The Pirahã Are Off By One

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…