It’s easy to neglect a blog when your life becomes busy. Who knew a Ph.D would be such hard work (said no one, ever)…
As I’ve somehow kept this blog going over the years, I’ve managed to hit post number 200. While this number isn’t necessarily a common milestone, it is a round number, and as I’ve said “number” almost as many times are their are sentences so far, I think I’ll stick with that as a topic.
Despite mathematics having many links to the natural world (I recommend searching for “Vi Hart” on YouTube for some brilliant videos about the hidden links to life in maths), it is not really classed as a natural “language system.” A book I’m reading names it as a “designed semiotic,” in other words, a non-naturally occurring way of describing some sort of meaning. Nevertheless, numbers tend to be ubiquitous in natural language. They infiltrate our devices, our books, and our everyday speech, and they’re damn useful. But it may surprise you to know that not all languages view numbers in the same way. Surely, numbers are universal, right…?
So as this blog is in English, let’s start with the way in which English speakers see and use numbers. We’ve got our cardinals (1, two, 3), our ordinals (first, 2nd, third) and a whole variety of ways in which we can arrange them, alongside writing either their associated digit or their equivalent English spelling. We could turn them into fractions, percentages, or combine billions upon billions of them in order to estimate the number of grains of sand on a beach. We separate our numbers into blocks – units, tens, hundreds and thousands – and then as we get bigger, we start to mix and match these terms – tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, thousands of thousands (a.k.a. a million, if not more), and in doing so we use commas to separate them into groups of three digits (e.g. 532,121) . Conversely, we use points to indicate parts of whole numbers (e.g. 203.12).
This all seems pretty normal, right? Let’s start to mix a few things up…
Let’s take the system of numbers in France, for instance. Not much different, except of course that we’re now talking “un, deux trois” and not “one, two three.” But we have the start of a few subtle differences. The French (like other mainland european countries) often tend to swap the comma around for small numbers, and use a space to separate large numbers. So, to use the numbers above, we’d get something like 532 121 and parts of whole numbers would be produced as 203,12 … not a huge difference, but it may raise a few eyebrows nonetheless.
Languages such as Finnish (with its incredibly complex case system) start to make things a little more difficult to grasp. Let’s take the number 1, known as “ykkönen” and which sounds a little bit like ‘oo-kker-nen.’* Numbers are inflected for case. In other words, depending on the grammatical function of the number and where it falls in the sentence, its spelling and pronunciation will change. For instance:
- yksi – nominative case (often the subject of a sentence)
- yhden – genitive case (often marks noun possession)
- yhtä – partitive case (often meaning ‘part of’ a noun)
- yhteen – illative case (refering to a noun going into something)
Not only that, but the spelling/pronunciation can change all over again if the noun being referred do regularly occurs in pairs or sets! I don’t have any concrete examples of these, but if any of my readers are Finnish or have a better grasp of everyday Finnish, feel free to leave a comment on how these would occur!
Now let’s jump over to Japan.
Japanese can represent its numerals in the latin fashion (1, 2, 3) or using kanji (一 二 三, pronounced “ichi,” “ni,” “san”). While these don’t necessarily inflect for case like Finnish numbers do, the number system of Japanese is presented with many peculiarities from a western world perspective, three of which spring to mind:
- Numbers in Japanese are split into blocks of four, rather than blocks of three. This is known as grouping in myriads. So our big number – 532,121 – would look something like this: 53,2121. In fact, it’s translation would be something like “fifty-three ten thousands, two thousands, one hundred and twenty one.**”
- Very large (and indeed smaller) numbers in Japanese all have specific characters. Whereas we tend to go million, billion, trillion, quadrillion, etc. and then start becoming less accurate (“billions upon billions”), Japanese has specific names for numbers, going up in powers of four, all the way until the 88th power (that’s 88 zeros). Take a look at the photo below (click to enlarge) from Wikipedia to see a table of these:
- Japanese uses “counter words” which are placed after the number, often modifying its pronunciation, in order to agree with what you’re talking about. For instance, in English we could say “two” and “two dogs,” but the equivalents in Japanese would be “ni” and “inu nihiki” (where “inu” means “dog,” and “hiki” is used whenever animals are being counted). Other counters include “hon,” for any object that is cylindrical or long and thin, “kai,” for the number of floors in a building, and “sao,” for chests of drawers or flags.***
(…still with me?)
And finally, we travel to South America, in which we find hundreds of languages including Pirahã; a language that has no number system at all.
This often confuses people the most. You may be thinking “But… but… how can a language work without numbers?!” And that’s a very good question. The long and short of it is this: the tribe who use the Pirahã language live in a culture that there is no need for numbers in their language. Numbers are a necessity in certain cultures, as we’ve seen; they thrive and are found everywhere. Yet, for this tribe, with just as natural and complex a language as any other on earth, numbers are not needed, thus they don’t exist in the language. If you have the time, go and pick up a copy of Dan Everett’s “Language: The Cultural Tool” and have a look through some of the other fascinating facts about Pirahã and similar languages for a more in-depth explanation.
Who’d have thought that numbers could be so varied? Well… mathematicians, I’m sure, but numbers also provide linguists with a fascinating insight into how languages work, and thereby how their cultures work, too.
If you’re currently feeling a sensation similar to that of “mind blown,” then you’re curiosity is alive and well, and that pleases me!
Do you know any curious information about numbers in your language, or know of what crazy things numbers get up to in other languages? Leave your comments below =]
*To the hardcore linguists out there, obviously this is not a phonetic transcription and just a ‘best fit’ guide based on English sounds. As I’ve stated in comments in previous posts, I’m not here to write down phonetic/phonemic transcriptions as this blog is aimed at people who may not understand the IPA.
**Not an accurate translation, but you get the idea.
***An example of sound mutation occurs with “three dogs:” it isn’t “inu sanhiki,” it’s “inu sanbiki.”