Numeral systems across languages support efficient communication: From approximate numerosity to recursion

Yang XuUniversity of California, Berkeley
Terry RegierUniversity of California, Berkeley

Abstract

Languages differ qualitatively in their numeral systems. At one extreme, some languages have a small set of number terms, which denote approximate or inexact numerosities; at the other extreme, many languages have forms for exact numerosities over a very large range, through a recursively defined counting system. What explains this variation? Here, we use computational analyses to explore the numeral systems of 25 languages that span this spectrum. We find that these numeral systems all reflect a functional need for efficient communication, mirroring existing arguments in the domains of color, kinship, and space. Our findings suggest that cross-language variation in numeral systems is shaped by the functional need to communicate precisely, using minimal cognitive resources.

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Numeral systems across languages support efficient communication: From approximate numerosity to recursion (160 KB)



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