They are more conserved through time and across cultures than words for other presumably bedrock concepts like mother, father and most body parts, with a few puzzling exceptions like the words for tongue and eye.
“The sounds that you and I use to say ‘two’ or ‘three’ are the sounds that have been used for tens of thousands of years,” said Mark Pagel, a biologist who studies the evolution of language at the University of Reading.
“It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”
That continuity, Dr. Pagel added, “should astonish us.”
--Natalie Angier, NYT, on words that count