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One, two .... er ...

How does an Irishman count to ten? "One, two, tree, many." Further afield, in the Amazon rainforest, this may be no joke. Alex Bellos in The Guardian:

The Munduruku numbers are:

1 pug
2 xep xep
3 ebapug
4 ebadipdip
5 pug pogbi

When there was one dot on the screen, the Munduruku said "pug". When there were two, they said "xep xep". But beyond two, they were not precise. When three dots showed up, "ebapug" was said only about 80% of the time. The reaction to four dots was "ebadipdip" in only 70% of cases. When shown five dots, "pug pogbi" was managed only 28% per cent of the time, with "ebadipdip" given instead in 15% of answers. In other words, for three and above the Munduruku's number words were really just estimates. They were counting "one", "two", "three-ish", "four-ish", "five-ish". Pica started to wonder whether "pug pogbi", which literally means "handful", even really qualified as a number. Maybe they could not count up to five, but only to four-ish?

A particularly clever Munduruk was once Senior Wrangler in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos. His father congratulated him with a high pug pogbi. His book, Two and a Few More Habits of Effective Mathematicians, appears next month.


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