Dr. Caleb Everett, University of Miami – Language and Numbers

Feb 21, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Caleb Everett of the University of Miami explains the complicated relationship between numbers and words.

Caleb Everett is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Miami. He spends much of his time doing field research in Brazil where his current project asks how (and to what extent) the language one speaks affects cognition in domains such as spatial topology, gender perception, and action perception. He holds a Ph.D. from Rice University.

About Dr. Everett

Dr. Caleb Everett – Language and Numbers

It's a question that has been debated in one form or another for centuries: Does the language you speak affect how you think? My research with an Amazonian tribe, which builds on the work of several other social scientists, provides evidence for a dramatic way in which a language can impact thought. This tribe, the Pirah , speaks a remarkable language, as described in the research of linguist Daniel Everett. It is the only well documented language that has no words for exact numbers. Can the Pirah recognize specific quantities when they have no way to precisely refer to those quantities? Two landmark studies yielded conflicting answers to this question. As someone who spent time among the Pirah as a child, during which time my parents were missionaries, I was particularly keen to resolve this discrepancy. Now an anthropologist at the University of Miami, I returned to the tribe to conduct experiments on their numerical cognition.

The result of that research is significant evidence that the Pirah struggle with the mere recognition of exact quantities greater than three. For example, they have difficulty distinguishing between arrays of four and five objects. Crucially, though, in a village in which the Pirah were once taught made- up number words in their own language (by my mother in fact) the people are better able to recognize such differences. This finding helps explain the differing results of the previous studies. More importantly, it suggests that when the Pirah adopt the conceptual tool of number words, their numerical cognition improves.

These results show that very basic mathematical reasoning may be entirely dependent on the use of number words. They also demonstrate an extreme way that the features of a language can influence thought.