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Team finds language without numbers (7/3/2008)

Tags:
language, mathematics, culture

A Piraha man participates in an experiment that MIT researchers say indicates his language contains no number words. - Photo Credit: Edward Gibson
A Piraha man participates in an experiment that MIT researchers say indicates his language contains no number words. - Photo Credit: Edward Gibson
Amazonian tribe has no word to express 'one,' other numbers

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.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by MIT

Comments:

1. Ivan R. Dihoff

7/5/2008 10:06:45 AM MST

This is from a linguist, not an "anthropologist". First: we do not asign the word "tribe" to any group of people. Finally, these people who wish to have their names and their "studies"
published should explain how people with TWICE FIVE FINGERS cannot account for them in their "ever so poor" language. If these people want to study the brain and its billions of interesting conditions, let them stay "at home" and stop belittling other groups of people.


2. Link

7/5/2008 2:30:10 PM MST

Staying "at home" would not yeild many interesting results. That's like asking a scientist to examine a rat to learn how starfish think.

Science has no boundaries.

Good article.


3. J Ridcully

7/8/2008 10:10:22 PM MST

Regarding Dihoff's comment:
Why are you hung up on this not being work by an anthropologist? They were studying a language; the word for someone who does this is 'linguist'.

You say "we do not asign the word tribe to any group of people", but "we" do. The article is in English, and the word 'tribe' means a group of people in English. Get over yourself - the article wasn't written by an anthropologist, about an anthropologist, or for an anthropologist. It is also a summary of a news release by a journalist, not the research article itself.

Interesting that you are reading a 'beltittling' of this tribe into the research. Bringing your own baggage into your response to the article, much? Nowhere does this summary article say the language is 'ever so poor'; you are attacking a stance that hasn't been portrayed here.

Your opinion contains a "First:" but not a "Second:". Luckily, it had a "Finally".


4. mark teer

7/25/2008 6:24:30 AM MST

"Staying "at home" would not yeild many interesting results. That's like asking a scientist to examine a rat to learn how starfish think."

Total crap. What about astudying how Americans education is failing its people? What about studying how American kids are getting worse and worse at maths? There are more important things to study, other than some tribe in the Amazons without the concept of numbers.


5. Bill

7/30/2008 6:35:51 PM MST

Mark Teer:

While what's important obviously differs from person to person, studies of this nature benefit mankind as a whole. The more we understand the world we are living in, the better off we are, even if some people do not see the correlation in specific instances. The study of many things has on countless occasions ultimately led to massive breakthroughs in almost totally unrelated areas.


6. puttputt

8/3/2008 10:44:50 AM MST

IT IS CALLED THE DUBYA TRIBE.


7. Robbie

10/22/2008 6:29:29 PM MST

do the Piraha people count in sets of two?


8. Raggy

10/23/2008 4:23:00 AM MST

Do they count in binary?


9. ken

10/23/2008 5:14:56 PM MST

I thought we were going to discuss ''number words are a concept invented by human cultures as they are needed, and not an inherent part of language, Gibson said. '' here.


10. Jerry Lumpkins

10/24/2008 6:54:49 PM MST

Thanks for your very interesting article. Understanding the differences between groups of people can be very beneficial to everyone. The less said about the underdeveloped minds of some of those leaving comments, the better...


11. 123

10/25/2008 3:10:10 PM MST

Photoshopped.
i can see the pixels!


12. Scramda

10/26/2008 10:24:36 PM MST

Damn straight it's Photoshopped! I can see two pixels and then more pixels. There are many pixels to see. If I listen carefully there may be only one pixel.

If pixels are to peas as pages are to pods then this is one sweet Photoshopped coconut!


13. krembo99

11/4/2008 8:27:11 AM MST

What exactly is the purpose or the conclusion of such a research ?


14. Helena

11/6/2008 5:39:48 PM MST

What's Photoshopped? Your brain?


15. Alex

11/8/2008 2:01:26 PM MST

A conclusion is stated in the article: Certain language constructions aid memory related tasks. The knowledge obtained from this research may lead to other interesting conclusions later as is the case with all research. Science does not begin with all the possible applications in mind. It simply tries to obtain a better understanding of reality.


16. Bill

11/8/2008 11:58:39 PM MST

Fabulous comment, Alex. The last 2 sentences in particular made me glow with pride. Spoken like a scientist!


17. Patrick

11/9/2008 6:41:35 AM MST

Many Native American tribes/nations also used limited numerical systems, and had varying understand of and usage for numbers. I know many Sioux/Lakota used 'as the stars' for large numbers, beginning near 100.


18. 456

11/11/2008 5:11:58 PM MST

definitely photoshopped...you can see where they've tried to cover up the classroom and convenient abacus in front of him....just look at the shadows!


19. Your Mom

6/12/2009 10:45:54 AM MST

This study IS useful, and it doesn't take a condescending tone at any point (contrary to Dihoff's assumptions). The research challenges important assumptions about cognition and perception. It illustrates that, although numbers and counting are a system ancient cultures constructed (and we've adopted) to help make sense of the environment, not all humans necessarily need construct the SAME system in order to adapt successfully to their environments. Rather than belittle these unique peoples, this finding demonstrates that humans are capable of various forms of cognitive development and adaptation appropriate to their environmental and contextual needs.

It also suggests that specific concepts for numerical or quantitative values are not necessarily central facets of language development, and the study of linguistic processes in humans is always interesting.


20. Mr. Awesome

7/15/2009 2:13:25 PM MST

Hey Everybody,

Did anyone else bother to run a quick google search on Mr. Ivan R. Dihoff? It turns up a few books on languages that he's written, which may explain the very large chip on his shoulder, but it also links through to a facebook profile picture of him holding up the semi-detached head of an eviscerated deer!

I kid you not, run the search. It's one of those surreal Internet moments when you're looking at something you think is weird, only to have it morph into something truly f'ed up.


21. College Student Sans Chip

10/21/2009 7:22:36 PM MST

Ew, it surely does, Mr. Awesome. In front of a cute little hybrid with a Coexist bumper sticker, no less. Incongruous, much?


22. Antao Almada

11/25/2009 4:50:48 AM MST

This has already been refered in the documentary "The Story of One" but for an Australian aborigen tribe: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7999948193087011540#



23. Mat

9/17/2010 4:32:43 PM MST

Interesting article. Thanks. Hard to believe they don't have words for numbers.


24. Amy

10/21/2010 3:38:53 AM MST

Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents' generation, try "delousing" the closet in your own room.


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