Numeral Systems of the World’s Languages


中文版 Chinese version

Language is mankind’s system of
communication. Our world is home to many different peoples, each with its own cultural framework;
each language, no matter what its political importance or
population size, must be treated with respect.

Due to political and economical
pressures, and other factors, during the past half century, hundreds of minority
languages in the world are in danger of extinction. The former
SSILA President,
Prof. Michael Krauss, says “Languages no longer being learned as mother-tongues by
children are beyond endangerment… Unless the current course is reversed, these
languages are doomed to extinction, like species lacking reproductive capacity. Should we mourn the loss of Eyak or Ubykh any less than the loss of the panda or
California condor?… We should all care about this, otherwise the world will be
less interesting, less beautiful.” Some linguists predict that half of the
world’s languages will probably become extinct during the next century.

existing 7,168 or so languages in the world are a common cultural treasure of
humanity. In order to preserve global linguistic diversity, the United
Nations set 1992 as “the Year of Endangered Languages”. Urgent actions to rescue
and document endangered languages have been undertaken by some countries
in recent years.

The surviving thousands of the world’s ethnic groups use a
variety of different numeral systems: duodecimal systems, decimal systems, senary systems, quinary systems, quaternary systems, binary systems, incomplete
decimal systems, mixed systems, body-part tally systems and so on. Certain South
American indigenous languages even only distinguish the numbers “one” and
“many”. These fascinating phenomena, like a kaleidoscope, reflect the diversify
and different development steps of human counting concepts.

Needless to say, these
invaluable linguistic data should also be documented as soon as possible, as the
indigenous numeral systems of minority ethnic groups are particularly prone to
be replaced by neighboring politically and economically predominant languages.
The younger generations tend to give up the traditional numeral systems and
adopt the borrowed ones; this phenomenon is especially prevalent in Melanesia,
South and South-East Asia, Central and South America and certain areas of

An indigenous numeral
system is even more endangered than the other systems even if the language is
not itself endangered. This is because during rapid globalization, the act
of counting in a minority language is left to older members of the community,
while the younger generation often tend to shy away from native numerals and
prefer to express numerals in English or some other dominant languages, with the
result that the traditional numeral systems of most small languages are being
rapidly replaced by those of dominant languages. Even the numeral systems of
large languages can be endangered in this way, e.g. Japanese and Thai numerals have been largely replaced by Chinese (Comrie 2005). “Numeral systems
are even more endangered than languages,” Prof. Comrie concluded.

interact with the rest of grammar and may have unique morphosyntactic
rules. Nevertheless, numerals are often neglected or completely ignored in many

The principal purpose of this web site is to document the various numeral
systems used by the currently spoken 7,168 human
languages, focusing especially on little-known, undescribed and endangered
languages, to record and preserve the traditional counting systems before they
fall out of use.

Research on numeral systems is not only a very
interesting topic but also an academically valuable reference resource for those
involved in the academic disciplines of Linguistics, Anthropology, Ethnology,
History and Philosophy of Mathematics.

The author of this project is
especially interested in the genetic
classification, phonological systems and counting concepts of human languages,
and has spent over thirty years recording and analyzing the numeral systems of
the world’s languages, and so far has successfully collected basic numeral
systems and data from about 5,000 languages
in the world. Most of the data were kindly provided by linguists,
anthropologists and related scholars working in their respective fields. The
majority of the data were written in standard IPA symbols or phonemic

As the traditional numeral systems of small languages have been rapidly replaced
by those of dominant languages, it is an urgent task to document these important
linguistic data before they are completely forgotten. However, more complete
data for the remaining 2,000 or so languages are not yet available, so we need further generous support from fellow linguists
in providing numeral
systems from languages they have been working on.

The following Classifications
are mainly based on “Ethnologue” February 21, 26th edition.







Language Families in Europe and

Language Families in the

Families in Africa

Families in North and Central America

Language Families in South

Other isolates, unclassified and smaller
South American Indigenous languages:

Language isolate

Unclassified languages

Pidgins and Creoles





Bernard Comrie:

Typology of Numeral

(PDF format)


arithmetic of natural language


Prof. Ozo-mekuri Ndimele and Eugene S. L. Chan:
The Numeral Systems of Nigerian
PDF format)

This is a
project under the supervision of

Prof. Bernard

from June 2006
to May 2015, w
the support of

The Department of Linguistics, Max Planck
Institute, Leipzig, Germany


co-operating the project, with the support of
Prof. Russell Gray


Numeralbank /


Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution

Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology,
Leipzig, Germany.

please contact
 Eugene Chan at

Copyright © 1998-2023, Last
updated, 24 April, 2023


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