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The history of number words in the world's languages-what have we learnt so far?

For over 100 years, researchers from various disciplines have been enthralled and occupied by the study of number words. This article discusses implications for the study of deep history and human evolution that arise from this body of work. Phylogenetic modelling shows that low-limit number words are preserved across thousands of years, a pattern consistently observed in several language families. Cross-linguistic frequencies of use and experimental studies also point to widespread homogeneity in the use of number words. Yet linguistic typology and field documentation reports caution against positing a privileged linguistic category for number words, showing a wealth of variation in how number words are encoded across the world. In contrast with low-limit numbers, the higher numbers are characterized by a rapid and morphologically consistent pattern of expansion, and behave like grammatical phrasal units, following language-internal rules. Taken together, the evidence suggests that numbers are at the cross-roads of language history. For languages that do have productive and consistent number systems, numerals one to five are among the most reliable available linguistic fossils of deep history, defying change yet still bearing the marks of the past, while higher numbers emerge as innovative tools looking to the future, derived using language-internal patterns and created to meet the needs of modern speakers. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Reconstructing prehistoric languages’.
Journal Article
Type of thesis
Calude, A. S. (2021). The history of number words in the world’s languages-what have we learnt so far? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B - Biological Sciences, 376(1824). https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0206
Royal Society Publishing
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