BY PETER KRANZ
WESTERNERS SEEM TO THINK that our units of measurement (base 10 counting, the 24 hour clock etc) are some sort of immutable universal truths. But shows gross ignorance of other cultures.
Not all languages have numeric systems. Specifically, there is not much need for numeric systems among hunter-gatherers who do not engage in commerce.
Many languages around the world have no numerals above two to four—or at least they did not before contact with colonisers—and speakers of these languages may have no tradition of using the numerals for counting.
Indeed, several languages from the Amazon have no numerals other than ‘one’.
Some Australian languages, such as Warlpiri, do not have words for quantities above two, as did many Khoisan languages at the time of European contact. Such languages do not have a word class of ‘numeral’.
Some Austronesian and Melanesian ethnic groups, including the Māori and some Papua New Guineans, count with the base number four.
But perhaps one of the most amazing counting systems was used by the Oksapmin in Papua New Guinea.
In pre-contact times (prior to 1940) the Oksapmin used a 27-body part count system. That is they had a base 27 number system. Consider that only since the invention of computers has hexadecimal notation been widely use (that is base 16) - and this only due to a quirk of the first microprocessors.
Geoffrey Saxe of the University of California, Berkeley, has made a study of the Oksapmin counting system [http://gse.berkeley.edu/faculty/gsaxe/Research.html].
"To count as Oksapmin do,” he writes, “one begins with the thumb on one hand and enumerates 27 places around the upper periphery of the body, ending on the little finger of the opposite hand.
“To indicate a particular number, one points to the appropriate body part (for example, the ear) and says the body-part name out loud. Traditionally, each number is labelled by both a word and a gesture (pointing to the body part in question).
”To continue past the 27th body part (the ‘other little finger’), continue up to the wrist, forearm, and on up and around the body. There is no distinction between the name (including word and gesture) for the 21st body part (tan-besa, meaning ‘other forearm’) and the 29th body part (also tan-besa, or ‘other forearm’).
“Thus, context is crucial for an understanding of the numerical referent for any number in the Oksapmin counting system."
Papua New Guinea continues to amaze and delight.