Austronesian Counting

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Numbers: Backwards, Forwards, or Sideways?

Filed under: Uncategorized — richardparker01 @ 2:09 am

Trying to find out the reasons for the extreme primitiveness of some of the numbering systems, particularly around New Guinea, is the crux of my research.

I’ve come up with certain possibilities:

1) Austronesians arriving from the West (about 3500 years ago, with ‘proto-Austronesian numbers’, already invented) married into, and converted some local tribes to speak their language, but the locals retained much of their original language, and the numbering systems that they’d always used before, merely adopting new Austronesian pidgin names for them.
The Austronesian speakers’ systems regressed.

2) Austronesian speakers were already resident some time before that, and were (and still are) in the process of forming their own numbering systems, from scratch.
The systems progressed, (and are still doing so).

I see indications of this in the strange numbering systems used by the Manus islanders, the Motu aound Port Moresby, the 4-base system of the Schouten islands, further West in Irian Jaya, and so on.
In addition, the Papuan languages in the interior of Cape Finistere (the bump above the tail) are much more sophisticated (ie tending towards decimalisation) than other non-Austronesian languages. I’ll discuss each of these in later posts.

I have found three such groups; the Sissano, the Dawawa, and the Kuni, widely separated.

Neither the Sissano nor the Kuni have any more number names than 1, 2, and a few, and perhaps many. The Dawawa and some of their neighbours have names for only 1 and 2, and make up all bigger number combo-names from these two alone.

Sissano: 1 = pontanen, 2 = entin, and many = tartar.
Kuni has only kaona, lua, and koi.
Dawawa has only 1 = tegana, and 2 = rabui. 5 is rabui rabui be tenagu.

The number names in Sissano resemble nothing else at all, in either the local Papuan languages or the Austronesian. The
Kuni names are recognisably ‘Austronesian’, and the Dawawa names are used by a number of other An groups in their area.

The Rev Dr Strong wrote this of the Kuni a century ago:

“There is one quite exceptional Melanesian-speaking people who are strangely deficient as regards counting. In 1905 I was in their country. They live on the south coast in the Kuni district, inland from Hall Sound. These people have, or at least in 1905 had, no trace of any numeral beyond three. For “two” they used lua, and for ” three” koi. These words are both obviously of Melanesian origin.

In 1905 I was using a Motu-speaking Kuni native as guide. On asking him how many times we would have to sleep on the road in going from Mafulu to Kabadi, he replied in Motuan, ” three times, toi. Like many of the people around Hall Sound he was unable to say a “t” and pronounced all his “t’s” as “k’s.” So his pronunciation of the Motuan word toi was really koi.

On my asking the names of the places we had to sleep at, he correctly mentioned five names, and these names I afterwards verified. On asking him to explain why he said we had to sleep koi times and yet gave five names, he seemed quite unaware that the fact required explanation.

At the time, I discussed this with some of the missionaries who could talk the Kuni language, and they confirmed the fact that in practice the Kuni people used the word koi to mean a few.

The Kuni people, in fact, really only counted one, two, a few, many.

The Kuni are the only Melanesian-speaking people in British New Guinea who have gone far inland. Their language is obviously a regular Melanesian one, very closely allied indeed to the Motu of Port Moresby, which has a well-defined system of numeration, going at least up to a thousand.

It is very difficult to see how the Kuni people can have lost numerals like ” five,” if they ever had them.

I feel rather driven to the conclusion that the Melanesian numerals above toi are a comparatively recent introduction, subsequent to the arrival of the Melanesians in New Guinea.

The Kuni natives are by no means deficient in intelligence. The Kuni guide I had was quite intelligent and particularly energetic”. [He needed to be, if he was going to stop for 5 nights, but only sleep 3].

Some Personal Experiences in British New Guinea. W. M. Strong
The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 49. (Jul. -Dec., 1919), pp. 292-308. Available at JSTOR

Note: At that time, Austronesian speakers in New Guinea and around about, were called ‘Melanesians’.

In fact, the Motu have a very strange numbering system, where 5 = ima (An), but 6 = ‘a bit more’ 7 = 6 +1, 8 = other 4, and 9 = 8+1, but they were active traders along the coast, and needed sophisticated numbers for just that.

But how could Austronesian immigrants, with inherited, and very simple, proto-Austronesian numbers, possibly have regressed?

I don’t think that Austronesian immigrants came with ready-made numbers at all. The numbers developed around New Guinea, and were taken back to the West, and on to the East, together with a host of cultural characters we like to think of as ‘pure’ Austronesian.

There simply wasn’t a simple ‘Express Train’ migration from Taiwan to Polynesia.

There is, confusingly, a third possibility.

New Guineans, during the last two centuries, have been overwhelmed by a ‘superior’ culture, that has introduced new languages, customs, mores, and a monetary economy. The hundreds of small groups, each speaking their own language, have travelled away from their own areas to work, stopped headhunting, and, however painfully, are being absorbed into a larger entity.

Most of all, though, they had to become more number conscious now that they were trading more widely, and , for the first time in some 40,000 years of human presence in New Guinea, were being gainfully employed, for money.

The New Guineans first invented a pidgin, that has now developed into a fully-formed creole language of its own: Tok Pisin, with elements of ‘Papuan’, English, some German, and even some of a world-wide lingua franca, Nautical Pidgin.

Almost all New Guineans have adopted the new numbers: wan, tu, tri, foa, faiv, sikis, seven, et, nain, ten, with 11 = wanpela ten wan

But most still employ their own native numbers, from 1 to 5, in everyday use, just as my neighbours here in Siargao do: qesa, duhá, tuyú, qepát, lima, but then the ‘Spanish’ sais, siete, otso, nueve, jeis.

In Siargao, all the native numbers above nine have been completely forgotten, except for isa ka gatus (100), which is used by fishermen for depth-sounding, and by the locals for 100 pesos ($2), which is a lot of money around here.

It is therefore possible that the Sissano, Dawawa and Kuni have just completely forgotten their old number systems. But if that’s happened, why have all the others not done the same?

I prefer to think that they are just the outlying remnants of the area where number systems first developed, and that, somewhere in the area in between them, simple number systems evolved.

But then, in some mysterious area, the ‘proto-Austronesian higher numerals’ were invented, and were brought back, though not to the whole area, or indeed, to very much at all of Melanesia.

PS The Sissano have had a very raw deal, and it is surprising that their language survives at all – see coming post.


Numbers: Centenary of Discovery of Austronesian Origins

Filed under: Uncategorized — richardparker01 @ 1:58 am

Googling about earlier today, to see if someone outside there in the big wide world could help me with the etymology (how the word came about) of the Borneo version of number 9, jalatien, I came across this, serendipitously:

The Oceanic Languages, Their Grammatical Structure, Vocabulary, and Origin
By Daniel Macdonald
London ; New York : Henry Frowde, 1907.

Now, I’ve been told by some very eminent linguists (Lawrie Reid for one) that I should just buckle down, get my nose into some books about linguistical know-how, and learn the trade from the bottom up, as the real professionals did.

So when I came across this (most of Googlebooks are shown only as teaser fragments) I began to read, very earnestly. It becomes seductive if you do enough of it.

(I have to say that reading most linguistics papers makes my eyes glaze over, and going to Google’s Define: to find out what the technical words mean, breaks the stream of thought somewhat. And, of course, most of this was impenetrable stuff about grammar, that I’ve loathed aqnd feared since being stuffed with Kennedy and Donkin’s Latin Grammar at boarding school, a long time ago).

But then I searched within the book (you can do that with Googlebooks) and came across:

“These twelve Oceanic numerals are the ancient
Semitic numerals, but some of them have been
lost from certain dialects. Thus, eg only the
first five are now found in Ef., and in Ambrym
the first five, and that for ‘ten’. In Santo you
find all the twelve in one village, and only the
first five in a neighbouring village. In such
cases as the latter the natives have found it
easier to remember the first five than to remember the
second five to substitute for them combinations
of the first five thus: 51, for 6; 5+2 for 7; 5+3
for 8; 5+4 for 9; 2 of 5 for 10. These
combinations in Ef. are la-tesa 6, larua,7,
latolu, 8, lifiti, 9, rualima,10, latesa being
for lima tesa, &c., and rualima, two of five,
for 10. And Ef. having lost or forgotten the
ancient words for 100 and 1000, has substituted
for them other words, bunti and manu’.

Well, a little interesting (eyes hadn’t glazed over completely), although I might not have blurted out quite so easily that the (black) natives couldn’t remember numbers 6-10, 100, or 1000, so had to be lazy sambos. For want of mental capacity, they had to casually make do with something else.

But then I read on, and realised this gentleman was actually proving that the language of the natives of Efate, in Vanuatu (then The New Hebrides) was a direct descendant of the Semitic languages of the Middle East (once the Fount of Civilisation, and now the Fount of War).

And this year is the Centenary of the publication of the revelation that the Austronesians came from the Fertile Crescent if not the Holy Land itself.

And, I’ve never seen this hypothesis refuted, although the mountains of SW China, and from there through via Taiwan, and on to Hawaii, about as likely, are the current paradigm for Austronesian origins in historico-linguistic circles.

Now, insinuating that this fellow was yet another nutter looking for the Lost Tribe of Israel, would be to belittle his efforts a great deal more than he deserves.

The ‘real’ Lost Tribe of Israel (also here) has now been found, and they’ve been repatriated here. (Tr: The Judaean Hills are the same thing as the Occupied Territories. The white bits are what the colonists reckon they should keep, and the brown bits are the ghettos).

MacDonald wrote the first dictionary of the Efate language, in Vanuatu, and he was a man of some integrity:

D. MacDonald DD
The New Hebrides Mission
Member of The Societe D’Ethnographie, Paris

– a missionary, and spite of my personal reservations about proselytising any particular religion at all, he seems to have been a very good one.

He possibly stopped them from eating their neighbours or visitors.

And his findings are still being quoted:

“The preverbal pronominal position is recorded in Macdonald’s 1907 dictionary, where he says, “thus instead of ka fano, ke fano we have aga fano, iga fano, in exactly the same sense, but, literally, ‘I to go,’ ‘he to go. This variation in Ef. of the order of the three elements of the expression in no way varies the sense, and seems to be purely for euphony” (Macdonald 1907:84-85). If his conclusion about the sense of these forms is correct, it indicates that the grammaticalization of the benefactive was only incipient at the end of the nineteenth century. However, it is more likely that the benefactive was already a functioning construction that was not taken into account by Macdonald’s analysis, especially considering that there are examples of benefactives in the 1874 Genesis translation, as seen in (23) above”.

I’ll keep the linguist in this case anonymous. Perhaps you’ll understand why my eyes glaze over some times.

Numbers: Come In Number Five

Filed under: Uncategorized — richardparker01 @ 1:58 am

Number Five must have been the first ‘real number’ to be invented, and given a name, in any language.

There is an earlier ‘number’ system, which linguists distinguish as a trial, meaning something like a few, ie a new concept, better than just a one or a two. (I’ll discuss the Wik-Mungan Oz Aboriginal number system in a later post – it’s very relaxed).

I’ll refer you to an article at Wikipedia, and if you get out of that alive, understanding what you’ve just read, I’ll send you a FREE OFFER for the Siargao Diet .
In most of the Austronesian languages, 5 has the same meaning as lima = hand

Which is quite obvious, because almost everyone starts counting on their fingers.

Lima=hand=5 is all-pervasive in most Austronesian (An) languages:
proto-Austronesian – *lima
Hawai’i (USA) – e-lima
Maori (New Zealand)- rima
Madagascar (Africa, but no oil – still independent) – dímy
Easter Island (Chile) – rima

But it isn’t the same in other An languages, although their word for 5 may be the same as, or has a relationship to hand:

For example, bang, or something very like it, is very common around New Guinea:
5 = bang-kud’ai – means 5-1 in a ‘Papuan’ language, Bom in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea.
5 = agi banggia-ng gafen i sib (hand = banggia) in Sirasira, a dialect of Adzera, in the Markham Valley, Papua New Guinea.
5 = pinggari pontene – means 5/1 in Sera, a very ‘primitive’ An language from North New Guinea. More on this in a later post.
5 = bäni in Gedaged, another East New Guinea An language.
5 = abainakinta in Bargam, another ‘Papuan’ language (abainakin = thumb, ta = 1, in this language, hand/arm is amulik)
5 = y’eting in Abui, a ‘Papuan’ language in Timor, thousands of miles away. (tang bang = to carry)
5 = bagerata in Malasanga, an An language on the North coast of New Guinea. (bage=hand) 5 = aipan in Wuvulu-Aua, An speakers on a tiny atoll North of New Guinea (pani = hand)

In the An language, Ansus, of Maluku, -bang means ‘palm of the hand’. I don’t have many (meaning almost none at all) sources for the word palm, but in a local Philippine language, Cebuano, it is palad. Flipped over, (metathesis), dalap means handspan, ie 4 inches.

The strangest example of this particular morpheme (word) is the Formosan (Taiwan) 5 = bangan/mangan, in a dialect of Atayal.

Formosa (Taiwan) is reckoned to be the place where the whole An language started, so just how did a ‘New Guinean’ word for hand get all the way back there?

Many, if not most, Austronesian and ‘Papuan’ languages in and around New Guinea also use their own hand word:

Language An/Pap….Hand …..Five

Irahutu An …………..fra- …………přande-pinde
Taupota An………..ura………..ura i-tutu
(hand-complete, ie fist. Very unusual, because Taupota has both nima and ura for hand, but prefers to use the ‘wrong’ one for five)
Weliki Pap……………meme …….meme bisuk
Selepet Pap………… ……….bot nombok
Nukna Pap……………get…………get kamandauk
Sialum Pap………….mete………metam
Burum Pap………….boro ………boro kun
Mesem Pap………… bainim…..bainimbeke
Kube Pap……………..mere……..mere mong
Ufim Pap……………. kande……kande kwa
Hote An……………….baheng….baheng pi
Maisin An/Pap……fake……….faketi

and in most of these cases, the word for five is ‘hand-one’ – that is, you’ve counted the fingers of one hand, it’s finished now, so you’ll go on to the other hand, and repeat the performance.

In many ‘primitive’ An and Papuan languages, the word for hand and arm was the same. It’s only my speculation, but I think they only began to separate the meanings of hand and arm when fingers began to be used for counting, as in:
Auhelewa An….harigigi …..‘all my fingers’

There was a crucial stage, when people stopped counting on their fingers, and just thought of the number 5 as a definite abstract amount, ie more than a few, and less than very many.

Number 5 probably began as a ‘handful‘ and then developed into something that people could assume as a certain definite quantity that the ones they were talking to could trust.

You can tell that this happened in certain languages, when the words for hand and five begin to diverge.
Lavongai New Britain An…….kunga-……alima
Uruava Solomons An……kabe-na…..rima
Note that in Uruava, they’re still using abangi’ word for hand, but five is a completely separate new word.

and so on …. there’s a definite line separating the mainland New Guinea An and Papuan number systems, that give every evidence of growing up in situ, from the later arrivals, the ‘proto-Austronesians’ who came in with their ready-made new simple number names.

In New Guinea, this line roughly follows the limits of the ‘conventional’ language sub-groupings ‘North New Guinea Linkage’ covering the North coast of Papua New Guinea, right tound the corner to the Huon Gulf, and the southern half of New Britain Island, and ‘Papuan Tip’ which is basically the An languages of the ‘tail’ of Papua-New Guinea. It’s roughly the area where the proto-Oceanic language is thought to have been spoken.

But they are not limited to this area alone; many of the number systems and names in Vanuatu and New Caledonia also show definite signs of growing their own number systems.
The presence of the ‘aberrant number systems’ in both of those areas strongly suggests that they were settled initially by Melanesians before the new PAn number system had arrived.

Where did these ‘proto-Austronesians’ with their new way of counting, come from?

Well, according to the current paradigm, they poured out of Taiwan, the original homeland of the Austronesian languages, pushed by the expansion of the Han Chinese, and went on, intrepidly, to conquer the oceans east and west of them.

Well, maybe they didn’t. Perhaps they invented and grew their own language family (or at least, their number systems) right there, somewhere in the thousands of islands of South East Asia, or off the North coast of New Guinea, from an ancestor language that gave birth both to them and to the 8 major families of languages in New Guinea, which is a small continent in its own right.

How Can You Dig Up History From a Bunch of Numbers?

Filed under: Uncategorized — richardparker01 @ 1:53 am

Well, you can’t, of course, directly.

Languages are not like good, solid archaeological sites, where you can reasonably expect to dig down, and find successively older layers, with, hopefully, telling remnants of (usually) rubbish that might give you some ideas of how people lived in the past, who they were, and where they came from.

Modern languages are the only observable twiglets of an invisible tree, hiding an immensely complex and quite unseeable history of lost and decayed subterranean roots and undergrowth, where languages have diverged from common ancestors, moved locations, had incestuous relations, indulged in miscegenation, and generally mixed up the results so much that all speculations on what happened in the past, as derived from what we can observe in the present can only be that – speculations.

It’s a little different when languages have been recorded in writing in the past. We can speculate with much more assurance if we hold, say, a Latin text and a Modern French text, 2000 years apart, in our hands, and compare them.

Austronesian languages were not written down in the past, so historical linguists have to use a quite different methodology, by tracing out the observable changes in sounds from one branch to another, and reconstructing the family tree from the top down.

Or, as is the case in linguistics, showing the reconstructed tree upside down, like this:

This shows, at the root (top of the diagram) a major split between Formosan (Taiwan) Austronesian languages, and then next, another major split between Western Malayo-Polynesian languages, and all the others.

Western Malayo-Polynesian languages are, roughly, all those spoken West of the Wallace Line, which divides the ‘spheres of influence’ of the ancient, now drowned, continents of Sundaland, to the West, and Sahul (including New Guinea and Australia), to the East.

This family tree concentrates on the major branch leading to the native languages of the Pacific Ocean islands.

The other major branches, of the languages to the West, are summarised as single lines, which is quite necessary, because no-one has yet worked out the detailed family tree of the Western Malayo-Polynesian languages, which 95% of modern Austronesians actually speak.

Numbers, though, are quite different from other words in a language. They show, not only a set of words with exact, unambiguous and enduring meanings, but they also preserve, as a set, the evolution of the systems used in the past, as people developed from counting fingers and toes to conceiving of numbers as abstract symbols.

You can judge, with some confidence, that a language that has words for only one, two, and many should at least be less-developed than one where the speaker touches his fingers and toes as he names them, and the final stage, where lima is only a fossilised remnant that hands were ever used at all.

Now it happens that the area, comprising Bima, Timor, Flores, other islands of Nusa Tenggara and the Moluccas, the islands and coastal strip of North and East New Guinea, together with the Bismarcks, the Admiralties, the Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia holds a mass of diverse Austronesian languages.

That is the part coloured orange on this map, and the left hand part of the huge yellow area denoting the Oceanic lanuages.

The very same places also have almost all of the more than 200 ‘aberrant’ number systems, so it should be possible to physically map the visible development of the number systems, and indicate, at least in general terms, the actual physical place of origin of those number systems.

Those number systems were surely conceived and developed long after the very first ancestral speakers were around.

So far, I’ve found it easy to see the overall picture of the development of the primitive number systems, with the most primitive, and the most diverse, centred on the Bismarcks and the adjoining coast of New Guinea. This is precisely the area which, by quite different linguistic analyses, is generally accepted to be the birthplace of Proto-Oceanic, the root language for all of those Melanesian and Polynesian languages East of there.

It’s also possible to see a strict breakline between this area, and another, where the ‘Proto-Austronesian’ abstract, symbolic numbers are used exclusively.

What is very, very difficult to find is where and how the primitive systems developed into the final finished one. I have a sneaking feeling that this development happened somewhere in the purple area of the map, and all traces of it have been ‘drowned’ by the spread of ‘more modern’ Western Malayo-Polynesian languages.

What is also very difficult is to judge by just how much Austronesian languages were affected by their contact with an amazing variety of very much older ‘Papuan’ languages, almost none of which ever developed a full abstract number system.

Why Study Austronesian Numbers?

Filed under: Uncategorized — richardparker01 @ 1:50 am

I quite often walk along the beach here (but seldom with a Walrus, or a Carpenter, and never with a gaggle of perambulating Oysters).

It’s a very good place for emptying the brain, and letting idle thoughts develop.

But then, something disastrous happened to my happy empty island life. We got cellphones and the internet. I’m not much interested in porn (been there, done that) , too much interested in conspiracy theories, etc, so I fiddled around.

One day, fiddling about on the internet, (which has only been available in my home here for a year) I discovered a fascinating website, Numbers from 1 to 10 in Over 5000 Languages that listed numbers in most, if not all, the Austronesian languages.

The Austronesian language family is probably the largest on earth, with about 1200 languages, spoken from Madagascar to Easter Island, and from Hawaii to New Zealand, so there were a lot of them, and something very strange.

I had always thought that number names throughout this vast region were pretty standard, something like:

*esa/isa *duSa *telu *Sepat *lima *enem *pitu *walu *Siwa *sa-puluq

That is, if I ever have the opportunity to buy something from an Easter Islander, a New Zealand Maori, a Sakalava from Madagascar, or a savage headhunter from the mountains of Taiwan, I would just say lima and get 5 of whatever I want.

Not quite so – but we’ll get to that later.

Now we have to look at some technical linguistics stuff:

Proto-Austronesian is an artificial construct, derived from existing languages by tracing back words that look and mean the same (cognates), and studying the sound changes that have happened in the meantime, to group all the languages into one big family tree.

If you want to find out how professional linguists reconstruct these proto-languages, then look here. There (just to the right of the Austronesian language family tree) you’ll see how it’s done.

I’ll discuss the flaws of the classical linguists’ ‘Comparative Method’ and why it cannot apply to number systems, at a later date.

So Proto-Austronesian is at the very root of this family tree, and is said to be the ancestral language spoken by the very first speakers of a tongue that has now developed into about 1200 different languages.

Except that the majority of languages, roughly in the area East of the Wallace Line and West of Polynesia, had number systems and names that were distinctly unlike Proto-Austronesian, and couldn’t possibly have been derived from it.

That part of the Austronesian world is right in the very middle of it; the bit coloured orange on the map, and the parts labelled New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and MELANESIA.

In the very middle of that area is the very place that another ancestral language, Proto-Oceanic, is considered to have developed. You can find a bit more about this proto-language here.

As I began to look at these number lists, I could see that many of the systems were in various stages of development, from a very basic: one, two, few, and many, through various methods of tallying fingers and hands, and even toes and feet, right up to the standard symbolic numbers that appear to have arrived, fully-formed and complete, in Proto-Austronesian, supposedly ancestor of them all.

Even now, the word for 5 in most Austronesian languages is lima, or something very like it, which also means, simply: hand.

In English, we don’t have the same connections between number-names and the original counting methods; you can’t trace five back to anything very much, except a Proto-Indo-European *penkwe, which doesn’t tell you anything very much.

But you can see the family resemblances between Indo-European languages, from:

Proto-Indo- European+ *oynos / *sem, *duwo:, *treyes, *kwetwores, *penkwe,
*sweks, *septm, *okto:, *newn, *dekm.

Developing into some long-dead languages, that, thankfully, were written down:

Sanskrit+ éka, dvá, trí, catúr, páñca,, saptá, as.tá, náva, dáça.
Classical Greek+ hei:s, dúo:, trei:s, téttares, pénte, héx, heptá, októ:, ennéa, déka.
Latin+ u:nus, duo, tre:s, quattuor, quinque, sex, septem, octo:, novem, decem.

Through a reconstructed ‘ancestor’ of the Germanic branch, that led to Modern English:

Old Germanic+ *ainaz, *twai, *thrijiz, *fithwor, *fimfi, *seks, *sibum, *ahto:, *niwun, *tehun.

Old English+ án, twá, þrí, féower, fíf, sex, seofon, eahta, nighon, tíen.

Middle English+ an, two, three, four, fif, six, seven, eihte, nien, ten.

Modern English one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

And another, still spoken, from a different branch of the Indo-European family, Celtic:

Welsh un, dau, tri, pedwar, pump, chwech, saith, wyth, naw, deg.

And a few more you might never have suspected had any relationship with English:

Hindi/ Urdu ek, do, ti:n, ca:r, pã:c, chai, sa:t, a:th, nau, das.

Farsi (Persian) yak, do, se, chaha:r, panj, shesh, haft, hasht, noh, dah.

Polish jeden, dwa, trzy, cztery, pie,c’, szes’c’, siedem, osiem, dziewie c’, dziesiec’.

Syrian Gypsy e:kâ, di:, târân, shta:r, panj, sha:s, h.o:t, h.aisht, na:, da:s.

Pashto (Afghan) yaw, dwa, dre, tsalór, pindzé, shpag, owé, até, ne, les.

Sinhalese eka, deka, tuna, hatara, paha, haya, hata, ata, namaya, dahaya.

Vedda ekamay, dekamay, tunamay, hataramay, pahamay, pahamay tava ekamay,
pahamay dekamay, pahamay tunamay, pahamay hataramay,
tava pahamay

By now, you’re probably going a bit goggle-eyed over numbers lists, but take another look at the last one.

Vedda is a language spoken by a very primitive negrito tribe in Sri Lanka, and up to five, their system is the same as the Sinhalese spoken throughout Sri Lanka, except that they add may to each number, for some unknown reason.

After five, things go a bit haywire. If you look a bit more closely, you’ ll see that the pattern goes:

Six = 5+1
Seven = 5+2
Eight = 5+3
Nine = 5+4
Ten = 5+5

The Vedda counting system is the only one of its type in the whole long list of 265 different Indo-European number systems listed here.

All the rest have quite normal symbolic words.

The Vedda system, though, shows all the signs of being, not so very long ago, one that was counted on the fingers of one hand, and then on the other, repeating the same ‘early number names’ from 1 to 5.

But among Austronesian languages, fully 20% have such ‘primitive’ numbering systems. That is what first sparked my interest.

Maisin, an Austronesian language spoken on the Eastern coast of Papua New Guinea, has numbers that go:

sesei, sandi, sinati, fusese, fakete, faketi-tarosi-taure-sesei,
faketi-tarosi-taure-sandi, faketi tarosi taure sinati,
faketi tarosi taure fusese, faketi tau tau

How could those numbers possibly be descended from an ancestral Proto-Austronesian:

*esa/isa *duSa *telu *Sepat *lima *enem *pitu *walu *Siwa *sa-puluq ?

Why would anyone want to dump a simple number system like that in favour of something so cumbersome? And what did the words mean, anyway?

Why would the migrating Austronesians, supposedly coming from Taiwan (according to the most acceptable current theory on their origins) give their languages to coastal New Guinea natives, but not their simple numbers? After all, they are generally thought to have been sea-borne traders who brought a superior (and possibly whiter) culture to the poor benighted blackies (Melanesia means Black Islands) of New Guinea.

So I decided to try and find out the answers to these questions, and, in so doing, found out quite a lot about numbering, and wandered down side roads into cul-de-sacs, but also found out a great deal about some quite unrelated things, just like:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

So, in blogs to come, I’ll wander off topic to discuss shoes, ships, sealing wax, cabbages (actually, taro), kings, when the sea is boiling hot (not quite, but it looks like it), and, if pigs didn’t have wings, then how in hell did they get to some of those tiny Pacific islands?

And, if those wonderful noble savages of the Pacific islands, so celebrated by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and almost everyone who’s met them before or since, had hit on Mauritius on their way to Madagascar, would we have had our very favourite extinct bird, the Dodo, to remember?

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