On the Universal Neuropsychological Basis of the Syntax of Numerals

Pawel Rutkowski 1
Author Information & Copyright
1Warsaw University

Copyright ⓒ 2016, Sejong University Language Research Institue. This is an Open-Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Published Online: Jan 01, 2017


The aim of this paper is to relate certain properties of linguistic numeral systems to universal principles of human cognition/perception. As has been noted in the literature (c.f., Greenberg 1978; Ifrah 1985; Hurford 1975,2001),in many unrelated languages all around the world ,numerals referring to cardinalities in the range of ‘one’ to ‘four’ differ considerably from higher numerals . It seems that the facts in question can be explained only by means of referring to some ‘extralinguistic’, universal factors- i.e., to factors that are not part of the language viewed as a closed system of purely arbitrary signs. The analysis argued for in the present paper will relate to the neuropsychological work by Cowan (2001). Basing his arguments independent of any linguistic data, Cowan (2001) suggests that there exists something what he calls ‘the magical number four’, which constrains human perception skills. He presents a wide variety of data on short-term memory capacity limits and shows that, if factors such as rehearsal and long-term memory are not used to combine stimulus items into chunks,a central short-term memory capacity limit averages to contain about four items. This means that the cardinalities ‘one’ to ‘four’ can be perceived independently from actual counting. In this paper, I will attempt to show that this universal property of human perception has influenced the development of many numeral systems. Only the lowest numerals seem to be part of the basic human vocabulary (they appear in most languages of the world-c .f.,Ifrah 1985,Dixon 1980); numerals higher than ‘four ’ were introduced to languages only when the speakers of those languages developed arithmetic. These different origins have resulted in different morphosyntactic propeerties.

Keywords: cardinal numerals; the lower/higher numeral dichotomy; Polish; lexical/functional elements; frequency; magical number four; attention; short-term memory capacity