Saturday, April 7, 2018

How to talk to cavemen: The deep history of the number words

From James Choi at The .Plan: A Quasi-Blog:
Researchers have determined that number words for small quantities — less than five — are strikingly similar across virtually every language studied, and the words are among the most stable, unchanging utterances in any lexicon.

They are more conserved through time and across cultures than words for other presumably bedrock concepts like mother, father and most body parts, with a few puzzling exceptions like the words for tongue and eye.

“The sounds that you and I use to say ‘two’ or ‘three’ are the sounds that have been used for tens of thousands of years,” said Mark Pagel, a biologist who studies the evolution of language at the University of Reading.

“It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”

That continuity, Dr. Pagel added, “should astonish us.”
--Natalie Angier, NYT, on words that count
The .Plan A Quasi-Blog homepage.
At the top of The .Plan when we linked was HAL 9000 originally had a Bronx accent

And the referenced paper,
From The Royal Society:
The deep history of the number words

We had a post a couple weeks ago that mentioned Jeremy Grantham getting published in the journal Nature and how, among science nerds that publication was probably second only to "Proceedings of the Royal Society—A" and I had intended to include a link.
And forgot.
So here, belatedly, is:  "Royal Society opens archive, kills productivity" (Newton's First Published Paper; Franklin and the Kite, etc.).

The "The Deep History..." was published in Proceedings—B (biology). which is pretty fancy-schmancy in it's own right but 'A' is the heavyweight.
If interested do read that "Archive" story, some of the stuff the RS made available is amazing.