” and “many.” Even the Piraha word for “one” appears to refer to “roughly one” or a small quantity, as opposed to the exact connotation of singleness in other languages.

What these experiments show, according to Gordon, is how having the right linguistic resources can carve out one’s reality. “Whorf says that language divides the world into different categories,” Gordon said. “Whether one language chooses to distinguish one thing versus another affects how an individual perceives reality.”
When given numerical tasks by Gordon in which they were asked to match small sets of objects in varying configurations, adult members of the tribe responded accurately with up to two or three items, but their performance declined when challenged with eight to 10 items, and dropped to zero with larger sets of objects. The only exception to this performance was with tasks involving unevenly spaced objects. Here, the performance of participants deteriorated as the number of items increased to 6 items. Yet for sets of 7 to 10 objects, performance was near perfect. Though these tasks were designed to be more difficult, Gordon hypothesizes that the uneven spacing allowed subjects to perceive the items as smaller “chunks” of 2 or 3 items that they could then match to corresponding groups.
According to the study, performance by the Piraha was poor for set sizes above 2 or 3, but it was not random. “Pirahã participants were actually trying very hard to get the answers correct, and they clearly understood the tasks,” Gordon said. Participants showed evidence of using methods of estimation and chunking to guess at quantities in larger set sizes. On average, they performed about as well as college students engaged in more complex numerical estimation tasks. Their skill levels were similar to those in pre-linguistic infants, monkeys, birds and rodents, and appeared to correlate to recent brain imaging studies indicating a different sort of numerical competence that seems to be immune to numerical language deprivation. Interestingly, Gordon noted, while Pirahã adults had difficulty learning larger numbers, Piraha children did not.

There’s more at the Science Daily story linked above; thanks to Mike for the tip! [And see Mark Liberman’s Language Log post for more details.]
By the way, there’s more interesting stuff on Piraha here in relation to their neighbors the Wari and “a heretofore undocumented grammatical sound… rendered as tp~ and pronounced as the t consonant sound followed immediately by what linguists call a ‘bilabial trill,’ which sounds like a person releasing air between vibrating lips in imitation of a snorting horse — or flatulence.” And here is a brief description of the language, which “is phonologically the simplest language known, having just ten phonemes, one fewer than in Rotokas.”


  1. “During the late 1930s, amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf posed the theory that language can determine the nature and content of thought.”
    Not sure upsets me more: “amateur” or “determine” …

  2. Check out the Slashdot post about this article. The comments section is full of laymen saying “Of course language determines thought, silly” as if this hasn’t been an issue in linguistics for half a century. Painful reading.

  3. Hat (and others) – in case you only checked the Liberman’s post once, and didn’t catch the two updates… well, do that – in particular take a look at this paper by Everett, which catalogues some astonishingly bizarre properties of Pirahã language and culture, which I’ve just been reading.

    Of course, Whorf was an amateur, technically speaking.

  4. I was googling to find out the status of that bilabial trill. I remember Dan Everett reporting on it on Linguist List and Comrie suggesting that Abkhaz had a similar sound and in the process I found this link
    of rare or single occurences in various languages.
    I found a second LL post that said that Everett had brought Peter Ladefoged down to research some aspects of Amazonian phonetics and he agreed that the sound was a new one. However, that’s all the info I’ve found. Does anyone have any thing else?

  5. The other paper by Everett that Tim May mentions here and that I pointed Language Log to: that’s the truly amazing one. It really challenges many of the things we take for granted if it’s even partly true. Public apology to Daniel Everett, by the way, for my flippancy about him, but that’s just the way I write all the time; but what he’s claiming is far beyond what I’ve seen before about unusual language systems. Pirahã is about to become very famous indeed, though the aspects the Muggle press are picking up on are not the most interesting.

  6. Oh, I’d love to hear the “strange phoneme”. Could anyone perhaps immitate it and post a recording (mp3)?

  7. I have to admit, I find it a bit, unsettling, I guess, that all of these strange properties cohere in one language. New sound, ok, smallest phonemic inventory, ok, example of borrowed pronouns, hmm… In an unrelated paper, there is this comment
    Consider, for instance, University of Pittsburgh Linguist Dan Everett’s description of his contact with the Piraha (a tribe native to the Amazon) and their attitude towards language:
    The Piraha view language as a defining characteristic of group identity in a strong sense– you speak the language of your group . . . . Americans in their opinion are identified partially by their ability to speak other languages (since the only Americans they know are the only people they know that speak more than one language). Even so, it is difficult for them to grasp the fact that I can speak their language. They will often have conversations about me in front of me and then look astounded when I enter into the conversation – even after all the years that I have worked there. When we go to villages that we haven’t worked in much (i.e. other Piraha villages), they literally look at us with their mouths open in disbelief when we address them in Piraha. They eventually answer us, but the experience is clearly unsettling for them. (Everett, personal communication)
    It should not be surprising to learn that the Piraha also believe that they are incapable of ever speaking any language other than their own, and remain to this day a predominantly monolingual community.
    This is not to doubt Everett’s fieldwork, he’s a sharp guy. But is this language a real outlier and because of social pressures, has become something that we shouldn’t draw conclusions from? I don’t know, but when I see all of these exceptions residing in one language, I begin to wonder.

  8. Skimming through Everett’s paper (from the link provided by Tim May above), I can’t help question the author’s conclusions. He keeps referring to pragmatic usage that makes up for the lack of a specific word as when a speaker uses the word “big” to mean “many.” Wouldn’t it be a more sound conclusion that the speakers use the same word for both concepts. Many English words, if we were more aware of their etymologies, would in fact stem from more basic related concepts (as would our grammar). I find the idea that a culture would suffer from a linguistic poverty regarding everyday events highly suspect.

  9. dunno if anyone is out there, but Dan Everett just gave a link to his paper discussing Piraha.
    my question is Do piraha lie?

  10. 1. Bilabial trill: a phonetics textbook I used to have (authored or perhaps co-authored by Ladefoged) described this sound as existing in “the North African language Margi”. It was transcribed [*].
    2. “One-two-many”: In Terry Pratchett’s recent Discworld book Night Watch, he has trolls doing a marching jody: Sound off! (One, two!) Sound off! (Many! Lots!) Sound off! (Er … what?)

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