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Academic spats revisited: one, two, many

By Tom Chatfield  

One of Terry Pratchett’s neatest jokes in the Discworld novels concerns the troll (big creatures made of rock) system of counting, which entails only the words “one,” “two,” “many” and “lots”—a fact often cited by troll-haters as evidence of their stupidity. What the mockers don’t know is that troll numbers in fact follow a perfectly sensible quaternary system which begins “one, two, many-one, many-two, many-many, many-many-one…”

It’s a gag with a real world parallel: the Amazonian tribe known as the Pirahã, who lack the ability to quantify precisely any group of objects greater than two. And their language, as we’ve…

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