The Guardian has a great extract from Alex Bellos‘ new book Alex’s Adventures in Numberland. Besides sounding like the title to a mathematician’s experimentation with LSD, the book dedicates a section (the abstract in the Guardian) on the work of a linguist, Pierre Pica, and his discovery that the Munduruku tribe only count up to five. Although even this claim is dubious:
When there was one dot on the screen, the Munduruku said “pug“. When there were two, they said “xep xep“. But beyond two, they were not precise. When three dots showed up, “ebapug” was said only about 80% of the time. The reaction to four dots was “ebadipdip” in only 70% of cases. When shown five dots, “pug pogbi” was managed only 28% per cent of the time, with “ebadipdip” given instead in 15% of answers. In other words, for three and above the Munduruku’s number words were really just estimates. They were counting “one”, “two”, “three-ish”, “four-ish”, “five-ish”. Pica started to wonder whether “pug pogbi“, which literally means “handful”, even really qualified as a number. Maybe they could not count up to five, but only to four-ish?
The whole article reminded me of another Amazonian tribe, the Pirahã, and how they don’t even have a numerical system. In fact, many of the Amazonian tribes and languages are throwing up some interesting findings, like a restricted numerical system and the absence of both quantifiers and grammatical tense. For those of you interested, I’d recommend reading Dan Everett’s book (Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes) on his experiences with the Pirahã.