Number Words & Number Systems

Richard Parker richardparker01 at YAHOO.COM
Sat Apr 21 13:02:49 UTC 2007

All through Vanuatu, the phoneme rab turns up as yeBe,leB, liBi, 
LaBea, livi, raB, rap, raf, lardhe, rathe, always as part of the 
numbers 6-9 (5>1, 5>2, 5>3, 5>4). 
  They put it first (raBe-ruwa=7=raBe-2), in Tangoa), very seldom afterwards.
  In 16 of the Banks Islands, N of Vanuatu, the word (5) is prefixed by teBe-, as in teBe-lim. The word for (1) in these particular languages is tea, twa, or tuwal.
  It even turns up in Southwest Tanna, in kelke-lep-kelkalu (7=5>2) but 
this is very literal - kelkelep is (5) and kelkalu is (2). The word 
for 'hand' is not kelkelep, but kwa|lm-
  Would I be right in deducing that this phoneme refers to 'my other hand' or 'my 2nd hand' when counting? 
  I've come across similar root-phonemes elsewhere:
Dawawa (An - E NG Milne Bay) - ra:bu (2), ra:bu the:ga (3=2+1), ra:bu 
be ra:bu (4=2+2). Dawawa has a particularly simple number system (10 
=  ra:bu be ra:bu be ra:bu be ra:bu the:ga).
  Igora, Wagawaga, Bohutu, and Suau (An - E NG Milne Bay) all use 
labui as (2) and again as part of (7) haligigi labui. Here it 
is obviously a simple (2), and haligigi is the operative 'hand word'. 
The word for hand in Bohutu is 'nima'.
  The same phoneme appears in Bunama (An - E NG Milne bay) as a 
standard word in 6-9 (ulabara-1, ulabara-2, etc) but in this, it 
changes, from saying 5>1, 5>2, 5>3, 5>4, to using a new operative 
'hand word' - ulabara. (7) is now ulabara erua. (5) is lasapwai. 
I don't know what 'hand' is.
  Ubir (An - E NG S Oro Prov) uses reban in 6-9 words, as in Vanuatu. 
(7) = nim at reban ruam - 5>at>reban>2. There are several An 
languages tucked in the Huon Gulf, just above the 'tail' of New Guinea that use definite 'hand words' to make numbers from 6-9.:
Sewa Bay - soubara
Gapapaiwa - ura gela
Kehe Iala - faligigi
Budibud - kwelim 
  Barok (An - New Ireland) uses 'lavanabas' in exactly the same way. 
Lavanabas ma dura means (7). The word for hand in Barok is 'himine'.
A similar phoneme occurs in Trans-New Guinea (non-Austronesian) 
languages, but as (3) - Momare (halabac=3) and the number 8 (icne 
halabac), and in Sene - (kalabac=3) and again in Dedua - (halebec=3) 
but nothing similar occurs in any other New Guinea language, so the 
phoneme is not a loanword from that source.
  In Pasismanua (Kaulong) - West New Britain, the operative 
'hand-word' is 'isip' (5) as in sip-eta=6 (sip>1), sipi-wong (sip>2), 
sipi-miok (sip>3), and sisinal (si-lost-a-bit-there>4=9). Their word 
for (10) is supisip. 
  Pasismanua is very unusual in using the 'sip' root for (5).
  SE Ambrym in Vanuatu uses ti-saB, for 6-9, and, unusually, puts it AFTER the digit-number.
  Certain languages in Vanuatu use a similar phoneme in (9 = last-but-one?) as in ighe-siB, ghe-hiBe, xe-xBe, ighe-siB, xe-hiBe in Malua Bay, Bieria (Vovo), Mpotovoro, Mae, and Vao. 
  Where a lot of Vanuatu languages make up (8) from a 6-word, like Unua roptes=6,  (7=roptes-2, 8=roptes-3, 9=ma-rope), this group uses something approaching walu - ixe-wel, gho-al, ho-al, ixe-wel.
  Pazeh, one of the Taiwan languages, uses xaseb as its 'hand word' for the numbers 5 and 6-9 (xasep (5), xaseb-uza(1)=6, xaseb-i-dusa(2)=7, xaseb-i-turu(3)=8, and xaseb-i-supat(4)=9. The word for (10) is ?isit - ghisit. Hand is ima or rima.
  In Taiwan Saisiyat - aseb=(5) - then sayboshi for (6), and sayboshi o ?aha?  (6+1) for (7). (8) is kashpat (ka-4), and (9) is aah?ha?. A quite different number-construction system.
Taiwan Favorlang (5) = achab (but that only re-appears later on in 
numbers heavily disguised, like tannacho (9) and zchiett (10)).
  Would it be stretching things too much to identify the Pazeh xaseb 
with yeBe,leB,liBi, LaBea, livi, raB, rap, raf, lardhe, rathe, ra:bu, 
ro'ab, labui, isip, ti-saB, etc?
Richard Parker
Siargao Island, The Philippines. 
My website at is about the island and its 
people, coastal early humans, fishing, coconuts, bananas and whatever 
took my fancy at the time.

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