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Numbers Revisited

August 11, 2010

Okay, now the hiatus is over. I think.

Recently I have learned a bit more about the use of numbers in isolated stone age languages. Specifically, they usually don’t. Use them, that is. Not really. Often it’s just “one”, “two”, “many”… that’s it. If they need to keep track of multiple things of the same type, they’d usually just name them. For example, if a hunter who has four spears is asked how many he has, he’d respond with something like “favorite spear, rabbit killer, cousin’s gift, that other one”. (In the case of zero, it would probably be something like “do not have spear”. That’s one sad hunter.) In the rare occasions when naming isn’t practical and they need to be exact about some number greater than two they’d probably do something like holding up the appropriate number of fingers and say “this many”.

Of course not all of them are that limited. But even the ones which have more number-oriented words usually look something like this: “no”, “one”, “two”, “three”, “hand” (4-6), “several”, “a great many”. Stone-age peoples apparently do not need precise counting unless they regularly engage in trade or farming, neither of which is likely for isolated tribes.

Which means my options at this point in regards to numbers are as follows: scrap the base 6 number system and just have 6 mostly imprecise number-based words; drop the “isolated” part and have them engage in regular trade; say “screw realism” and use it anyway; stop at 6 and add one or two more general words for large numbers (it would be very unusual to go above 3, but “exotic” does happen to be a watchword here); or come up with some other very good reason why an Eljan culture would want or need precise counting (at least in the 3-35 range; only worry about larger numbers if that reason happens to call for it).

I’ll be getting into this one last time at some later point once this issue has been resolved.

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