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Fox's son, they slept five, imitation of people: Kuikuro numerals and counting

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  • UserBruna Franchetto (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro)
  • ClockMonday 05 December 2016, 17:15-19:00
  • HouseGR06/7 English Faculty.

If you have a question about this talk, please contact Valentina Colasanti.

This talk is held in conjunction with the Cambridge Endangered Languages and Cultures Group (

Kuikuro people live at the Southern periphery of Amazonia, in the multilingual and multiethnic regional society known as Upper Xingu (Brazil). They speak one of the dialects of a Southern Carib language. On more than one occasion, in the Kuikuro village of Ipatse, the old Hopesé, Johé and Aitsehü, who still remember the Kuikuro numbers or numbering or counting systems, concluded their explanations with a narrative (what we would call mythical). The Fox steals a woman to make her his wife; she became pregnant and gave birth to a child without joints. Arms, hands, feet, legs were stiff limbs and made as single pieces. While his wife worked in the cassava field, Fox broke the limbs of the child with bites and blows, forming, so to speak, all his joints. The association between this narrative and the Kuikuro numeral and counting systems, whose base is fifth-vigesimal, leads us to consider together the creation of discontinuous from continuous, and vice versa (remembering Lévi-Strauss), and the pre-lexical cognitive nature of count(able)-mass distinction present in natural human languages. There are a number of questions for which we propose some answers. Do the “cardinal” Kuikuro numbers denote precise quantities? Why are the numerals tilako (three) and nhatüi (five) used to denote a few and many, respectively, as they were borders of the nearly enough and the almost excessive? What about the obsession with ordering? Ordinal numbers are constructed either by derivational morphology from cardinal numbers, or they introduce relational terms, like kinship terms. Data and issues arising from the investigation of Kuikuro numbers and counting will lead us to comparisons with other numeral systems of the South-American lowlands, exploring an incipient but already rich literature on the subject, together with the controversy triggered by the supposed discovery of peoples and languages “without numbers” (the Pirahã case).

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society (LingSoc) series.

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