Counting in non-Austronesian languages

Mark Donohue mark at DONOHUE.CC
Tue Jul 3 12:41:03 UTC 2007

A clarification on some Papuan numerals and counting inland of Sissano lagoon.

Richard Parker writes:

>   The A/S are in contact with, or near 3 Papuan groups (Warapu, Olo, and Fas) from 3 different phyla, each of whom has taken the major conceptual step from using just 2 words to a basic hand/foot tally system, with 'stages' at 5, 10, and 20.

Firstly, the Sissano-area Austronesians aren't in any contact with
Fas; the Fas at Onei have only moved there in the last 50 years or so,
and there's close to no contact between Sera, Arop or Sissano and
Onei. Different orientations; and most of Onei is Womo-speaking,
anyway (a Greater-Skou family language). But that still leaves Greater
Skou, and Torricelli.

[aside: a quick poll: which sounds least bad, "Greater Skou family",
or "Macro Skou family"? assuming that the obvious "Skou family" is
already taken]

>   These 'backward' Papuans can easily count up to 20, and probably to
>   multiples of that. The A/S would be hard-pressed not to lose track after, say, 10.

Not true! I have personal experience of Barupu (= Warapu) and Olo, and
more so with One (a close-ish relative of Olo), and there's no way
those guys count up to 20. People in Barupu agree on how to count up
to four, but they tend not to; One speakers can agree on how to get up
to five (plana plana ara, 2 2 1, in Molmo), but they tend not to, and
I've seen debate and argument erupt over how to say 'six'. On more
than one occasion. Noone I've spoken to in Barupu, or any of about 20
One-speaking villages, plus 4 or 5 Olo villages, would count up to 10
in their local language.
COUNT up to ten. People can of course reckon up that far, and remember
who owes what.

>   It doesn't seem plausible that Arop-Sissano could have just abandoned a 1,2,5,20 or a 1-10, 100 system, with all the conceptual baggage that would entail: the loss of a whole suite of
> physical and abstract concepts, not just a word or two.

The fact that, repeatedly, people whose native languages don't do a
lot of counting manage quite happily to learn to count as high as they
like in national or contact languages is a pretty convincing argument
about this being true. Just because you don't do something, doesn't
mean you can't.
Just because English has more words for snow than Eskimo languages
doesn't mean we're obsessed about the stuff; just because a language
doesn't mark tense doesn't mean people can't perceive time. Language ≠

>   So why did they keep their very simple system for so long?

For the same reason that English speakers have managed to manage quite
happily since we lost our 1DU pronoun, and since we lost the 2SG/2PL
distinction: not that we can't conceive of it, but that we don't
consider it to be important.

>   - Could the A/S economy, based on plentiful but fluctuating seafood and sago, have left
> them with nothing worthwhile counting, while inlanders had regular game, pigs, chickens and garden produce to share out at feasts, accurately, to avoid jealousy?

The 'inlanders' up there don't have regular game (it's the most
impoverished part of all of New Guinea), no domesticated pigs, no

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