What Happens When a Language Has No Words For Numbers?



It may surprise you to learn that numbers don’t exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms like “a few” or “some.” When people don’t have number words, they struggle to make quantitative distinctions that probably seem natural to us. However, numberless people are cognitively normal and well-adapted to the environment they’ve dominated for centuries. Cultures without numbers do, however, have some benefit. Consider what time it is. Our day is ruled by minutes and seconds, but numberless people have no concept of time in the same way, meaning they are not tied to a clock or a schedule.