You may think that dealing with figures is integral to any society, but in fact, not all cultures use them. For example, Amazonian peoples such as the Munduruku and the Pirahã rely exclusively on terms similar to “some” or “a few” in English. Working with these ‘anumeric’ (numberless) societies can yield insights into how the invention of numbers came about, and has shown that the ability to comprehend them is not innate; indeed, experiments proved that without numbers in their vocabulary, adults struggled to distinguish and remember quantities as low as four. This is confirmed by studies on children in our own cultures. Prior to being taught number-words, children struggle to precisely differentiate quantities beyond three. Young children initially learn that numbers are organised in a sequence, much like the alphabet, but are not yet able to understand what each number means, and when to apply that number-word. Those whose cultural traditions do not involve the teaching of numbers never develop the more complex numerical understanding necessary to function in our own society.

The human brain does intrinsically allows for certain numerical instincts, but there are very limited. For example, as babies we can differentiate between five sweets and twenty sweets. But this is by no means unique in the animal kingdom. Even parrots have numerical instincts that can be trained and refined if they are introduced to numbers. How did we develop numerically-dependent societies? Caleb Everett, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Miami, explains that the majority of languages use base-10, base-20 or base-5 systems, in which smaller numbers are the basis of larger numbers—for example, English is a base-10 language, as was Proto-Indo-European, from which English is derived. This system is ultimately believed to be based on people counting on their hands, which is why the word for ‘five’ in many languages is derived from the word for ‘hand’. 

Applicants for Linguistics may wish to think about the deep-rooted differences between some languages, and how this shapes the corresponding societies. They should consider which, if any, aspects of language are innate. Students wishing to study Anthropology might also want to learn about remote societies and languages such as those found in the Amazon, considering how they differ from our own and how they are adapted to their needs and environment.

More Resources