MIT News

Let’s travel to South America, specifically to the indigenous tribe called the Hi’aiti’ihi, who speak the Pirahã language deep within the Amazonian jungle. This tribe has been the source of much controversy and discussion among linguistics professors. Why? Because, as [linguist] Dan Everett’s research reveals:

“The Pirahã live from moment to moment, and the language reflects that. […] No stories exist that haven’t either been experienced by the speaker or by someone the speaker knew personally. If anything is spoken of that isn’t within that principle, it isn’t credible to the tribe and therefore is not accepted. Stories don’t travel more than one or two generations because one must experience subjects personally. No stories or fictional tales are passed on.”


Of even greater linguistic interest, however, is the fact that their language does not have any numbers. Let’s back up. I’m not sure you heard me. This language is unique in several ways, but primarily world-renowned in linguistic communities because it contains no numbers. None, whatsoever. Not a single one. Not even one. Sorry, what?

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.

**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.