April 09, 2007

Wombat words for rock

Global warming should not affect this version of the "cultural preoccupation → many words" meme, brought to us by Ursula Vernon's Digger:

It's the lowest form of hating to refute a comic strip, but I can't resist pointing out that the number of words for types of rock, in English or any other language that has invented or borrowed the vocabulary of modern geology, mineralogy, gemology, soil science, etc., is certainly well over a thousand.

And while I'm over-intellectualizing a joke, I'll take the opportunity to point out that the "cultural preoccupation → many words" meme is generally true, though not everyone agrees that it's interesting; and that the inverse idea "no words → no concepts" is clearly false; and that most people who write about these ideas use them only as rhetorical devices in the service of some other argument, and don't bother to get the linguistic facts anywhere close to correct.

[Hat tip to Amy de Buitleir]

[Update -- under the Subject line "prescriptive nit-picking on top of over-intellectualizing a joke", Paul Kay writes:

Did you notice that the first speech in the comic strip you blog about today is: "The number of words in Wombat for types of rock HAVE never been adequately counted, but IS known to exceed several thousand." I'm not sure I've ever before seen a case where a singular subject (number) containing a plural complement ([of] types of rock) is followed by a conjoined VP, the first conjunct of which sports a plural verb (sure, OK, familiar enough), but the second contains a SINGULAR verb.

No, I missed that. Another casualty of breakfast speed-blogging... ]

[But John Atkinson thinks that the mixed number-agreement in the conjoined verb phrases is OK:

But note that it does make logical sense. It's the _words_ (plural) that have never been counted (you can't count a number!), while it's the _number_ (singular) that exceeds several thousand. No doubt that's why you (and I) didn't notice the apparent discrepency when we first read it.

I'm pretty sure that if I wrote that sentence I'd do the same thing. Though if I stopped to think about it, I'd realise that there was something wrong with it, and eventually decide that the only way to fix it was to reword it -- perhaps by changing "adequately counted" to "precisely determined" (and then using "has").

I don't know . If you simplify the sentence so as to put first verb closer to the subject -- say, "The number of wombat rock words have never been counted" -- I have a problem with the first conjunct all by itself. It seems to be an example of "agreement with nearest". Adding the second conjunct -- "The number of wombat rock words have never been counted, but is greater than 1,000" -- makes it worse, not better. But in this area, it's clear that your milage may vary. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 9, 2007 07:10 AM