FAQ
overflow

Great Answers to
Questions About Everything

QUESTION

Most languages have a fully developed concept of numbers but many do not, for instance most Australian Aboriginal languages lack numbers and counting beyond a few such as 1, 2, and 3.

Many languages have indefinite articles like "a" and "an" of English but even many major world languages lack them.

In all the languages I'm familiar with if they have an indefinite article it is related to or the same as the number for "one", perhaps with inflections etc.

Are there any known languages however which have an indefinite article despite lacking a fully developed number system? Is it a linguistic universal that languages with an indefinite article always also have a number system?

{ asked by hippietrail }

ANSWER

Would you count a language that has lost most of its (original) number system?

The Mayan languages used to have words for numbers going very high up into the thousands. Most have now lost these words due to encroachment from Spanish. In K'iche', the Mayan language I study, speakers will use the original number words up to maybe three or four at most; above that, they'll switch to Spanish. Some speakers now count entirely in Spanish.

Nevertheless, K'iche' has an indefinite article — which apparently developed before Spanish contact, but which has remained part of the language even as the Spanish number system has taken over. (And since I see you're also interested in the connection between numbers and articles: yes, it's derived from the old K'iche' word for "one." The number one is jun, the indefinite singular article is jun, and the indefinite plural article is jujun.)

{ answered by Dan Velleman }
Tweet