What is it about?

Using data from the World Atlas of Language Structures and other sources, the present study analyzed 905 languages on grammatical number (GN) and lexical numbers (LN) to investigate what the distribution of these linguistic features might suggest about the relationship between language and numerosity, the perceptual system for quantity. Nearly 7% of the sample had LN but lacked GN, and GN never occurred without LN, implying that LN may develop first and that GN is neither necessary nor sufficient for developing LN, despite its role in helping children acquire number concepts when present as a feature of language. The geographic–temporal distribution of the two linguistic features additionally supported the idea that LN may emerge prior to GN. Further, the ‘one-two-three-many’ structure of both LN and GN, along with failure of historic AI modeling to converge on real-world number system solutions, suggested that numerosity may structure the expression of quantity in both linguistic domains. The role of the hand in numbers (the interaction of numerosity with cognitive processes such as finger gnosia, haptic perception, and neural reactions to tools) implies that LN may originate in tactile engagement with material structures that may subsequently extend to non-tactile domains such as GN.

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I am interested in how societies become numerate by using and recruiting material forms into the cognitive system for numbers over generations of collaborative effort. The manuovisually engaged domain of material forms is a primary mechanism for realizing and elaborating numerical concepts. I also look at the effect this elaborational mechanism has on conceptual content, and what this might augur about the future of human cognition.

Dr. Karenleigh A. Overmann
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

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This page is a summary of: Numerosity Structures the Expression of Quantity in Lexical Numbers and Grammatical Number, Current Anthropology, October 2015, University of Chicago Press, DOI: 10.1086/683092.
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