No Numbers or Worries

Language Blog, Other Posts

Deep in the Amazon Rainforest lives an indigenous tribe called the Hi’aiti’ihi, who speak the Pirahã language. This language is unique in several ways, but primarily world-renowned in linguistic communities because it contains no numbers. Not a single one. Not even one.

Can you imagine such a world? I look at the clock, and see digits. I do my taxes, and write numbers. I use an iPad, cell phone, desktop, laptop–essentially any device–and know that somehow, “01010101” and an enormous amount of coding lets me communicate with nearly anyone in the world. A world without numbers? What about synesthetes? What about birthdays? What about money? Or addresses? What about time? Does no time means no past or future? How many jobs would not exist if there weren’t numbers? I am speechless, wordless, number-less…

To clarify, these hunter-gatherers** do have smaller or larger amounts (the concept of more or less), but no numbers. I have read before that in order to barter, one might turn a palm skyward to indicate more, and downward for less–but there are no numbers, either to quantify what is being bartered or to exchange currencies.

If people without numbers are not enough for you today, the Moken Tribe–living near Thailand and Burma–will fix that. They do not have a word for “want” in their language (details on page two of link). Likewise, “worry” is not a concept in their language. This is the same tribe that knew a deadly tsunami was coming in 2004 and saved themselves. Aren’t languages fascinating? What we understand as reality is not always the case for the rest of the world. No numbers, no wants, no worries…

**Some have suggested in recent years that our cyber habits closely parallel hunter-gatherer societies and thought, in the sense that we skim information quickly, only searching for what we want to catch, or gather. Hmmm.

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