Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia

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Science  15 Oct 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5695, pp. 496-499
DOI: 10.1126/science.1094492

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Members of the Pirahã tribe use a “one-two-many” system of counting. I ask whether speakers of this innumerate language can appreciate larger numerosities without the benefit of words to encode them. This addresses the classic Whorfian question about whether language can determine thought. Results of numerical tasks with varying cognitive demands show that numerical cognition is clearly affected by the lack of a counting system in the language. Performance with quantities greater than three was remarkably poor, but showed a constant coefficient of variation, which is suggestive of an analog estimation process.

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