Sunday, July 11, 2010

A weekend rant

As a general rule, I do like to try and keep things as up-beat as possible when talking to people about linguistics. It is a topic a lot of people don't come into contact with during their education (which I think is a shame!) - although most people do have personal feelings about thinking pertaining to language. It's fun, it's fascinating, I rarely feel inclined to write a post that makes me sound like a troll.

The latest xkcd comic though has inspired me to don my grumpy linguist hat. I own a lot of hats, and I have to say this is my least favourite. The comic stars 'the count' from Sesame street using a counting system that only has the values of 'one', 'two' and 'many'.

Now, this isn't as strange as it may seem to speakers of Indo-European languages (that would be you). Lots of languages don't feel the need to be as numerically precise as others. So some only have these values. Others also have the value of 'more than two but less than about eight', which is known as a paucal. This is quite common for languages spoken in Australia, and occurs in South American languages among others.

Which leaves me with two basic problems I have with this comic. The first is the use of the term 'primitive cultures.' Cultures that used these systems aren't 'primitive', they are as complex and sophisticated as any that uses a more specific counting system. Many Australian languages with simple counting systems also have very sophisticated kin-term system. I'm sure most English speakers would take offense if speakers of these languages consider us a 'primitive culture' because we don't have a single word for 'the two of us, where I am your maternal grandmother and you are my granddaughter.'

Secondly, the comic doesn't just insult the speakers of these languages, he insults the people who research them. Obviously, I'm one to take this insult rather personally. The mouse-over text from the comic reads thus:

Cue letters from anthropology majors complaining that this view of numerolinguistic development perpetuates a widespread myth. They get to write letters like that because when you're not getting a real science degree you have a lot of free time.

Actually, it's not a myth, it's fact - and I don't have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is the assumption that only Anthropologists are interesting in this phenomenon, and not linguists, or psychologists, teachers and even mathematicians. I'm not even going to bother walking into the trap of pointing out that linguistics is a real science and that I'm very busy; it is, and I am.

This is all rather disappointing Randal at xkcd is normally rather on topic with matter linguistic. I might just print it out and keep the image, which I find to be rather cute.


  1. Your linguistic analysis is spot on, but I doubt there's anything in what you say that Randall wasn't already aware of, at least in principle. You just have a different (and, indeed, lesser, sense of humour.

  2. You leave out a crucial word when you quote his caption "zing!" which really makes me think he's being sarcastic. And you're right, he usually is on topic with linguistic matter which makes me think he has a lot of respect for people doing linguistic research and is aware of the nuances of "primitive." I think it's just part of the joke.

  3. I gave him the benefit of the doubt too.