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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

One, two, many

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The acquisition of the concept of number and of the terms to designate it and numbers to represent them is one of the most difficult tasks for humans. It must be for the primitive and it is for the child now learning it in childhood.

We are surprised when ethnologists  report that current people, whom we call primitive with remarkable injustice from our perspective exclusively Western, have only proper name for the "one" and to the "two", from there only speak of "many "," crowd. " It seems strange and a great limitation that at least they have no proper name for the top ten, like us.

The study of language sometimes offers remarkable surprises. Our language, like French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, Catalan ... derives from Latin, related in turn to many other languages called Indo-European. Comparing with each other, the old and the modern, somehow we can reconstruct the common trunk, which we call "Indo-European". With this method we can come back to IV or V millennium BC.

Well, in Indo-European languages ranging from Europe to Asia (and from the late fifteenth century to America with Spanish, English, French and Portuguese in particular) the numbers keep a remarkable unity and uniformity. Their study offers us some surprises.

You can track how in Indo-European number two (2) was also the maximum accuracy and from him it was only  "crowd."

We say first that Indo-European languages are "inflected",  ie.  words have different endings to express the number, gender and grammatical function. Well, in Greek and Latin (in this residually) still have some finishing words to express the "singular", others to express that are two the objects referred, number called "dual" and others for "plural") when more than two. This puts us closer to those people who differ only one, two, many.

This extraordinary perception of "2" can undoubtedly be explained by the frequent and relevant objects or beings matched: both hands, both arms, both feet, both legs, two eyes, two ears ... there are two wings of birds two birds legs ... the immediate perception would be  "1", one, which refers to oneself.

Very striking is the study of the name of the number "three" (3). The root of the word "Indo-European", the reconstructed original language,  is * "tri", and derivatives * "treyes", * "tisores" ( the Indo-European terms are preceded by an asterisk (*) to differentiate them).

The francophone people notice immediately the etymological proximity, relation,  between "trois" (3) and "très" which means "very much" indicating intensity and "trop" which means "too much".

In Latin the word "trans" meaning "beyond" is from the same root as “tres”,"three" (3);  the Latin word "ter" means  "three times" but also has a general sense, for example in this Plautus phrase:

" Ter tanto peior ipsa est, quam illam tu esse vis   = is many times worse how many you want to be."

In Horatius is read "ter quaterque" that  literally means "three to four times" , but actually means "a thousand times, many times".

In English the word "three" means “3”,; the rarer use "thrice" means "three times" and "several";  "throng", means  "many" and "fill, cram," ; "through " means  “beyond".

From Indo-European root derive the word used in  Late Latin or vulgar Latin  "troppus" meaning "herd, band", from which derive the French "trop" cited, the Italian "troppo", "too", the French "troupe" and from this the Spanish “tropa” and “tropel” (meaning  "troops" and "flock")  with obvious sense of crowd large group.

All this brings us back to a very ancient stage of our language in which “tres”,"three", was synonymous of  "crowd,  plurality" and thus brings us closer to those we call primitive peoples who do not have their own name beyond the number three .

We have created a more complex and perfect numeral system, which remains extremely limited in the background, as we glimpse when compared with modern computing machines.


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