Primitive People Have Primitive Languages and Other Nonsense

Note: Repost from the old blog.

When you work in a field, you find that the vast majority of folks outside the field have totally false and yet often culturally popular views about the major questions we deal with in the field. I have a Masters in Linguistics and in Linguistics, we have a few of those.

One is that linguists all speak more than one, or often many, languages. Not necessarily. I only speak English well. We just study languages; we don’t necessarily speak more than one of them, although most PhD linguists do speak more than one, and often several or more languages.

Another is that primitive people speak primitive languages. It’s true that they often have only a few words for numbers, and may only count up to two or so, but that’s because in their societies, they didn’t need to know any numbers more than two. They have other deficits, like only a few colors, but maybe they don’t need to know many colors.

Here is an interesting article (Amren link only because this Yahoo link will soon go dead) about Aboriginal kids in Australia. The article is getting a lot of ridicule on some sites, but it’s actually straight up.

The question deals with a linguistic and cognitive science question: Do kids need to have words for numbers in order to have concepts for numbers? Turns out they do not. The aboriginal kids were able to count up to nine even though they did not have words for the numbers 3-9.

That’s actually fascinating from the point of view of those disciplines, but you would have to understand the import of the theory. How can someone have a concept for something if they have no word for it? It seems impossible? Yet they can. How does that work? Who knows?

This kind of work is important for Linguistics but mostly for Cognitive Science, but the two disciplines are seeing a lot of interaction these days. I’m also very happy to hear that the aboriginal languages Warlpiri (one of the most maddeningly complex and crazy languages on Earth) and Anindilyakwa (never heard of it) are doing great. If only some of our US Amerindian languages were doing so well.

If they’re going to function in Australian society though, do they not need to know some English. And I would think that these aboriginal languages need to borrow some terms for other numbers since they need them now in modern society.

There is a false claim out there by guys like Richard Lynn that primitive people have primitive languages. That’s completely insane. The most wild, crazy, complex and undecipherable languages out there, that we almost still can’t figure out, are the more primitive types spoken by more primitive, isolated and less civilized or at least modernized groups.

Once a group gets civilized or modernized, the structure of the language undergoes simplification, often massive simplification. The more civilized or modernized the language, the simpler and more dumbed-down the structure of the language is.

The reason is that in a modern society, everything is rush rush rush, and people want to get concepts and whatnot across in the simplest and quickest manner. Why? Because they are busy making money, because time is money, and because when they are not making money, they are busy multitasking doing this or that.

In the more primitive of less modernized societies, humans are still actually quite intelligent, though they may not seem that way to us. We can tell how smart they are by looking at their languages. There is no way that a bunch of morons could have created such infuriatingly complex tongues. Forget it.

These people are bored. They don’t have much to do all day, so they use their language to be creative and exercise their minds, sort of playing games with language, figuring out the most complicated, difficult and arcane way of saying this or that, etc. That’s what we think anyway.


Filed under Reposts From The Old Site

22 responses to “Primitive People Have Primitive Languages and Other Nonsense

  1. Ger

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this interesting article which includes details about Kuuk Thaayorre, an aboriginal language with its own GPS system, and its effect on thought:

  2. We need an explanation for why languages tend to massively simplify as people get more and more civilized.

    Primitive folks do not have so much to talk about so much as they can play games with language and the various complex forms in their languages. We think this is what they are doing. We need an explanation for why primitive languages are so needlessly complex.

  3. accidentaldissent

    We need an explanation for why primitive languages are so needlessly complex.

    The first question is are they really complex or are they just a mess?

    We need an explanation for why languages tend to massively simplify as people get more and more civilized.

    Civilization expresses far more complex concepts than primitive languages have done. Maybe “simplification” (really, some sort of codification) is necessary for this to occur.

    • Yes, they are very, very, very complex. And there is an incredible system running through the whole thing somehow. All language is rule-based.

      It is not really true that civilization expresses far more complex concepts than primitive languages. What happens in civilization is that people are in a rush all the time and they need to get stuff done. So the more complicated aspects of language tend to undergo mass simplification in order to make the language a more efficient means of communication for people who are in a hurry all the time.

      Primitive people are not in a hurry all the time, so you can afford to have an extremely complicated language in terms of syntax and morphology and maybe even phonology. That’s what I am talking about when I say complicated.

    • I thought we dealt with this primitive languages shit once and for all. No languages are a mess. All languages are rule-based as a general rule. I mean, come on, I have a Master’s in Linguistics and you are lecturing me about this stuff?

      Once again, it’s not really true that civilized peoples have more words for more complex concepts, trust me on this one. Unless you are talking about words for computer languages and automatic transmissions and cosmological theory. Ok, those are modern innovations that primitive cultures lack words for.

      But if you are talking about the basics of any human society, no, primitive peoples have concepts just as complex as civilized ones. In fact, their conceptualization of the world is so hard to figure out that it often takes a long time to put it all together. We are talking about basic wisdom here.

      It’s certainly NOT the case that a more civilized society has more complex ideas than a primitive one. Trust me on this. I’ve been studying it for years now. Not about the basics of existence anyway.

      The Middle Ages was a more civilized time than the Dark Ages. No one really knows why languages simplify with more civilization but a good guess is that a lot of linguistic complexity is just superfluous and in a more civilized society we want to get our point across quicker and easier.

      There are cultures in the Caucasus up in the mountains that still live pretty basic lives, isolated away. These are some of the most maddeningly complex languages on Earth. I assure that if they move into huge cities, if their languages survive, they will simplify a lot.

      Well, I tell you what. You try to read a grammar of an Aboriginal, Papuan or American Indian language and you try to tell me what’s going on in that language. Better yet, analyze the language yourself and write a grammar. There are no languages that are “a mess.”

      You just can’t get your head around this. All humans are very, very intelligent. We can see this for one by looking at their languages, which they themselves created out of thin air. Now it’s true that some primitives are not really smart enough for our modern world, but they never evolved for that. Anyway, that doesn’t mean they are stupid. I’ve worked as an anthropologist before and you have not.

      Yes, I went into it with the idea of “these dumb Indians sure are stupid” and I was so wrong. In their own way, those people were really, really smart, especially the older people.

      People who go work with Papuans, Khoisan and African Bantus come away saying that they felt these people were intelligent. True, they don’t have the brains to deal with modern society that they never selected for, but modern society is extremely cognitively demanding.

      You think these people are idiots based on some IQ test or something. Until you sit down and read a grammar or an ethnology or better yet go work with them, you will never understand that it’s not true.

      You’re ignorant, plain and simple. And no, our fields are not PC nonsense.

  4. Ger

    Civilization occurs when a species is able to Self-Domesticate.
    Domesticated cattle, chickens etc have much smaller brains than their wild cousins. That’s also why civilized language is much less complex. The idea that ‘primitive people are not in a hurry all the time’ is ridiculous. Are you in a hurry, sitting on your trust-fund?
    Literate societies often delude themselves that greater IQ etc leads to a general increase in brainpower. In fact, only a small part of the brain is being stimulated, whilst the larger part is often atrophying.

    • It’s been documented that hunter-gatherers spend most of their time messing around, playing games and sitting on their asses.

      We need an explanation for why primitive languages seem to be so damned complicated, whereas, as people get more and more civilized, the language structure gets more and more simplified. As we get more civilized, we just want to get our point across as quickly as possible and it’s true, we are often in a hurry. Most of us work full-time and we are busy much of the rest of the time. Saying what we want to say in the quickest possible way is advantageous, and if we want to feel creative, there are lots of other ways to do that.

      Whereas we think that less civilized people, being highly intelligent, are probably bored, and we think that they just sit around playing games with their language structure all day long, like little intellectual games with the morphology, syntax and maybe even phonology.

      Even widely spoken languages like languages used to be a lot more complicated but have lost more and more complexity as we got more and more civilized.

      It’s not true that more civilized people have smaller brains. Not the case at all.

      It’s also apparently not true that we only use 10% of our brains or whatever. I used to know a guy who was a neuropsychologist and he said that was a common myth.

  5. Ger

    “It’s not true that more civilized people have smaller brains. Not the case at all.”
    Didn’t Cro-Mags and Neanderthals have larger brains than modern Euros?

    Somewhere else on your blog you claim that Ugandans have the biggest brains. No offense to Ugandan readers, but Uganda is not the first country that comes to mind when thinking of civilization. You also say that 3000 year-old Khoisan Strandwalkers had the largest brains ever recorded in modern people. Can you tell me about Khosian civilization? No you can’t.

    Ancient people were clearly ‘brainier’ and ‘civilization’ simply serves to snuff out brainpower because of the demands of life are no longer so hard. Look at ‘modern’ society – people sitting in front on a TV wolfing down fast food – how does that produce evolutionary upward pressure? No – it produces idiots. Without a life full of life & death incidents, a population is produced which is very little different to a passive cow slowly chewing the grass.

    • The largest brains are found in Eskimos, not Ugandans.

      True, the Strandwalkers had very large brains.

      Increased civilization lately seems to be producing higher IQ’s at the least. The highest IQ’s are now found in the civilized world, and the more primitive places tend to have lower IQ’s. When 3rd World people move to the 1st World, they experience an IQ rise of 5-15 points. Lately, in the civilized world, heads have also been getting larger, in part due to increased nutrition.

      Among both Blacks and Whites in the US in the past 100 years, head size has also been increasing due to genetics, as both races are practicing eugenics and selecting for people with a more progressive phenotype which also has a larger brain and higher IQ.

      Modern civilization is so cognitively demanding for many relatively low IQ primitive peoples such as Africans, Melanesians, Aborigines, Polynesians, Micronesians, American Indians, etc. that they become chronic welfare cases, commit tremendous amounts of crime, join gangs, use lots of alcohol and drugs, drop out of school, and frankly just can’t cut the cognitive demands of modern society apparently.

      A lot of them are probably better off living more traditional lives.

  6. Ger

    “Increased civilization lately seems to be producing higher IQ’s at the least. ”
    No, the Flynn effect is reversing in place that socio-econimic indicators would say are highly developed (or civilized) … Denmark, Norway.. even the UK. The fact is that high IQs are masking the problem of an increasingly bovine world population.

    • Only after decades of massive increases are IQ’s finally beginning to go down a bit. Anyway, immigrants to the UK and Netherlands continue to show increases of 5-15 points in IQ in the second generation when they move to the UK.

      These brilliant primitives you are talking about can’t cut it in cognitively demanding modern society, while natives, even granting lowering Flynn Effects, continue to thrive.

  7. Ger

    How is sitting in front of a TV eating fast food cognitively demanding?

  8. Ger

    front on = front of

  9. Pingback: Is The Idiot Box Making Us Smarter? « Robert Lindsay

  10. Rachael

    i think the reason language becomes simpler is because it helps focus more on the concept, and less on the grammar of it. maybe its clearing out excess information so its easier to gain new information. like you said, some things are superfalous. but i think so many different things regarding culture, your geography, your specific customs, etc, play such a big role in your life and are so varied across the world itd be hard to indentify a single thing as being the determining factor in language and intelligence. but i think if people with a more complicated language were indeed more intelligent it would manifest into something recognizable (like architecture, new technologies, etc) and maybe their language helps them put focus on only certain aspects of life. so they are highy trained and skilled in one area, but lack in another. maybe some “primitive” languages arent useful for mathematics and science so thats why they dont have advance technologies, although they could be incredibly wise people with outstanding morals.
    this is all just theoretical of course but i figured it couldnt hurt putting my opinion in there.
    im currently studying spanish. my thinking patterns have not changed in the least bit, but i do see how being raised in a spanish-speaking culture could affect how you see and interpret things. again, maybe languages are uniquely useful.

  11. John

    Primitive societies have far more complex ideas? What is the Aboriginal take on String Theory?

  12. Tom Bradford

    How can you conceive of nine when you have no word for anything more than three? It’s three threes, of course. Twenty-seven is three three-threes. Twenty is two three-threes plus two.

  13. Amateur

    As to how a person can have a concept, but no word for it: he has a picture. Many of the best mathematicians and physical scientists do a lot of thinking in pictures — the equations come after the picture — and sometimes intelligible verbal descriptions come a generation later, as for quantum theory. At the other extreme, anyone who has a close relationship with a dog or a cat knows that they think in some way — It is not all instinct — and that their thought can only be in pictures.

  14. To me the simplification of languages of more ‘civilized’ people is mostly a product of language contact, rather than of civilization itself. If the need arises to communicate with foreign people all of the time, for example in trade, then the language must become more simple in order to be able to be understood by more people. Also population size matters a lot. It has been foudn that the greater the number of speakers, the greater the rate of language change. For example polynesian languages, although having been isolated centuries or even millennia ago, still have minor differences from one another. In the case of many speakers, not all will be able to learn all the rules of a language, so they will tend to use the most common ones. And if the language is split in many dialects, then speakers of each dialect must find a compromise in order to communicate, which might come out as simple. If we add sociolects, specific registers for some ocasions, sacred registers, slang etc, something that will arise in a big and stratified civilization, then the linguistic barriers people will need to overcome become greater. So it is just normal after some centuries this system to simplify. We don’t need to look farther than Europe. Most languages of the western half being spoken in countries with strong trade links to one another, and with much of the world later in history, are quite analytic, but the languages of the more isolated eastern part are still like the older Indo-European languages. Basques, living in a small isolated pocket in the Iberian Peninsula, have kept a very complex language. Icelanders also due to isolation have kept a quite conservative germanic language, whereas most modern germanic languages are ridiculously simplified. No one can argue in his sane mind that Icelanders are primitives. On the other hand, Romanian, being spoken in the more isolated Balkans, has retained more of the complex morphology of latin compared to west romance languages. And of course advance of civilization won’t automatically simplify the language, as turkish and russian, both quite complicated languages compared to the average european tongue, don’t seem to give up their complexity nowadays.
    On the other hand, indigenous people were living in a much more isolated setting compared to the modern world, the number of speakers was comparatively low and there was no need to change. Also, neighbouring tribes were often hostile to one another, so each tribal group sought to make itself look special. That is the reason why places with much inter-tribal warfare like New guinea have so many languages which are so different from one another. When these languages need to communicate, we get ridiculously simple contact languages like hiri motu.
    So language simplification is more a result of language contact rather than civilization itself.

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