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Cognition. 2008 Sep;108(3):819-24. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.04.007. Epub 2008 Jun 10.

Number as a cognitive technology: evidence from Pirahã language and cognition.

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  • 1Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA. mcfrank@mit.edu

Abstract

Does speaking a language without number words change the way speakers of that language perceive exact quantities? The Pirahã are an Amazonian tribe who have been previously studied for their limited numerical system [Gordon, P. (2004). Numerical cognition without words: Evidence from Amazonia. Science 306, 496-499]. We show that the Pirahã have no linguistic method whatsoever for expressing exact quantity, not even "one." Despite this lack, when retested on the matching tasks used by Gordon, Pirahã speakers were able to perform exact matches with large numbers of objects perfectly but, as previously reported, they were inaccurate on matching tasks involving memory. These results suggest that language for exact number is a cultural invention rather than a linguistic universal, and that number words do not change our underlying representations of number but instead are a cognitive technology for keeping track of the cardinality of large sets across time, space, and changes in modality.

PMID:
18547557
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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