Austronesian Counting

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ilongot Number System – A Wild Exception (Updated 5/12/07)

Filed under: exception, Ilongot, numbers, Western Malayo-Polynesian — richardparker01 @ 12:03 am

The Ilongots are the only group in the entire Western Malayo-Polynesian language family area (coloured violet on the map below) that still retain their original non-decimal counting system, where everything is hunky-dory up to No 5, then goes 5+1, 5+2, etc, in the usual way of people who have not yet made the break from counting their fingers to having a full decimal system.

The Ilongots are a head-hunting tribe of Central Luzon (the northernmost large island of the Philippines). You can find out more about them here and here, and here.
“The Ilongot live in Nueva Vizcaya Province of Luzon in the Philippines. They numbered about 2,500 in 1975. The name “Ilongot” is Tagalog and Spanish, and is derived from “Quirungut” (of the forest), one of the people’s own names for themselves. The Ilongot language is Austronesian, and there are three dialects: Egongut, Italon, and Abaka. They use Ilocano and Tagalog in trading. The Ilongot are culturally conservative and unsubjugated. They live as an enclave and resist incursions into their territory”.

Their numbers go:

1 sít 2 deva 3 tago 4 epát 5 gima,tambiang
6 tambiang nu sít 7 tambiang nu dava 8 tambiánggot tagó 9 tambiang nu apát 10 támpu

I don’t know their words for 11-19, or if they continue carrying on to count their toes, but they do call twenty duwampu, which means ‘two tens’, ie they do (now) have a decimal system, after all.

They call No 5 gima, which is the usual lima word for 5, but they also have tambiang, which is remarkably close to many of the words from New Guinea, more than 3000km away (and not used anywhere at all in between those areas). Bang, if you remember from my earlier post, is very widespread as a ‘hand/five’ word there.

This strengthens my case that the standard proto-Austronesian numbers:
esa/isa *duSa *telu *Sepat *lima *enem *pitu *walu *Siwa *sa-puluq?
did not exist, at all, when the ‘ancestral’ language was actually being spoken.

If the PAn numbers did exist way back then, then comparative linguists, following their arcane rules, would have to call the Ilongot number word combinations ‘innovations’ (ie new inventions), as indeed, they do.

The continued existence of the ‘aberrant’ Ilongot system proves that it is not just a few obscure and primitive New Guineans who didn’t learn their new Austronesian numbers properly, but a previous stage of language development that has only been suppressed by massive population movements and growth in the WMP area during the past two millenia.

Update (5/12/07) I have since seen a fuller Ilongot number-word list, that includes the teens and decades. It shows what I consider an earlier system overlaid with loanwords from neighbours.



  1. My blogs has been scrambly screwed up the last few weeks, I wrote 2 comments here which disappeared.

    To me (no expert on Phil.) the aeta seem melanesian both culturally and physically, while the Llongot seem somewhat like Ibans of Borneo with more oriental physical traits but with some melanesian culture.

    So much diversity though.

    Comment by "the Dude" — Saturday, September 15, 2007 @ 11:30 pm

  2. Many thanks for your comment. It is wonderful to hear from a genuine speaker of Ilongot.

    Gima means ‘hand’, apparently; a bit different from the usual Filipino ‘lima’ (but not another word for 5 – my stupid mistake).

    My information came from – Vanoverbergh, Morice, C.I.C.M. 1937. Some undescribed languages of Luzon. – Nijmegen: Dekker & van de Vegt N.V.
    Part III: The Ilongot quinary system (pp. 194-197)

    Most languages started counting the fingers of one hand, then the other, or simply adding +1,+2, etc. Most of them had a special word for 5 – in most Philippine languages ‘lima = hand’, and another for 10, usually meaning ‘top’, or something like it. After counting both hands, they would count their toes, with another special word for 20, meaning ‘whole man’. After that, 30=20+10, 40=2×20.

    So they have a 5/20 system, not at all like the decimal system of counting in 10s.

    Ilongot is the only language in the area marked lavender above that uses this system, at least for the first 10 numbers.

    People tend to hold on to the first 5 basic numbers they learned in childhood, for a very long time, and then add the rest as they get ‘educated’ by Tagalogs, Americans, or anyone else. Here, in Surigao, the first 5 numbers are ‘Filipino’ but the next five are Spanish – 10 is ‘djez’.

    Often, long-forgotten number systems are still used to count traditional, special items in larger quantities, such as pigs, coconuts or yams for feasts. (There wouldn’t be many other occasions to use larger numbers).

    Could you possibly ask around your elders if they still remember such counting systems?

    Tam-biang and tam-po both seem to have the same construction. (Once=tam) biang and (Once=tam) po.

    – Are there any other meanings for biang and po in your language?

    best regards

    Richard Parker
    Siargao Island, Philippines

    Comment by richardparker01 — Tuesday, September 29, 2009 @ 10:52 am

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