How words help make sense of numbers

8 Feb
Sign language F

Image via Wikipedia

I came across this great article on wired.com today: Words make sense of numbers.  It discusses the fascinating connection between our understanding of numbers and the words we give to numbers.

What I think the article is saying is that without words for numbers (one, two, three etc.), we struggle to grasp the concept of larger numbers.  Some remote tribes in the Amazon only have words for ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’ – and they struggle to distinguish between, say, five and six fish.

The claim that words for numbers help us understand the concept of numbers is backed up by the example of a deaf school in Nicaragau that was founded in the 1970s.  There was no official sign language in the country – and when the pupils came together at the school, they ended up developing their own sign language.  The later study suggests that, as they didn’t have many number words in this language, they struggled to distinguish between the number of frogs in a fairy tale.

So while mathematics may be considered a universal absolute, it’s satisfying for me as a linguist to learn that language is absolutely necessary for truly grasping the concept of number.

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2 Responses to “How words help make sense of numbers”

  1. Melanie Richards June 17, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

    Dang, this is interesting! I’d always kind of taken for granted the ability to count, and to understand numerical differences and relationships; because grade school does such a great (?) job of segmenting subjects, I’d never even thought about the relationship of word, of naming, to mathematics. Thanks for sharing.

    • Rum Ram Ruf June 18, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

      It’s definitely a fascinating topic, isn’t it? There was an absolutely mind-blowing article last year (or mind blowing for me, at least!) saying that our way of thinking about numbers as effectively equally spaced along a line is a cultural construct – and that it’s more natural to think in terms of ratios (one, two and many!). The article’s been removed as the copyright ran out – but you can see an extract of it here: http://anthrocivitas.net/forum/showthread.php?t=3825

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