The Confusing Words for Small Number Sets

question-mark-faceTechnology has taken hold of our lives and it is not letting go.

To some this statement may seem post-apocalyptical or at least a sign of when the robots rise up, laying siege to our society and eventually taking over our world, playing out the plot of the countless robot movies on the world stage. But, more rationally speaking this is not the case. We have been using technology ever since we became what we call man.

The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes is the definition of technology and as one can tell it is both very broad and vague. In other words all we can really say about technology is that it is the application of knowledge for practical purposes.

Technology started out as fire and the wheel but has now turned into cell phones loaded with apps and the internet. These advances have done a great many things for society but one new thing that has come into the fold is the idea of the quantified self.

The quantified self is the utilization of large amounts of aggregate data for the purposes of understanding ourselves in a numerical fashion. This practice gives us a new insight into ourselves that would not be otherwise available without us having to waste our day away recording all the information by hand. With devices like fitness bands and mobile apps which allow users to see numerical representations of their lives, individuals can both understand themselves in a different light and then compare themselves for the purpose of self-improvement.

At the end of the day you could take a look at your app and see you have walked this many steps, taken in this many calories, burned this many calories and so on. The result is a list of information on your life and who you are. Taking all that information over a year in order to find your daily average could be incredibly insightful as you would see what your average day is like in comparison to someone else’s average day, the countries average, or the world’s average over an entire year. Or you could go further and quantify all of your actions for your entire life and see how many steps you took in a lifetime.

This whole process of knowing exact numbers for representing our lives is handy to say the least and far easier than tracking it mentally or on paper which more than likely would turn into generalizations and guesses for  most people. The internal dialog would probably turn into something like this:

“We only had a couple French fries at lunch today”

“You know that a couple means 2 or 3, right?”

“Well we had a few then”

“So 5? We only had 5 fries? Or is it less than that?”

“Well it wasn’t many”

As you can see there is much more value in exact numbers than range values, it’s easier to understand a specific number rather than a range. But what are the actual definitions for words like couple, few, handful, several, some and many?

Word Range
A Couple 2-3
A Few More than a couple less than some
Some More than a few less than several
Several More than some less than many
Many More than several, large quantity
A Handful Quantity that fills the hand


While it would be nice to have exact numerical representations for each of these words the language has made them variable words which only represent as much as you want them to at the time when they are used. For the most part they could all be used to present three of something at any given time, which in of itself is perplexing.

Now imagine if we had no definitive numbers and only variable words like the ones we just went over?

It just so happens that there is a tribe in the Amazon called the Pirahã which has this exact element in their language system. They have no way of differentiating between certain number sets because the words they have are built around variable number words.

In 2008 Michael Frank published a set of experiments with the tribe.

For the first one he gathered groups of spool and placed them in ascending order from 1 to 10 and asked the Pirahã members to label each group. The single spool was given a unique word, another word was used to label the groups from 2 to 3 and then groups from 4 to 10 were all given the same word.

A second experiment was done in the opposite fashion; Pirahã members were asked to label the spool groups from 10 to 1 rather than 1 to 10. Surprisingly the same three words were used but this time to represent different things. This time the spools from 1 to 5 were all labeled using the word that had previously been reserved for a single spool, the spool groups from 6 to 8 were labeled using the middle value word and 9-10 were all given the large value descriptive.

In some ways this seems alien because we are so used to having exact values for specific quantities but the Pirahã tribe only represents things as small, medium or large. With all the languages in the world it is always fascinating to find a language that is so different than the rest of the world. While we find our general number set descriptors as confusing and clunky for the Pirahã tribe that is all they know.

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