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An amazonian tribe that can only count up to five

  1. Apr 8, 2010 #1
    How is it possible that an amazonian tribe can only count up to five?

    An Amazonian tribe, the Munduruku, an indigenous group of about 7,000 people whose language has no tenses, no plurals and no words for numbers beyond five.

    Unfortunately, the copyright on the article has expired.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/mar/31/alex-bellos-numberland
     
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  3. Apr 8, 2010 #2

    Evo

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    The Piraha tribe of Brazil can't count at all. They never developed the concept of counting.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,414291,00.html
     
  4. Apr 8, 2010 #3

    fluidistic

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    Amazingly interesting Evo.
     
  5. Apr 8, 2010 #4

    epenguin

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    Sorry, the rules are we don't help them unless they show they have made an effort.
     
  6. Apr 8, 2010 #5

    Evo

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    OMG!!! Don't do that!! I spewed all over my computer!! :biggrin:
     
  7. Apr 8, 2010 #6

    lisab

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    That's really interesting.

    As I read the article, I kept wondering, how would a unique language and culture come to exist? Nothing like it, anywhere, according to the article. No past tense, numbers, colors, stories, or art? Not even sentimental memories of dead relatives?

    [SPECULATION] Could it be that at some time in the past every tribe member, except for a group of very young children, died? These children would have been old enough to have learned rudimentary language, and how to forage food from the jungle of course. They survived somehow, but all the tribe's culture would be forgotten, leaving a language and culture about what you would expect from ~3-year-olds. [/SPECULATION]
     
  8. Apr 8, 2010 #7

    Evo

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    That's really interesting Lisab. The Piraha are indeed different. I ran across them several years ago and have done a lot of thinking about how they seem to percieve things in the most basic terms of "now" and just living. No superstitions, no religion, no need for thinking that's not directly related to going about daily life.
     
  9. Apr 8, 2010 #8

    Ivan Seeking

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    That is simply amazing. How could language alone influence such basic abilities?

    Heh, if true that language is this siginficant, it makes me wonder if a language could be engineered with the goal of maximizing our intellectual abilities.
     
  10. Apr 8, 2010 #9

    russ_watters

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    Must be a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. That if we don't use the parts of our brain that deal with certain types of cognition, we don't pass on traits for development of those parts (or even, keeping that part going). I wonder if anyone has tested these guys to see if they are all color blind or have reduced color vision.

    ...unless humans have a short timespan for development of those parts of the brain when they are children. Ie, that some concepts can only be learned if learned as a child.
     
  11. Apr 9, 2010 #10

    CRGreathouse

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    It's worth mentioning that much of Daniel Everett's work on the Pirahã has been called into question. I tend to support Everett, but there's disagreement among experts. In particular, it's not clear that certain aspects (counting, of course, but also color and grammar as I recall) as as described; some think these have been sensationalized by Everett.

    See, for example, http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~nevins/npr09.pdf [Broken]. I think there may have been a counter-rebuttal and perhaps even a counter-counter-rebuttal...

    Edit: Am I really the first to mention Sapir-Whorf on this thread?
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  12. Apr 9, 2010 #11

    Evo

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    Ah, that's just debating his conclusions of the link between grammar and culture. The Piraha still lack the need for counting, colors, myths, etc...

    Thanks CR, it will be interesting to read more about it.

    I'd like to know more about their unusual culture.
     
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  13. Apr 9, 2010 #12

    Borek

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    Oh no, Evo in the rainforest hunting amazonian tribes :bugeye:

    But the story is fascinating, thank you for sharing.

    I recall reading that Australian Aboriginals don't know left and right, as they alwyas orientate themselves to the the world directions (that is, John is not on your left, he is east of you). This is in a way similar - different world through different language.

    That is, assuming all these stories are real.
     
  14. Apr 9, 2010 #13

    lisab

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    I experienced a something similar when I learned Dirac notation. I already had a good grasp of linear algebra, but learning that new notation allowed me to use those ideas in totally new ways.

    I'm amazed at how powerful notation is - I think of it as a scaffold for thoughts. So while I'm not surprised language is the same way, it does surprise me that its effect reaches into such fundamental things as simple counting.
     
  15. Apr 9, 2010 #14
    They are not the only primitive tribe. Alot of people in highly developed nations are even more backward.
     
  16. Apr 9, 2010 #15
    Actually, the bits about colors and myths are in serious dispute, along with most of the other facts about the language that are supposed to be remarkable. The "Piraha Exceptionality" paper cites work by the Brazilian anthropologist Gonçalves on the myths they're supposed to not have. Everett's reply to this is that the myths are borrowed from other people and that Goncalves didn't speak the language well enough to know what he was hearing.

    The counting is also disputed in that paper. Everyone agrees they lack numbers above two, but the new claim that they don't even have one and two is criticized on factual grounds.
     
  17. Apr 9, 2010 #16
    Are there any transcriptions of poetry or lyrical songs that these people have created? It would be interesting to analyze the meanings that are institutionalized using such vocab and grammar.
     
  18. Jun 4, 2010 #17
    "all languages have black and white. If there are three words, the third is red. If there are 4, then it's green or yellow. If five then whichever didn't make fourth, yellow or green. if six, it's blue. if seven, it's brown. if eight or more then purple pink orange and grey are added in any order." -martin gardner. order and surprise. oxford university press (1984)
     
  19. Jun 4, 2010 #18
    If black and white were the only color words in a language, they would probably refer to darkness or lightness of hue generally, wouldn't they? So, for example, black could refer to dark grey, navy blue, forest green, or blood red while white could refer to yellow, sky-blue, light grey, or beige - I assume.
     
  20. Jun 5, 2010 #19
    Red as a third makes sense as well, since it's nigh unequivocally the color people see the strongest.
     
  21. Jun 5, 2010 #20
    Plus it is the color of blood. But wouldn't the sound be used to denote blood and perhaps only later be used to describe the reddish color of something else?
     
  22. Jun 6, 2010 #21
    That's what i gathered. This little excerpt is just a loose generalization though.. obviously there are some exceptions.
     
  23. Jun 7, 2010 #22

    alxm

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    I don't think it's that extreme (genetic selection). More likely it's developmental; if you don't learn certain things before a certain age, you'll have great difficulty aquiring them later. It's pretty well established that speech has to be learned before a certain age, or you'll likely never be able to speak. Similarly, we all know it's easier for younger people to aquire languages.

    Language itself is very use-it-or-lose it, of course. If there's no need for a particular word/concept, it quickly disappears.

    I almost wonder if 'red' shouldn't be first. After all, "red" is the only color in English with a definite common Proto-Indo-European root that has the same meaning. Whereas "black" wasn't the same word even in Old English (sweart).
     
  24. Jun 7, 2010 #23

    fuzzyfelt

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