20 August 2004

Tribe without names for numbers cannot count

A study of an Amazonian tribe is stoking fierce debate about whether people can count without numbers.

Psychologists, anthropologists and linguists have long wondered whether animals, young children or certain cultures can conceptualize numbers without the language to describe them.

To tackle the issue, behavioural researcher Peter Gordon of Columbia University in New York journeyed into the Amazon. He carried out studies with the Pirah� tribe, a hunter-gatherer group of about 200 people, whose counting system consists of words which mean, approximately, 'one', 'two' and 'many'.

Gordon designed a series of tasks to examine whether tribe members could precisely count and conceive of numbers beyond one or two, even if they lacked the words. For example, he asked them to look at a group of batteries and line up a matching amount.

The tribe members struggled to perform these tasks accurately after the numbers were greater than three, Gordon reports in Science 1; and their performance got worse the higher the numbers climbed. "They couldn't keep track at all," he says.

This sounds like a really obvious conclusion, but the Sapir/Whorf hyposthesis has been controversial for almost a century. Chomskians get so excitable over it you'd almost think they have a deep grammar for refuting it. I do not think many Chomskians have ever worked in computer support and tried to help newbies without first teaching them any new words.

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