Over at Transterrestrial Musings Simberg has a post about human tribes without the words for larger numbers and how it impacts their ability to count, but then follows it with something I want to quibble with. So first he notes:
Here’s an interesting article that says that human tribes without words for numbers larger than very small numbers (e.g., one) have trouble counting:
Gordon gave the Pirahã people in his Science study may have seemed alien to them. In one typical test, the researcher set out a group of one to 10 nuts and asked each participant to place an equal number of batteries–used because of their availability and size–on the table. The participants performed perfectly when matching sets of up to three batteries, but at four batteries the accuracy rate dropped to about 75 percent, and by nine none of the Pirahã got the right answer…
The idea that learning a linguistics has a major impact on the very way we think has been around since I took Intro to Anthropology. Chomsky spends time on it, if I remember right, and it’s one of the reasons I want to learn more languages (I know some Spanish, a wee bit of Latin from a class, and knew a little French and German as a kid), particularly ones outside of latinate derived ones I’ve studied (Chinese would be a good start).
So far so good.
But Simberg’s next is this piece that I feel the need to dissect and challenge him on:
We’ve been told for years by the politically correct that “ebonics” or “black English” is as legitimate a form of the language as standard English, and that black children shouldn’t be penalized for using it (even though such usage could cripple them in the potential range of employment and social opportunities in which they might otherwise engage). That it had its own grammar, but was just as useful a language, with the ability to express just as complex concepts, as the norm. Well, maybe. But consider this thesis, based on the article cited. If the grammar (and vocabulary) of a language can restrict the ability to deal with mathematical concepts, isn’t it possible that an inner-city patois is similarly unable to allow the mind to grasp concepts that are necessary for life in a highly technological society?
1) The piraha are an isolated group. Inner city youth are not. They are watching TV and using technology. Less than their richer suburban counterparts, but if you’ve ever looked at the wiring job on a modded ghetto blaster car, they do shit with technology that I have to hire pros to travel to my university to do (ever see MTV’s Pimp My Ride?)
2) To believe what Mr. Simberg says you’d then also have to believe that all the wiggaz out there (white suburban kids who talk, dress, and sound like urban youth as so excellently parodied in Malibu’s Most Wanted) would be unable to understand the high technology all around them. That is demonstrably not so.
3) What about other non-urban people incapably of proper grammar? It isn’t just eubonics, have you ever spent time in rural America? The same grammar deconstruction is applied among the older, and younger folks that I have observed out here in the boonies of Ohio, and it’s just as much a dialect as eubonics, it’s just that rural folk aren’t black, so there is no conservative distaste of ‘rural speak.’ What about Scottish accents, or any of the harder to understand Irish or English dialects as featured in your average Guy Ritchie film? Should we undertake to eradicate these dialects as well in the name of helping these people understand their world better?
4) I grew up in the Caribbean and spoke dialect that most Americans couldn’t understand when I was among my friends, and proper Queen’s English when with my mother. This is called Code Sliding and is fairly common among many people. I notice people in rural America here doing it all the time, talking in one particular modal manner with the good ole boys and changing to corporate america when back at work talking to the boss.
Eubonics won’t stop you from being able to grasp a high tech society. It can change the way people view you though, which is why I learned to code slide consciously at a very young age in order to 1) not be looked at as snotty by my friends and 2) to gain respect from westerners who thought speaking in dialect was ‘bad english’ and a sign of reduced intelligence.
Remember, I had to learn language all over again when I came to the states. The dialects and modes of english here are different.
Just some stuff to rebutt his initial argument and let people mull over…