March 03, 2005

Hindi and math skills

Let me add a brief remark to Sally Thomason's comments in the previous post, but couched in somewhat stronger terms. The conclusions she is dubious about concern the hypothesis that mathematical ability is retarded for English speakers because the root "ten" is not visible in a word like "fifteen" (indeed, the root "five" isn't very clearly visible there either). But these conclusions seem to me not just questionable but completely fatuous. It is having learned to count to 100 in Hindi that convinces me of this. To a rough approximation, there are no real signs of any transparency at all in the numeral words from 1 to 100 in Hindi. The morphophonemic alterations that have taken place over the millennia (a consequence, I would think, of a long tradition of rote learning of the numerals in purely oral form) are so radical that you could learn to count all the way up to n and still not be able to guess what the word for n + 1 will sound like, for any n < 101 (it gets easier after 100). Yet — and this is the point — anyone who thinks Hindi-speaking people are among the mathematically incapable knows nothing about India, or about California higher education, or the sociology of present-day Silicon Valley.

[Added later: All right, all right, I know I'm being utterly and unscientifically careless here, because India has thousands of languages and dialects, and many Silicon Valley programmers come from the Dravidian area in the south where the languages are less closely related to Hindi than English is. I know, I know. So all I'm saying is that I simply don't believe that a math deficit will some day be identified in Hindi speakers as a group that isn't there in Tamil speakers as a group and the explanation will turn out to be the transparency of the morphology in the numeral system. I'm not going to investigate it because I think the idea is completely loony. It wasn't me that raised this crackpot idea, was it?]

I won't type from 1 to 100 — spare me — but just to give a sense of the horrors that await, of how opaque the Hindi numerals are, I'll give the list from 1 to 20. (Phonetic nerd note: Single a is schwa, double is long [a], e and o are long, au is Cardinal Vowel #6 and ai Cardinal Vowel #3 for many speakers; ch is prepalatal stop, capital T is retroflex and t and d are dental, all aspirated if and only if h follows.)

1one ek        11eleven gyaaraa
2two do        12twelve baaraa
3three tiin        13thirteen teraa
4four chaar        14fourteen chaudaa
5five panch        15fifteen pandraa
6six chhai        16sixteen solaa
7seven saath        17seventeen satraa
8eight aaTh        18eighteen aTharah
9nine nau        19nineteen unniis
10ten das        20twenty biis

The really extraordinary thing is that it doesn't get much easier for the next eighty numeral words.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 3, 2005 02:32 PM