The Linguists

Two American professors, David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, are featured in this documentary. They are searching the world for vanishing languages and trying to preserve them before it’s too late. The point is made that the rate of loss is as high as that for species extinction per capita. The following quote from the people that produced this film is telling:

Roughly 40 percent of the world’s estimated 6,800 languages may disappear within the next century, linguist Stephen Anderson said this month in Seattle at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This film is a fascinating look at the life’s work of two men intent on preserving something as ephemeral and mercurial as a language. And what is a language after all but a way for humans to describe the world and themselves.  So they say that it is a whole world that is being lost here:  not just a set of vocabulary and grammar.
And my favourite finding by the Linguists is the number system for the Sora language in India. In English, we use a base 10 numbering system where the numbers cycle from 1 to 10 and then repeat. But check this out:

In India they find that the Sora language operates with a strange numbering system. The native speaker counts to 13 and says, “twelve-one.” The linguists conclude that it operates on a base-12 system.
But at the number 30, he says “twenty-ten,” which indicates a base-20 system. The linguists look at each other in amazement as they realize that Sora uses both: at 32, it’s “twenty-twelve,” 33, “twenty-twelve-one.”
“Our favorite number is 93,” Anderson said. “It’s four-twenty-twelve-one.”

That’s cool. I thought French was complicated enough with its 90 (four-twenty-ten) and 70 (sixty-ten) constructs but those are really just oddities in what is really a base 10 system too.  Dave and Greg think this is the first double base numbering system in a language they’ve come across.  Just shows you how inventive a species we are!
I recommend it.


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