Understanding through the Numbers: Number Systems, Their Evolution, and Their Perception among Kula People from Alor Island, Southeastern Indonesia


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This paper aims at documenting and reconstructing the linguistic processes generating and substantiating the use of number systems, numbers in general, elementary arithmetic, and the related concepts and notions among the Kula people from Alor Island, Southeastern Indonesia. The Kula is a Papuan population from the Alor–Pantar Archipelago (Timor area). The name of their language, Kula (or Kola), corresponds to the ethnonym. The language is, currently, endangered and not completely documented. At the level of linguistic features, numeral systems and the terms for numerals from Eastern Alor exhibit, to some extent, unique characteristics, if compared to other languages spoken in other sectors of the island. Therefore, the Kula numbering system is not only significant at the lexicological and lexicographic level, but also represents the essential role of cognitive strategies (e.g., the choice of the base for the numbering systems and the visual representation of counting with the aid of actual ‘objects’, like hands and fingers) in the coinage of numerical terms among the local speakers. Indeed, the development of numeral systems reflects the evolution of human language and the ability of humans to construct abstract numerical concepts. The way numerals are encoded and expressed in a language can impact the patterns according to which numerical notions are conceptualized and understood. Different numeral systems can indicate variations in cognitive processes involving notions of quantities and measurements. Therefore, the structure and characteristics of a numeral system may affect how numeral concepts are mentally represented and developed. This paper focuses on the number system of the Kula people and the lexical units used by the local speakers to indicate (and to explain) the numbers, with the related concepts, notions, and symbolism. The investigation delves into the degrees of abstraction of the Kula numeral system and tries to ascertain its origins and reconstruct it. Moreover, the article applies to the analysis a comparative approach, which takes into account several Papuan and Austronesian languages from Alor Island and Eastern Timor, with the dual aim of investigating, at a preliminary level, a possible common evolution and/or divergent naming processes in local numbering systems and their historical–linguistic and etymological origins.
Original languageEnglish
Article number15
Pages (from-to)34
Number of pages49
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jan 2024


  • Language Documentation
  • Field Linguistics
  • Cultural Anthropology
  • Anthropological Linguistics
  • Linguistic Anthropology


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