Language Matters: Speaking Without Numbers

Can you imagine a language without numbers?

The Piraha, an indigenous people of Brazil, speak a language that uses only eight consonants and three vowels, depending instead on tones, stresses, and syllable lengths to express meaning.  The simplicity of their language means they can hum or whistle whole conversations!

They also have no words, or concepts, for numbers.

The modern world would be bewildering without numbers, but the Piraha don't see any use for them.

There is a word that means a “small size or amount,” a word for a “somewhat larger size or amount,” and a word for “a bunch,” but no words for individual numbers.

Why no words for numbers?  The most likely reason is that the Piraha have never needed them.  Nothing in their way of life requires counting or differentiating between specific numbers of items, so their language never developed those words.

The Piraha also seem to have no interest in learning about numbers or arithmetic, again because their culture does not require the knowledge.  Why study something of no practical value to your life?

There is a word in the Piraha language for all other languages that translates as “crooked head.”  They see all other languages as “laughably inferior” and show no interest in learning them.

It’s hard for us to imagine an existence without numbers.  Even the way we measure time requires numerical words and representation.  How do you think life would be different without the concept of numbers?

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