The Language of Numbers

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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In Brazil, there is a tribe that doesn't count. No, I don't mean that they don't matter; I meanthey don't count:

Among Piraha's many peculiarities is an almost complete lack of numeracy, an extremely rare linguistic trait of which there are only a few documented cases. The language contains no words at all for discrete numbers and only three that approximate some notion of quantity.

Those three terms equate to "a small size or amount," "a somewhat larger size or amount" and "a bunch." And if you show them a group of five or six objects, then ask them to replicate it from memory, they apparently have a very hard time. As the Slate article goes on to point out, citing research from anthropological linguist Caleb Everett published in Cognitive Science, this has implications:

If necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps the Piraha never needed numbers, either because precise counting is not culturally valued or because that value has a sufficient, anumeric workaround. Nothing about the Piraha's self-contained way of life seems to require quantity recognition over three, says Everett, a fact that's not lost on outsiders, who sometimes take advantage of them when trading goods. Attempts over the years to teach number words and basic arithmetic to the Piraha have met with little success, in large part because they're uninterested. In fact, the Piraha have a term for all languages not their own; it translates as "crooked head," which is intended as a "clear pejorative."

This makes me wonder if the function of math -- beyond the most rudimentary "a lot" or "a little" approximation -- isn't to help us trade with strangers. Within forager bands, as within families, visual approximation probably suffices when you're trying to ensure a reasonably fair division. But when you're using barter, or money, more exact divisions become necessary. If you don't trade much, and you have no interest in learning the languages of others, you have little need for exactitude.

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net