Special Viewpoints

Language and the Origin of Numerical Concepts

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Science  15 Oct 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5695, pp. 441-443
DOI: 10.1126/science.1105144

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Reports of research with the Pirahã and Mundurukú Amazonian Indians of Brazil lend themselves to discussions of the role of language in the origin of numerical concepts. The research findings indicate that, whether or not humans have an extensive counting list, they share with nonverbal animals a language-independent representation of number, with limited, scale-invariant precision. What causal role, then, does knowledge of the language of counting serve? We consider the strong Whorfian proposal, that of linguistic determinism; the weak Whorfian hypothesis, that language influences how we think; and that the “language of thought” maps to spoken language or symbol systems.

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