The curious idea that Māori once counted by elevens, and the insights it still holds for cross-cultural numerical research

Journal of the Polynesian Society 1 (129):59-84 (2020)
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Abstract

The idea the New Zealand Māori once counted by elevens has been viewed as a cultural misunderstanding originating with a mid-nineteenth-century dictionary of their language. Yet this “remarkable singularity” had an earlier, Continental origin, the details of which have been lost over a century of transmission in the literature. The affair is traced to a pair of scientific explorers, René-Primevère Lesson and Jules Poret de Blosseville, as reconstructed through their publications on the 1822–1825 circumnavigational voyage of the Coquille, a French corvette. Possible explanations for the affair are briefly examined, including whether it might have been a prank by the Polynesians or a misunderstanding or hoax on the part of the Europeans. Reasons why the idea of counting by elevens remains topical are discussed. First, its very oddity has obscured the counting method actually used—setting aside every tenth item as a tally. This “ephemeral abacus” is examined for its physical and mental efficiencies and its potential to explain aspects of numerical structure and vocabulary (e.g., Mangarevan binary counting; the Hawaiian number word for twenty, iwakalua), matters suggesting material forms have a critical if underappreciated role in realising concepts like exponential value. Second, it provides insight into why it can be difficult to appreciate highly elaborated but unwritten numbers like those found throughout Polynesia. Finally, the affair illuminates the difficulty of categorising number systems that use multiple units as the basis of enumeration, like Polynesian pair-counting; potential solutions are offered.

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Karenleigh Anne Overmann
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

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