Austronesian Counting

Monday, January 7, 2008

Do Eskimos Count Like Austronesians ?

Filed under: Uncategorized — richardparker01 @ 12:12 am

If I came across the following set of numerals amongst my currentchart of some 1400 Austronesian and Papuan numeral systems, I would see nothing much amiss. Their construction, and relation to bodyparts, are fairly typical.
1 – ata’uzik – clearly includes a cognate of Austronesian *isa, POc*sa-kai, etc
2 – ma’dro – ditto of *dusa or *rua
3 – pi’ñasun
4 – si’saman
5 – tûdlemût – ditto of *lima (hand)
6 – atautyimiñ akbinigin tudlimût – “one hand and once on the next “
– bog standard Austronesian/Papuan construction
7 – madro’niñ akbi’nigin – “twice on the next”
8 – piñas’uniñ akbi’nigin – “three times on the next”
9 – kodlinotai’la – “that which has not its ten” – not usual, but not very rare
10 – kodlin – derived from kut or kule, “the upper part” – compare*puluq
14 – akimiaxotaityuña – “I have not fifteen.”
15 – akimi’a – fifteen (a separate word)- unusual in An
20 – inyui’na – “a man completed “- bog standard An/Pap construction
25 – inyui’na tûdlimûniñ akbini’digin – “twenty and five times on the next”
30 – inyui’na kodliniñ akbini’digin – ” twenty & ten times,”
35 – inyuilna akim’iaminñ aipâliñ” – “twenty & one fifteen times.”
40 – madro inyui’na or “madrolipi’a – “two twenties,”
100 – tûdlimûipi’a – five ‘pi’a’

These numbers, though, are spoken by Inuits in Point Barrow, in the extreme north of Alaska. Greenland Eskimos use much the same basic number words, but construct their teens and decades differently.
The original writer* points out:”The expressions in Greenlandic and other Eskimo dialects for these higher numbers are very different, which is pretty strong evidence that they have been developed since the separation of the Eskimo into their different branches
That is exactly what I am finding in my study of Austronesian/Papuan numerals. At each stage in the development of counting systems, certain groups in the mainstream adopted new words for numbers that they had only expressed by gesture previously, or had expressed as separately countable (and visible) ‘chunks’ like 10s or 20s. They adopted ‘consensus’ words for 10, 6-9, the teens, decades, and 100s, roughly in that order.
Some groups still lack those ‘consensus’ words.The ‘archaic’ lower numbers, from 1-5, 6-9 and 11-20 are still preserved in many languages that haven’t yet adopted the ‘consensus’ Austronesian number lexicon, and they’re mappable.
The higher numbers, like the teens, decades, hundreds, and thousands, developed, worldwide, only quite recently, and the times of their diffusions should be dateable (if only relatively, not absolutely).
So the fact that (some) Polynesians have fully developed decimal systems, including standard “An” words for 6-9, while many Melanesians in Vanuatu and New Caledonia haven’t, shows that Vanuatu and New Caledonia were first colonised a lot earlier than Polynesia, and in at least 3 separate waves, where newcomers either pushed their predecessors south, or absorbed them.
The Maori had a system based on 20s, not 10s, so that shows they left central Polynesia before the full decimal system diffused into that area.The fact that Easter Island had a full decimal system, while Maoris didn’t, shows that Easter Island was settled later than New Zealand.(Or that Maoris kept strictly to their traditions, of course. People will be human, and upset theories like this one).

Update: April 15 2008 – Since I wrote that, I’ve found that many Polynesian languages had vigesimal systems in use prior to contact with Europeans, so that many of the decimal systems apparent today are not very old at all. I certainly wouldn’t repeat again that ‘Easter Island was settled later than New Zealand’ based solely on my faulty recording of their number-systems.

This dateable number-naming development is still going on. Americans and English (until only the last decade or so) had different meanings for a ‘billion’ – America – 1000 million, England and Germany a million million. So the division is dateable (around 1600-1800 before America, isolated, developed its own meaning for the word ‘billion’), and so is the adoption of the American ‘billion’ by the English (1990-1995).
It is only since Anglo-Saxon times that the English ‘hundred’ came to mean 10×10, not a dozen 10s (12×10). ‘Beowulf’ mentions 100 warriors coming to a place, then 80 of them leaving, and 40 staying.
So the full decimal system we use now only came to England within the last 1000 years or so.It’s very possible that ‘primitive’ Austronesians adopted their identical decimal system before we did.
If this analysis works, it should assist in relative dating of migrations and cross-group influences to a much greater resolution than genetic or linguistic splits and mergers. (Both genetic and linguistic dates are very much estimated on the assumption that things change on a fairly regular and smooth basis. They don’t.)
*Notes on Counting and Measuring among the Eskimo of Point BarrowJohn Murdoch – American Anthropologist, Vol. 3, No. 1. (Jan., 1890),pp. 37-44.

Eskimos do count like Austronesians, but I’m certainly not claiming that they are recently related. The first few number names, and the actual ways of counting up to 1 hand and beyond, and then verbalising that, are pretty similar, worldwide.


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: