Cognitive Scientist Discovers Tribe Without the Concept of Zero
Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, Professor of the Science of Mind in the Court of Harun al-Rashid, has discovered a Frankish tribe in the far northwest which purportedly does not understand the concept of zero. He presented his findings yesterday in a lecture at the Caliph's Palace. The lecture will be published in The Journal of the Science of Cognitive Everything.
Al-Khwarizmi spent several weeks on an expedition through the Gothic, Avar, Lombard and Frankish lands in the jungles to the northwest. His research demonstrates that there exist along the great rivers tribes of primitives who, not only are they unable to understand Arabic, but seem to have no true language at all. They express themselves in grunts and gestures, butter their hair, and bash each other with large blunt objects.
The "Franks" have no written language, no paper, no hospitals, no toys, no art, no music, and no religion too. And apparently while they have a rudimentary system of counting, they have no understanding of the concept "zero."
In his experiments with seven Frankish subjects over a period of a couple of weeks, al-Khwarizmi tried in several ways to ascertain whether the group understood "zero." In one experiment he banged on a hollow tree trunk three times, then paused, then banged three times again. The subject, after some perplexed hesitation, banged six times, demonstrating the lack of understanding of the 7-0-7 sequence.
In another experiment, the scientist drew numerals on paper with a brush and ink. The subjects were not able to grasp the brush with their fingers, let alone make marks on the paper with it.
After the lecture, the Professor answered questions from a stunned audience.
Q. These barbarian infidels, were they friendly?
A. Yes, they're quite childlike. Although when pissed off they can become quite violent. One of the members of our research team who offended in some way had a crude spear shoved up his bum.
Q. Do they seem to have a social hierarchy?
A. Well, not that I could judge. Of course, the biggest chap, who was over six feet tall and quite muscular, seemed to be able to have his way most of the time. They called him "Chah - ali".
Q. You said they have no real language. But do they have names?
A. They seemed to have some sort of system to identify each other, although it was quite confusing. For one thing, all the women were named "Doris". That is certainly a topic for future research.
Of course I was only with them several weeks, but my observation was that they only communicate with crude grunts. And rudimentary gestures. I've made a few pictures, and you can see that they can apparently count on their hands. However, they don't seem to be able to get past the number one, usually with the middle finger raised. Either that, or they close all the fingers in a sort of fist, and shake it. And their language, if you can call it a language, is definitely not recursive. It's apparently finite.
Q. (gasping) Not recursive?? Good heavens! Do these "people" even wear clothes?
A. Oh yes, in a manner of speaking. The men wear skirts made of animal furs. Most amusing, really.
Q. How did you get your subjects to cooperate in your experiments?
A. I took along a supply of dates and dried figs. I found they were quite anxious to have the treats, so after each experiment I would reward them with a date if they got it right. In the jungle, you know, everybody's happy for a dried fig. Problem was, they could never get it right, so I always had to eat the treats myself. Can't say that that made them any friendlier. But they really did perform quite poorly on the tests. At any rate, I got out of there before they could figure out that I was eating all the figs, and get *really* pissed off. And while they don't have a concept of zero, I wasn't about to be in the area when they figured out that the treats were "all gone."
in Terry Pratchett, MEN AT ARMS, HarperCollins, 1993, p. 127 (footnote)