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Number systems in 4,000 languages

(March 2010) Hong Kong linguist, Eugene S. L. Chan, recently conducted a two-week visit of SIL International’s offices in Dallas, Texas. An expert in number systems of the world, Chan, affiliated with the Max Planck Institute, met with SIL leadership and various SIL linguists who have contributed to his research over the past 30 years by sending him data about the languages in which they have worked.

In an invited lecture, Chan discussed his project to document the various number systems used by the world’s nearly 7,000 languages. Chan has documented number systems in more than 4,000 languages to date, finding systems in base 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 12, 15 and 20, as well as mixed systems and body-part tally systems. Certain South American indigenous languages simply distinguish "one" from "many.”

Chan’s research focuses on transcriptions of little-known, under-described and endangered languages. His goal is to record and preserve the traditional counting systems before they disappear. Data for the remaining 3,000 languages, however, is difficult to obtain. Chan makes the results of his research freely available on his website and is always eager to receive data about languages not yet recorded.

Due to rapid globalization, an indigenous number system can be even more endangered than the rest of the language even if the language itself is not endangered. In language communities around the world, counting in the minority language is the domain of older members, while the younger ones prefer to express numbers in a dominant language.

The traditional number systems of many small languages are rapidly being displaced by those of dominant languages. Even though numbers interact with the rest of grammar and may have unique morphosyntactic rules, many published grammar studies fail to describe them. Therefore, it is urgent to document this important linguistic data before it is completely forgotten.

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