Can you solve it? Numbers in New Guinea

Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, which aims to raise awareness of issues concerning indigenous communities. Such as, for example, the survival of their languages. According to the Endangered Languages Project, more than 40 per cent of the world’s 7,000 languages are at risk of extinction.

Among the fantastic diversity of the world’s languages is a diversity in counting systems. The following puzzle concerns the number words of Ngkolmpu, a language spoken by about 100 people in New Guinea. (They live in the border area between the Indonesian province of Papua and the country of Papua New Guinea.)


Here is a list of the first ten cube numbers (i.e. 13, 23, 33, …, 103):

1, 8, 27, 64, 125, 216, 343, 512, 729, 1000.

Below are the same ten numbers when expressed in Ngkolmpu, but listed in random order. Can you match the correct number to the correct expressions?

eser tarumpao yuow ptae eser traowo eser

eser traowo yuow


naempr ptae eser traowo eser

naempr tarumpao yuow ptae yuow traowo naempr

naempr traowo yempoka


yempoka tarumpao yempoka ptae naempr traowo yempoka

yuow ptae yempoka traowo tampui

yuow tarumpao yempoka ptae naempr traowo yuow

Here’s a hint: this is an arithmetical puzzle as well as a linguistic one. Ngkolmpu does not have a base ten system like English does. In other words, it doesn’t count in tens, hundreds and thousands. Beyond its different base, however, it behaves very regularly.

This puzzle originally appeared in the 2021 UK Linguistics Olympiad, a national competition for schoolchildren that aims to encourage an interest in languages. It was written by Simi Hellsten, a two-time gold medallist at the International Olympiad of Linguistics, who is currently reading maths at Oxford University.

I’ll be back at 5pm UK with the solution.

PLEASE NO SPOILERS. Instead please discuss how different languages count.

The UK Linguistics Olympiad has different levels and is open to children of any age. If your local school does not already take part, you can join up through the UKLO website.

I set a puzzle here every two weeks on a Monday. I’m always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.

I’m the author of several books of puzzles, most recently the Language Lover’s Puzzle Book. I also give school talks about maths and puzzles (restrictions allowing). If your school is interested please get in touch.





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