Researchers at the University have discovered that the numbers one to five are among the oldest
words, dating back hundreds of thousands of years. Professor Mark Pagel has been looking into
the history of Indo-European languages, the basis of our language today, and has found that these
low number words can be found consistently throughout history, some of the numbers have a
possible lifespan of up to 100,000 years.
Professor Pagel said: “It is remarkable to think that words used today, in particular ‘two,’ ‘three’
and ‘five’ connect us with ancestors from perhaps 10,000 or more years ago who would have
used words similar to those in use today.
“What is particularly surprising is how these words have lived so long – spanning nearly the
entire history of the Indo-European language family – and have done so without a writing
system, being passed on solely in the spoken tradition.”
This trend has also been found in the Bantu languages of Africa and the Austronesian languages
of the south Pacific.
The researches have suggested three possible explanations for the survival of these numbers.
They believe that it may be connected to ancient brain regions associated with the ability to
perceive small numbers of objects without counting. They cite evidence that even animals are
able to perceive ‘numbers,’ even though they lack any formal counting system like our own.
Professor Pagel said: “Given that we know that these low limit number words are some of the
first words that children learn, it might tell us that simple counting abilities have played an
important role in our daily lives, and in out communication, throughout our evolution.”
This research was conducted alongside other evolutionary language scientists from Santa Fe
Institute and it has been published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society journal
on January 1st 2018.
Pagel M, Meade A. 2017 The deep history of the number words. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 373: 20160517. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0517