Language is mankind's system of
communication. Our world is home to many different peoples, each with its own cultural framework;
each language, no matter what its political importance or
population size, must be treated with respect.
Due to political and economical pressures, and other factors, during the past half century, hundreds of minority languages in the world are in danger of extinction. The former SSILA President, Prof. Michael Krauss, says "Languages no longer being learned as mother-tongues by children are beyond endangerment... Unless the current course is reversed, these languages are doomed to extinction, like species lacking reproductive capacity. Should we mourn the loss of Eyak or Ubykh any less than the loss of the panda or California condor?... We should all care about this, otherwise the world will be less interesting, less beautiful." Some linguists predict that half of the world's languages will probably become extinct during the next century.
The existing 7,151 or so languages in the world are a common cultural treasure of humanity. In order to preserve global linguistic diversity, the United Nations set 1992 as "the Year of Endangered Languages". Urgent actions to rescue and document endangered languages have been undertaken by some countries in recent years.
The surviving thousands of the world's ethnic groups use a variety of different numeral systems: duodecimal systems, decimal systems, senary systems, quinary systems, quaternary systems, binary systems, incomplete decimal systems, mixed systems, body-part tally systems and so on. Certain South American indigenous languages even only distinguish the numbers "one" and "many". These fascinating phenomena, like a kaleidoscope, reflect the diversify and different development steps of human counting concepts.
Needless to say, these invaluable linguistic data should also be documented as soon as possible, as the indigenous numeral systems of minority ethnic groups are particularly prone to be replaced by neighboring politically and economically predominant languages. The younger generations tend to give up the traditional numeral systems and adopt the borrowed ones; this phenomenon is especially prevalent in Melanesia, South and South-East Asia, Central and South America and certain areas of Africa.
An indigenous numeral system is even more endangered than the other systems even if the language is not itself endangered. This is because during rapid globalization, the act of counting in a minority language is left to older members of the community, while the younger generation often tend to shy away from native numerals and prefer to express numerals in English or some other dominant languages, with the result that the traditional numeral systems of most small languages are being rapidly replaced by those of dominant languages. Even the numeral systems of large languages can be endangered in this way, e.g. Japanese and Thai numerals have been largely replaced by Chinese (Comrie 2005). “Numeral systems are even more endangered than languages,” Prof. Comrie concluded. Numerals interact with the rest of grammar and may have unique morphosyntactic rules. Nevertheless, numerals are often neglected or completely ignored in many grammars.
The principal purpose of this web site is to document the various numeral systems used by the currently spoken 7,151 human languages, focusing especially on little-known, undescribed and endangered languages, to record and preserve the traditional counting systems before they fall out of use.
Research on numeral systems is not only a very interesting topic but also an academically valuable reference resource for those involved in the academic disciplines of Linguistics, Anthropology, Ethnology, History and Philosophy of Mathematics.
The author of this project is especially interested in the genetic classification, phonological systems and counting concepts of human languages, and has spent over thirty years recording and analyzing the numeral systems of the world's languages, and so far has successfully collected basic numeral systems and data from about 4,800 languages in the world. Most of the data were kindly provided by linguists, anthropologists and related scholars working in their respective fields. The majority of the data were written in standard IPA symbols or phonemic transcriptions.
As the traditional numeral systems of small languages have been rapidly replaced by those of dominant languages, it is an urgent task to document these important linguistic data before they are completely forgotten. However, more complete data for the remaining 2,200 or so languages are not yet available, so we need further generous support from fellow linguists in providing numeral systems from languages they have been working on.
The following Classifications
are mainly based on "Ethnologue" 25th edition.
Other isolates, unclassified and smaller
South American Indigenous languages:
Prof. Bernard Comrie: Typology of Numeral Systems (PDF format)
Prof. Ozo-mekuri Ndimele and Eugene S. L. Chan: The Numeral Systems of Nigerian Languages (PDF format)
This is a
project under the supervision of
from June 2006 to May 2015, with the support of
The Department of Linguistics, Max Planck Institute, Leipzig, Germany
Continue co-operating the project, with the support of Prof. Russell Gray
and the Numeralbank
The Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany.
Eugene Chan at
Copyright © 1998-2022, Last updated, June 25, 2022
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