Counting To Two

We grow up believing numbers are a universal language. People living in different countries with different cultures and languages can still agree that 2+2=4. However, this is not true of everyone sharing our planet. There are some people who don’t use the same counting system as us, such as the Pirahã.

Piraha tribe are from Brazil

Piraha tribe are from Brazil

They are a tribe who live in groups of between 10 and 20 by the banks of the Maici river in Brazil. Their number system consists of 1, 2 and the word “aibaagi,” meaning “many”. However even these words can vary in use. For example the word for “one” can also mean “a few,” while “two” can also be used to refer to “not many”. (1)

A study by Peter Gordon, a behavioural scientist from Columbia University in New York, investigated whether this meant that the Pirahã did mathematics in a different way to us. The paper, “Numerical Cognition without Words: Evidence from Amazonia”, was first published online in August 2004 by Science Express. It showed that “numerical cognition is clearly affected by the lack of a counting system in the language”. (2)

Testing the numeracy skills of the villagers was not going to work in the same way we test those of a child in our society. Instead, the participants were shown a number of familiar objects and asked to produce the same number of objects from their pile. The results were fairly accurate when dealing with one or two items but as the number of objects grew the accuracy tended to drop. This was because whilst they can see that there are 8 apples on the table their language doesn’t allow them to define it as anything other than “many”.

Another conclusion from the study was that estimating or comparing large numbers was a skill which was independent of the ability to count because these skills were not affected by the limited language.

A second study of the Pirahã’s numeracy skills was conducted and a paper, “Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition” was published in 2008. This paper agreed with a lot of what Peter Gordon had reported and used the same testing techniques to study the participants’ numerical abilities. The paper explains that the main drop in accuracy occurred when memory was tested concerning the number of objects shown. A conclusion from this study was that the use of language within numeracy is something we have developed as a society rather than something that is intuitive and that words for numbers are a “cognitive technology for representing, storing, and manipulating the exact cardinalities of sets”. (3) In other words, we use the language to keep track of the number of objects in a set.

Pirahã are not alone in having a different counting system to ours. There is also a tribe called the Mundurukú in central Brazil who have a limited numerical vocabulary consisting of words for numbers up to about 5. However, their use of these words is quite varied, for example, “given four dots, a person might use the word for 3, 4 or 5.” (4)

The lives of people in both these communities don’t require the mathematic system that our society is built on. They have little need for trading and their lives are focussed on hunting and survival. We use numbers for so much in our daily lives so it seems incredible that people can live a life in which they don’t use the numbers we teach our children in their first year of life. Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf theorised in the 1930s that language could determine on how and what we think. These studies have had a lot of impact on such theories as well as inspiring some interesting reflections on our own use of numbers within society.



  2. Gordon, P.  (2004) Numerical Cognition without Words: Evidence from Amazonia.  Science
  4. Michael C. Frank, Daniel L. Everett, Evelina Fedorenko, Edward Gibson; Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition, International Journal of Cognitive Science


Feature image –

Image 1 – BBC News

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