The Pirahã Are Off By One

Byrne Hobart
4 min readJan 24, 2020

The Pirahã are a tiny Amazonian tribe, famous for the fact that there number system has three numbers: one, two, and many. This is seen as proof of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that words determine the concepts you can use: Pirahã can’t instantly compare collections of objects to see which is bigger (e.g. a pile of four batteries next to a pile of five) while people in cultures with other number systems can. On the other hand, it’s also seen as a refutation of Sapir-Whorf, on the grounds that the subsistence hunter-gatherers never really need to count, so the words clearly follow the concept rather than the other way around.

One documentarian poses with many Pirahã

I don’t know for sure, but I do know that the Pirahã are nearly correct, just off by one. To a first approximation, for anything you can name, there’s either zero of it, exactly one, or pretty much infinitely many. There’s one me, only one you. There’s a pretty much unlimited supply of people — if you counted seven billion humans, one per second, without stopping to eat or sleep, it would take you 222 years. There are, for almost everyone’s purposes, infinitely many human beings. But most of the possible subsets of humans are empty: ten-foot-tall humans, humans who have lived on Mars, etc.

I didn’t think about this because I was thinking about linguistics. I thought of this because I was waiting for a database query to finish. It occured to me that there were really only three speeds at which computers operate: instantaneously, long enough to get bored and alt-tab, or so long that it was clear you’d done something wrong.

(As it turns out, what was supposed to be an inner join was, due to a funny bug on my part, actually a Cartesian product that would take up like a terabyte of space. You’re welcome, AWS.)

This applies to time-management, too. A mental to-do list has three kinds of items: the thing I am doing now. The thing I will do next. And the things I will never actually do.

Lifestyle changes follow the same pattern. If you’re sad now, the way to get happy is either a) change nothing, because whatever’s making you depressed is not something you have any control over, b) change exactly one thing, or c) change everything. A lot of people tend to assume it’s b when it’s really c, so they make one big life change and end up hating Austin exactly as much as…

Byrne Hobart

I write about technology (more logos than techne) and economics. Newsletter: