The Pirahã Controversy: Numbers

Apr 5, 2012 by

In addition to recursion, the Pirahã are claimed to lack numbers. Is this true? According to Dan Everett, the Pirahã lack not only numbers of any kind, but they do not have even a concept of counting and of any terms for quantification. However, in his own earlier work Everett listed several quantity words in Pirahã:

hói ‘one’
hoí ‘two’
xaíbái/báagiso ‘many’ (count nouns)
xapagí/[xogií] ‘much’ (mass nouns)
xogió ‘all’
xoíhi ‘a little’
xaibóai ‘half’
xi ába ‘nothing’

If Everett’s later claim about the lack of numerals in Pirahã is true, then in his earlier work he must have mistranslated those words. Perhaps a better translation for hói is ‘small size or amount’ and for hoí ‘somewhat larger size or amount’? Further, if the claim that the Pirahã language lacks number words is true, does this linguistic gap have anything to do with the Pirahã culture? Or with aspects of Pirahã cognition?

According to Everett himself, linguistic gaps in the Pirahã languge have a direct correlation with gaps in the Pirahã culture. Specifically, he claims that in Pirahã “communication is restricted to the immediate experience of the interlocutors”. But how does the lack of number words follow from this claim? After all, it must mean that for the Pirahã ‘large canoes’ is part of their immediate experience but ‘two canoes’ is not part of the immediate experience. But how does that make sense?! Moreover, if the proposed correct interpretation of hoí is right, then ‘somewhat larger amount of canoes’ must be part of the immediate experience. But why?! In this, I must side with Nevins, Pesetsky & Rodriguez (2009: 386), who hypothesize that “A hunter-gatherer society with limited commerce is precisely the kind of environment in which a ‘small number system’ might be expected to survive without pressure to grow larger.”

Let’s consider more closely some of the experimental evidence that comes out of various researchers’ work with the Pirahã. For starters, consider the so-called “ten spools experiment”, in which Pirahã speakers were presented thread spools added to the array one at a time. When shown just one spool, the Pirahã speakers aleways answered hói, whichconsistent with the numerical interpretation of this word as meaning  ‘one’ rather than ‘small size or amount’. This hypothesis is further confirmed by the fact that these speakers also responded with hoí ‘two’ when shown two spools. When more spools were added, they answered with either hoí ‘two’ or báagiso ‘many’. This use of hoí to describe more than strictly two objects suggests that perhaps the interpretation in Everett’s work is correct. Thus, the ascending condition provides data that is partially compatible with one hypothesis and partially with the other.

Things get even messier when spools are taken away one by one (the descending condition). When shown from 10 to 6 spools, the speakers responded with either hoí ‘two’/‘somewhat larger size or amount’ or báagiso ‘many’. One speaker even responded with hói ‘one’/‘small size or amount’. Five or four spools were described as hoí ‘two’/‘somewhat larger size or amount’, and three to one spools as hói ‘one’/‘small size or amount’. Most importantly, the same number of spools did not always elicit the same response on the ascending and descending conditions. So far, no sensible explanation has been proposed for the difference between the two conditions.

[to be continued]

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