Numbers yet again - Re: New Book from SIL PNG

Harald Hammarström harald at BOMBO.SE
Thu Jun 28 08:48:14 UTC 2007

>  The old documents preserve a lot. I know of only one An language that 
> had only 2 words, 1 and 2, for their entire counting system (Arop 
> Sissano - N New Guinea).

This information, that Arop and Sissano only had 1 and 2, is an illegal
inference from the fact that only 1, 2 were published in a wordlist in
a book by Churchill. That he only listed 1 and 2 is understandable as
he was doing a comparative study, and there is no statement there to
say that there were only two numbers. In a later article in OL (I 
don't have the ref handy) Laycock gave fuller information, where
Arop and Sissano have 1,2,2+1,2+2,5, ... systems. There is probably also
more recent data in someone's fieldnotes (Someone like Donohue? In the new
Barupu grammar?).

Anyone seeing the actual number morphemes, which are not Austronesian and
not obviously cognate with any close Papuan language, in Arop and Sissano
would have to ask if they are really linear Austronesian descendants!?

>  Re hands and number systems:
>  In some Papuan body part tallies, they go the whole hog - fingers 
>  first, then up the arm, round the head, and down the other side, to end 
>  up with number systems of base 27, 35, or whatever, but few of these are 
>  in contact with Austronesian languages.

I can't think of any Austronesian language in contact with body part
tally-system languages, except trivially Malay/Indonesian in Irian Jaya.

Also, what seems not be widely known, body-tally systems are attested
in the torres straits and mainland australia. There are some refs
(though Bill McGregor should have a bigger database of the Australian 

>  eg: many Vanuatu languages still retain hand+1,2,3,4 for 6-9, so those 
> islands must have been first settled before the full An decimal system 
> was conceived. It's possible, even, to detect sequential waves of 
> Vanuatu settlement as the number systems grow more sophisticated.
> There's an alternative, of course, that they were too stupid, or too 
> conservative, to accept a simple new system brought in by 
> Austronesian-speakers ready-equipped with the PAn decimal system.

This account is wrong in two places. The Vanuatu lgs could not have
_retained_ an old hand+1,2,3,4-system if they are Oceanic (or you'd
have to revise the POc-numeral reconstruction considerably). Second,
languages switch back and forth between decimal, quinary and vigesimal
systems with little correlation to stupidity. See a recent OL 
article by Bender and Beller called classifiers and counting systems
(or similar).

> Non-hand morphemes:
>  Papuan languages Bargam, Wagi, and Panim, all TNG Madang-Adelbert, and 
> close(ish) to each other in Morobe, N PNG, use abainakinta, tanigole, 
> mamagai as a 'thumb' morpheme for 5. Neighbouring An languages use a 
> variant of nima (hand).
>  Waffa, another Papuan language further east, sometimes uses 'eero ivo'= 
> 5th finger, for 5, but also a more usual yaaku sai-vai = hand-half-it 
> is.

Yes there are such cases. When I said there is no other etymology for
5 than 'hand', I should have said 'hand' or 'some part of the hand'.
But I didn't, so you can have the 10 dollars if you want.


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