Counting on Your Body in Papua New Guinea

Nearly all of languages investigated begin counting on the little finger of one hand. In some cases, the left hand is specified as the starting hand, but in most the count may start on either hand. The count then proceeds through the fingers of the starting hand, then to the thumb and then up the adjoining arm to either the head or chest. The count next proceeds down the other side of the body until it ends at the little finger of the other hand. Figure 1 shows the count for Anggor, a language spoken in the West Sepik Province.

Anggor includes the wrist (6 and 18), forearm (7 and 17), elbow (8 and 16), upper arm (9 and 15), shoulder (10 and 14), breast (11 and 13) and the sternum (12) in its tally-system. The count ends at 23 and it is customary to call such a system a 23-cycle system. For counts above 23, such systems would usually continue on with a phrase like “one man and ” begin the count anew. (Although see Saxe, 1981 for a count that proceeds back up the arm in the reverse direction.)

The Faiwol body-part tally-system is an example of one that includes counting locations on the head. This 27-cycle system is shown in Figure 2. The inside of the elbow is counted 8 and 20 in Faiwol in contrast to the outside elbow in Anggor. Eleven and seventeen in Faiwol are counted at the collar bone.

There is great variation in the cycle length of PNG body-part tally-systems. Cycles of length 12, 14, 18, 19, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 35, 37, 47, 68, and 74 have been reported. When the cycle length is odd there is usually a unique midpoint to the count that is located along the person’s line of symmetry (e.g., the sternum in Anggor and the nose in Faiwol). Table 3 summarizes the cycle-lengths of PNG body-part tally-systems and gives the midpoint location for cycles of odd length.

Miriam is unique in having three count locations on the body’s line of symmetry (Lean ,2002, Vol. 12, p.36). Yupno differs from all other languages in several ways. First, the count in Yupno proceeds back and forth across the body with 6 -10 being counted on the right hand after 1 -5 is counted on the left. Second, the toes are included in the count with 11-15 on the left foot and 16-20 on the right foot. Finally, Yupno includes locations below the waist with 31 counted at the left testicle, 32 at the right testicle, and 33 at the penis. (Wassmann and Dasen, 1994, p.84).

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The relationship between the words spoken while counting, and the body part referenced, is complex. Lean (2002, Vol. 12, p.2) observes that “body-part tally-systems tend to fall into two types: 1) those in which all tally-words have a body-part referent, and 2) those in which the first few number words are numerals with no body-part referent, the remaining tally-words all referring to body-parts.”

Baruga, spoken in Oro Province, is of particular interest here because of the generality of the spoken words. The Baruga body-part tally-system is a 22-cycle system that begins with the little finger of the right hand . Baruga counting is shown in Table 4. Notice that the counting must be visual since the word “doro” stands for 3,4,5,19,20, and 21. Baruga counting also is unique in including the left eye before the central nose and mouth, thus breaking the vertical axis symmetry pattern.

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(But, then, I should really just shut my bloody trap. Shouldn’t I.)

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