Print

Print


I don’t know about avoiding oversimplification, but the article you URLed draws a strange
conclusion, to my mind:

“This question was posed by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s..... His work led him to suggest that
language not only influences thought but, more strongly, that it determines thought.......

The Pirahã are a people who have steadfastly resisted assimilation into mainstream Brazilian
culture. Their commerce takes the form of barter, with no need to exchange money. Exact
numbers do not exist in their language simply because there is no need for them. And in this case,
what you do not need, you do not have. At least in the field of maths, it seems, Whorf was right.”

This seems to have it exactly backwards! It isn’t the lack of numerals that has determined the
thought - and therefore the culture - of this people, but rather the lack of interest in counting that
has determined the lack of numerals!

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would surely argue, in its deterministic way, that the absence of an
exact counting system would restrict the Pirahã to a barter economy and debar them from the
advantages of fiat currency, usury, taxation etc.. On the contrary - and as the article itself
suggests - it is the preference for a barter economy which has evidently led to the neglect of
numbers.

I read another account of the same "Nature" article in “The Daily Telegraph” (a UK newspaper) on
20 August. This provided futher details, including:

“Dr Gordon says that his research casts doubt on claims by linguists that people have an innate
numerical sense. He says that the ability to perceive specific numbers is innate only up to three....

Dr Lisa Feigenson, a psychologist from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, said that
Dr Gordon’s study was “fantastic”. She said that language must be causing the “drastic” difference
in the number sense of the Pirahã....

Prof Brian Butterworth, of University College London, said that Dr Gordon’s pioneering work had
produced evidence that we needed “counting words” in order to have concepts of numbers beyond
three....”This does seem surprising, however, since English-speaking children of three or four
years old, who can only use the words one and two accurately for counting, can match and
compare sets of objects up to six or seven.”

My own view, for what it is worth, is that Dr Gordon has fallen into the trap of assuming universal
cultural values. It seems he has difficulty seeing that the Pirahã are “blind” to numerals - because
there has never been a need for them in their culture. It's as though he were an early 19th Century
missionary describing African travels to Eskimoes.

If the Pirahã ever throw in their lot with Brazilian society, even in a semi-autonomous way, they’ll
surely learn to count soon enough. The ability is innate all right, but there has to be both reason
and cultural confirmation for it to manifest.

To my mind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis remains unproven even in its “weak” form (presumably no
educated person endorses the “strong” form nowadays). Language can communicate thought but
cannot exactly describe it (“the map is not the territory”) - much less determine it. Moreover, a
thought is always transferable from one bona fide language to another, albeit with the necessary
aid of quite extensive circumlocution in some cases.


Antony Alexander  http://langx.org