Numerosity structures the expression of quantity in lexical numbers and grammatical number

Current Anthropology Vol/Iss. 56(5) University of Chicago Press Published In Pages: 638-653
By Overmann, Karenleigh A.


In order to examine the development of lexical numbers (LN), the linguistic rules which allow for expression of high quantities and complex numerical operations, Overmann examines LN's association with grammatical number (GN), an expression of quantity based on the distinction between singular and multiple entities. LN and GN generally occur together, but LN is also found in a significant number of societies lacking GN, indicating that the two are both independent and related. A subsequent analysis of geographic distribution of LNs and GN indicates that LN may emerge prior to GN as a result of the interaction of numerosity (the ability to perceive different quantities) with tactile engagement with material structures (e.g. tools, the hand) which may subsequently lead to the development of GN. Overmann examines the theoretical implications of and explanations for these findings, and discusses how the present study contributes to the knowledge of linguistic frameworks.


While not statistically tested, the theoretical hypothesis that LNs emerge before GN was supported by two main findings. First, Overmann finds LNs to occur both with and without GN, but GN occurs only with LNs. No language has been found to have GN in the absence of LNs. Additionally, Overmann states that "if LNs emerge before GN, then the predicted geographic distribution would be for the youngest languages to lack both features, older languages to have LNs but not GN, and the oldest languages to have both features" (p.642). A geographic and temporal analysis of the distribution of linguistic features and human migrations found that, "the geographic areas where the peopling is the most recent contain languages lacking both quantity features or with restricted LNs and no GN, areas where the migrations traversed contain languages that lack GN only, and the areas where the migrations originated contain languages with both quantity features" (p.642-3). Taken together, the comparison of percentages and geographic distribution analysis support the claim that lexical numbers develop before grammatical number.


Sample Used Coded Data Comment
World Atlas of Language StructuresDryer and Haspelmath 2013

Documents and Hypotheses Filed By:jack.dunnington emily.pitek