If there is no word for an idea in our language, can we imagine the concept? The answer may be no, according to a study of an Amazon tribe who have words for only one, two and many.
Members of the Piraha tribe were asked to match sets of objects in different configurations. Adults of the tribe did very well matching sets when there were only one, two or three objects in a set, according to research published in the current issue of the journal Science. However, test scores declined when up to 10 items were added and dropped to zero for sets containing more objects.
The Piraha have no word for number, nor does their language allow them to make numerical comparisons, such as asking whether one basket contains more nuts than another, according to researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University who conducted the study. Even the word for one appears at times to refer loosely to a small quantity.
The study was an attempt to test a 1930s theory put forth by Benjamin Lee Whorf, an amateur linguist who workedfor the Hartford Fire Insurance Co. Whorf believed that language can determine the nature and content of thought.
"Whorf says that language divides the world into different categories," said Dr. Peter Gordon, a bio-behavioral scientist at Columbia.
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