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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Life without numbers

When talking about colours, I had mentioned how our language affects our thinking process and vice-versa. There cannot be a better example of this than in Piraha tribe of Amazon forests. This tribe is incredulous in so many ways that it has stumped linguists, anthropologists and sociologists for years. One of the unique distinction of this tribe is that their language doesn’t have any concept of numbers.

It’s not just that the members of tribe don’t know any numbers, but they are incapable of understanding the notion itself even when meticulously trained for months. For instance, they failed to duplicate a line of batteries from pool of batteries; couldn’t draw straight lines to copy a given number of lines on earth; and couldn’t decide which of two boxes had more symbols of fish on it. Their language reflects their mental association: there is one word for meaning small amount and another to mean large amount. When “Piraha are talking and use the ‘oneish’ word to talk about something such as fish, you can’t tell whether they are describing a single fish, a small fish, or one or two fish” says Prof. Everett, a fluent Piraha-speaker himself. Their strange example has strengthened the argument by one linguist that learning a specific language determined the nature and content of how one thinks. We can easily see this in our life as new language often broadens our mental horizon and breadth of opinions. Piraha are perfect example where not having words for something doesn’t permit one to comprehend the notion. And it’s not that they are simply stupid, if one were to be presumptuous and assume that, for their fishing and hunting skills are comparable to people elsewhere.

Among other things that characterize this amazingly unique group of people is the limited memory beyond two generations; lack of any social hierarchy; practice of not sleeping more than two hours at a time during night or day; no distinct words for colour; and absence of any creation myths or concept of God.
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