‘Anumeric’ People: What Happens When A Language Has No Words For Numbers?

A Pirahã family. Caleb Everett, CC BY-SA

Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some.”

In contrast, our own lives are governed by numbers. As you read this, you are likely aware of what time it is, how old you are, your checking account balance, your weight and so on. The exact (and exacting) numbers we think with impact everything from our schedules to our self-esteem.

But, in a historical sense, numerically fixated people like us are the unusual ones. For the bulk of our species’ approximately 200,000-year lifespan, we had no means of precisely representing quantities. What’s more, the 7,000 or so languages that exist today vary dramatically in how they utilize numbers.

Speakers of anumeric, or numberless, languages offer a window into how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience. In a new book, I explore the ways in which humans invented numbers, and how numbers subsequently played a critical role in other milestones, from the advent of agriculture to the genesis of writing.

Continue reading at:

Numberless cultures

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7 thoughts on “‘Anumeric’ People: What Happens When A Language Has No Words For Numbers?

  1. This is an excellent post…. I agree with the conclusion stating that it could be hard for us to understand anumeric people, given our industrialized societies. We are so used to uantification nowadays… Probably money is the cause, but it all started long ago, even before Capitalism. The idea of Measuring time in our mind, without artifacts (as they did in Ancient Mesopotamia) is intriguing… I guess it must have been difficult to find a consensus in order to determine who had arrived late or who had won a race, for example 😉

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