Thursday, May 15, 2003


The Independent, a British newspaper, has online [pardon me while I dangle my participle] a story about a new study with the troubling news that the planet's languages are being lost at an alarming rate. Faster, indeed, than those subspecies of newts and gekkos we typically get ourselves so worked up about.

Apparently this planet has only 6,000 languages. (Actually, from experience in the Modern Historical Metropolis in which I work and play [don't tell wifey-pooh], I would say that that is about right. And 5,999 are spoken by local cabdrivers. Unfortunately, English is not one of them.) So, six point two billion people , 6,000 languages. Works out to about 104 million people per language. The US has, give or take, 290 million people, so we need about 2.9 languages. Makes sense: Spanish, Chinese, and American English, which is about .9 a real language.

[brother goodson interrupts: Hey, moron. Do the math. 6 billion (6 x 10^9) divided by 6 thousand (6 x 10^3), when dividing you subtract the exponents and get 1 x 10^6, or 1 million. (I took this right from his email, well, the math, not the "hey, moron", that was implied.) And yes, he's right. I did the math on my little calculator and figured out that I miscounted the zeroes. Fine, fine. The question is: who the hell actually does math with exponents? Sure, I may be a math imbecile, but at least I'm not a Freak. Here, here's a buck, go buy another pocket protector. Freak. We return you to the story, already in progress]

[brother goodson retort: Yeah, I'm a freak. With a Z4. And no wife. Suckaaaaaah]

Unfortunately, it doesn't work out like that, and 200 to 250 languages are the big bullies, all above one million speakers each, and 357 languages have under 50 speakers. Forty-six are known to have just one native speaker. One of these, no doubt, is wifeypoohish.

(I crack up just looking at that word. Wifeypoohish. Wifeypoohish. I'm dyin'!).

While wifeypoohish is related to English, it, much like the bushman language from "The Gods Must Be Crazy", contains several seemingly nonsensical sounds which actually carry significant linguistic importance.

Drawing another analogy from more commonly studied languages, like the Eskimo dialects which contain thirty-three words for snow, wifeypooish uses at least four hundred homonymic grunts and groans which, depending upon context, phrasing, tone, time of day, phase of the moon or butterfly migration patterns in China, can infer happiness, unhappiness, hunger, or deep homicidal intent.

And in closing: that Eskimo thing is bunkum. English has a ton of words for snow too, and, as a language that uses adjectives as appurtenant to nouns, and doesn't rely only on creating new words out of combining roots, we gots snow words up the ying-yang. Being frugal in most things, I only need one word for snow: shit.

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