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New Year Countdown – How the countdown put you in touch with your ancestors

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New Year Countdown

New Year Countdown – The numbers one to five have been found to be among the oldest and most enduring words, not just among the language family responsible for European languages, but across the world.

In a new study published today (1 Jan) in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, evolutionary language scientists led by Professor Mark Pagel from the University of Reading and the Santa Fe Institute found that ‘low limit’ number words from one to five are consistently among the most stable words, some of which have projected lifespans of up to 100,000 years.

Professor Mark Pagel said: 

“It is remarkable to think that words used today, in particular ‘two’, ‘three’, and ‘five’ connect us with ancestors from perhaps ten thousand or more years ago who would have used words similar to those in use today. What is particularly surprising is how these words have lived so long – spanning nearly the entire history of the Indo-European language family – and have done so without a writing system, being passed on solely in the spoken tradition.”

The researchers also tracked the replacement of words in two other language families, the Bantu languages of Africa and the Austronesian languages of the south Pacific. In both of the families, ‘low limit’ numbers had an exceptionally low rate of replacement. In particular, the researchers found that when excluding ‘one’ from their calculations, the rate was similar to that of Indo-European languages with an average rate of replacement of approximately 13,000 years.

The authors offer three potential explanations for the durability of these words in the paper, including that the linguistic apparatus for such low limit numbers might be linked to ancient brain regions associated with the ability to perceive small numbers of objects without counting. They cite evidence that many animals are able to perceive ‘number’, even though they lack any formal counting system like our own.

Pagel continued:

“Given that we know that these low limit number words are some of the first words that children learn, it might tell us that simple counting abilities have played an important role in our daily lives, and in our communication, throughout our evolution.”

Full citation:
Pagel M, Meade A. 2017 The deep history of the number words. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 373: 20160517.