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Numeral Systems of the World's Languages


Eugene S. L. Chan


Seminar Room A, HC Coombs Building (9), Fellows Road, ANU


Friday, 5 December, 2014 - 11:00 to 12:30

The existing 7000 or so languages in the world are a common cultural treasure of humanity. Yet, it is predicted that only half of the world's languages will survive in the next century. Urgent actions to rescue and document endangered languages have been undertaken by some countries in recent years. The surviving thousands of the world's ethnic groups use a variety of different numeral systems: duodecimal systems, decimal systems, quinary systems, quaternary systems, ternary systems, binary systems, incomplete decimal systems, mixed systems, body-part tally systems and so on. Certain South American indigenous languages even only distinguish one and many. These fascinating phenomena, like a kaleidoscope, reflect the diversity and different development steps of human counting concepts.

   During rapid globalization, the act of counting in a minority language is left to older members of the community, while the younger generations tend to express numerals in English or some other dominant languages, with the result that the traditional numeral systems of most small languages are being rapidly lost. Even the numeral systems of large languages can be endangered, e.g. Japanese and Thai numerals have been largely replaced by Chinese ones (Comrie 2005). Numerals interact with the rest of grammar and may have unique morphosyntactic rules. Nevertheless, numerals are often neglected or completely ignored in many grammars. Research on numeral systems is not only a very interesting topic but also an academically valuable reference resource for those involved in the academic disciplines of Linguistics, Anthropology, Ethnology, History, and Philosophy of Mathematics.

In this talk I shall also introduce my on-going project to document the numeral systems of the world’s languages and their genetic classification, phonological systems, and counting concepts. In the last thirty years I have recorded and analyzed the numeral systems of the world's languages, and so far have successfully collected data on the basic numeral systems of around 4,000 languages. Most of the data were kindly provided by linguists, anthropologists, and other scholars working in their respective fields. The majority of the data are recorded in standard IPA symbols or phonemic transcriptions. This Numeral Systems of the World's Languages research is made accessible at the website entitled Numeral Systems of the World's Languages: http://lingweb.eva.mpg.de/numeral/home.html.

As the traditional numeral systems of small languages have been rapidly replaced by those of dominant languages, it is an urgent task to document these important linguistic data before they are completely forgotten. However, more complete data for the remaining 3,000 or so languages are not yet available, so we need further generous support from fellow linguists.



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