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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?

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    I was surprised to hear this about Australian Aboriginal languages. What comments do you have about this Wikipedia article on Australian Aboriginal enumeration? – Niel de Beaudrap Oct 2 '11 at 10:46
  • That's very interesting. What little I know about aboriginal languages is from reading accessible linguistics stuff like Ken Hale and Bob Dixon. In my experience white Australians are even more ignorant of the field than the Wikipedia article suggests. I seem to recall that Tiwi was a notable exception being an aboriginal language with a number system and I believe it's known to be borrowed from non aboriginal languages to the north. – hippietrail Oct 2 '11 at 10:58
  • The indefinite article in English can be seen as contributing singular meaning (a boy, but not *a boys etc) in addition to marking indefiniteness. Given mention of "one", it appears this question is interested in the singular meaning component as opposed to the indefinite. It may be possible to broaden your question so as not to exclude languages which lack articles: are there any languages which have a singular/plural distinction but which lack a "fully developed" number system (i.e., no names for numerals greater than 4)? – Alexis Wellwood Oct 2 '11 at 16:38
  • @AlexisWellwood: Yes a broader question would also be interesting but it would be a different question from what I was wondering about individual words when I posed this question. Of course a language could conceivable evolve from expressing indefinite via an ending to expressing it via a separate word, and that would be an interesting answer. – hippietrail Oct 2 '11 at 17:45
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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.)

  • It's definitely not what I was thinking of but it is one of those amazing surprises that linguistics always throws at you when you don't expect it (-: By the way, you might be able to help with this question I had on another nearby Mayan language over on travel.SE – hippietrail Oct 6 '11 at 7:32
  • Are you back to seriously looking, or is it still just a hypothetical question? I don't know of a place off the top of my head, but I can ask around if you'd like. – Leah Velleman Oct 6 '11 at 12:24
  • No it's just hypothetical so don't go to any immediate trouble unless it also interests you thanks @Dan. – hippietrail Oct 6 '11 at 17:13
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I have not heard of a language that lacks numbers entirely, and doubt one exists (happy to see proof though). It is true that many Australian Aboriginal languages have words for only a few numbers, typically 1, 2 and 3: for discussion of this see Dixon 1981. Some languages are documented to have more numbers (e.g. Anindilyakwa). Many Australian Aboriginal languages don't have any articles (definite or indefinite), but commonly use other words (e.g. determiners) in this function. Have a look at the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (check out the map).

So I guess the answer is that there are no languages that have an indefinite article but lack numbers, because no languages lack numbers (although Piraha is said to lack true numerals, but I think it needs more investigation).

ADDITIONAL: From Evans (1995) I see that numerals in Kayardild (Tangkic family, spoken on the Bentinck Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria) extend to four, but it has an indefinite determiner (p. 237; it is formally identical to the numeral one). So this may be an example of a language that lacks a full number system but nevertheless has an indefinite article (though it depends on how these terms are defined).

  • I didn't mean a 100% lack of numbers but we only have so many characters for the question title and closing every loophole in a question can lead to very difficult to read question wording but let me try to reword it... – hippietrail Oct 2 '11 at 12:35

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