Imagine a world without numbers. Time and space would lose their meaning: telling time and counting the passing days, months and years would become impossible. Our ability to use numbers is essential for functioning in our quotidian here and now, from scheduling meetings to reading timetables and paying for groceries at the supermarket.
But in a fascinating new book, Numbers and the Making of Us, linguistic anthropologist Caleb Everett argues that number is a recent cultural invention, deeply tied to our linguistic smarts. Moreover, he likens it to a “flint stone that ignited the human timeline”. Not only does number make it possible to perceive quantities in the world, it has, he claims, “led to the advent of agriculture and writing, and indirectly to the technologies that flowed from the latter two”.
While on the face of it this is bold, heady stuff, the claim seems counterintuitive. After all, numbers are all around us. An octopus has eight legs, while you and I have two. Surely, that’s just an objective fact? And language reflects the reality of numbered quantities. We have a broad array of words for numbers: I can count from zero to 10, and beyond, using number words, and there are other quantifiers such as “few”, “several”, “many”, “a couple”, and so on. Moreover, the grammatical system of English is numerical through and through, with plural words like “coats” denoting a distinction between one versus more than one.
English is by no means unusual, with other languages making more sophisticated grammatical distinctions. In the Austronesian language Moluccan, for example, there is a grammatical tier intermediate between one and more than one: a so-called “trial” category denoting exactly three items.
But there are enough languages that lack number. These range from unrelated spoken languages, such as Pirahã and Mundurukú – both indigenous to different remote parts of Amazonia – to non-spoken languages, such as Nicaraguan Sign Language.
Read more: New Scientist