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 don’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, and 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 people like Richard Lynn that primitive people have primitive languages. That’s completely wrong. The most wild, crazy, complex and undecipherable languages out there that we almost still can’t figure out, are the more primitive types of languages 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? 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 or 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 wildly complex language to be creative and exercise their minds, playing games with language, figuring out the most complicated, difficult and arcane way of saying this or that, etc. That’s what one theory anyway.