Which came first, the thought or the word?
Or put another way, can you have a concept of without a word for it?
In one of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett writes a scene in which a troll, despite a limited counting system (one, two, three, many, lots) is able to carry out sophisticated calculations.
The troll works uses compounded numbers, (many-one, many-two, many-many) to uncover mathematical principles.
Now the real world has mirrored Pratchett’s vision. Researchers have found that Aboriginal children can count, despite having no words for numbers – the children only have words for one, two, few and many.
When I was five and about to begin school, I knew eight letters of the alphabet, and could count to ten.
I soon discovered there were other letters all the way to Z, and other numbers.
Numbers, I learned, went up to one hundred. Then one thousand.
The nearest I ever felt to a transcendental moment was the day I kept asking what the next number was. Ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million. Ten million.
Numbers, I suddenly realised, weren’t like letters. Numbers go on forever.
Infinity is exceptionally cool when you’re five years old.