From the Archives!—SpecGram Propaganda X—The SpecGram Archive Elves™ SpecGram Vol CLXXIX, No 1 Contents New Children’s Programming from SpecGram TV

Research That Counts

Gnoo Merrill & Kwan T. Ti
X. Quizzit Korps Center for Advanced Collaborative Studies

Once linguists turned away from trying to explain (or rather excuse) the vagaries of English orthography, it became clear that the next most significant (p < 0.05) challenge was to understand why so many languages have bizarre counting systems.

French, for example, is known for its distinct lack of cognitive nous when it proceeds from the rather benign cinquante (50) and soixante (60, with an intra o, to increase the Frenchness) to the rather puzzling soixante-dix (70, literally, “sixty-ten”, which should actually be the term for 600). After that, things get worse, with quatre-vingt (“four-twenty”) for eighty and quatre-vingt-dix (“four-twenty-ten”) for ninety.1

Basque offers a less corrupted base-20 counting system, while the Danes inserted fractions into their vigesimal system, and the Welsh incorporated an unhealthy fascination with the number 15 on the way to 20. Nimbia uses base 12, and Kanum base 6. The Swedes almost managed a base-64 system in 1716. Bukiyip weaves deftly between base-3 and base-4 depending on the countees. Many peoples count using unexpected numbers of body partsthe Tzotzil 20, the Oksapmin 27, the Yupno 33.2 The Irish leave a gap in some of their numbers into which they squirrel away nouns. Some languages are additive and multiplicativesuch as Wolof and Alamblak, which rely on a small number of base numerical terms. Yoruba and Old Turkic3 even add a bit of subtraction into the mix.

Yet, on top of these rather simple systems comes a new discovery, exclusive to Speculative Grammarian. In Schweresprache, an isolate that shows signs of interference from German, French, English and numerous hitherto under-explored conlangs, the counting system is much more interesting to linguists. In Schweresprache, there are only four distinct number terms.5

These are supplemented by four operators, in order of increasing esotericity:

What follows is a very brief explanation of this system and the everyday effects it has on its speakers.

To make the number three, one says, AtOthBo. To make the number four, one says, BoFwaBo. To make the number 100, one says Acht-chooCa-rayBoTkweyFi’eenCa-rayBoOthAt. The mathematically inclined reader may wonder6,7 whether Schweresprache speakers use BoOthBo or BoCa-rayBo instead ofor in free variation withBoFwaBo. The answer is that, alas, some do.

Bitter divisions have arisen in Schweresprache-speaking society because of this. At the age of 4, children divide themselves into gangs according to who gives their age as BoOthBo, BoFwaBo or BoCa-RayBo. The enmities made at this age can last a lifetimenay, generationstheir viciousness fed exponentially by n-fold nummertà. Indeed, the major political issue in Schweresprache-speaking society is the tension between these factions, each of which accuses the others of trying to exploit and oppress it, when of course things should be the other way round.

While diplomats try their best to reduce tensions, linguists have been busy trying to understand how such a system came about without making ad hoc appeals to a bit of polydactylism and large amounts of beer. The current leading theory places the genesis of the Schweresprache numerical system in a crucible of creolization involving speakers of two neighboring body-part–counting languagesone with base 18,8 the other with base 159—and an as-yet-unidentified language that counts “one, two, many.”

Despite the Schweresprache’s social troubles, having such a fragmentary counting system has had some generally felicitous effects on users of the language. Almost all speakers, from the age of BoFwaBo, are able to perform complex mathematical operations. This has led to seventeen shopkeepers winning Fields Medals for work on number theory and a seven-year-old calculating the value of π to nine thousand decimal places. The local economy, meanwhile, has moved back to bartering as buying a packet of crisps took around fifteen minutes, and calculating the change required to ride a bus and do a weekly grocery shop took longer than the food took to be consumed.

While linguists have not yet solved all the mysteries of this somewhat unusual community (we are not sure here whether we are talking about Schweresprache speakers or linguists), they have learned that the community lives on a sub-tropical island, free from storms, undergraduate students, and administrative deadlines. It is therefore no wonder that the local hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts are now swarming with every type and size of linguist. In fact, the linguists there have begun to form their own subgroups, leading to rivalries, politics, violence, petty theft, and more ego bruising than an average thesis defence. Anthropologists from the University of W00tFreeBeach have therefore rechristened the island “A University Department”, which just goes to show exactly what progress in the social sciences looks like.

1 Although the Swiss, it must be said, worked out that it was much easier to simply say septante, octante and nonante, respectively, as it made it far easier to count money stored in anonymous bank accounts.

2 Whereas the Venerable Bede’s body-part–counting system made it to a million!

3 Some researchers have taken note of the Old Turkic convention of an anticipatory naming system for decimals in which the ones digit is followed by the name of the succeeding tens digit (with a special term for the 90s that is curiously unrelated to any of the terms current in American society for that decade) and the traces of a similar system in Old English or other archaic Germanic languages as strong evidence of prehistoric Inner Asian-Germanic connections.4

4 Another phenomenon adduced in this connection, the monophthongization in standard Mongolian and standard Texan /ai/ > /æ/, is attributed by other researchers to close language contact between Texas oilmen and Mongolian oilfield workers in Baku around the end of the 19th century.

5 A small, but not unheard-of-ly small numbercompare Wolof, Alamblak, et al.

6 The perversely persistent mathematically inclined reader may even wonder whether instead of Acht-chooCa-rayBoTkweyFi’eenCa-rayBoOthAt a Schweresprache speaker could say AtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-chooOthAtCa-rayFi’eenOthAtCa-rayAcht-choo. The answerunlike the case of BoOthBo and BoCa-rayBois no. Schweresprache numerology, which is very complex, renders these combinations deeply infelicitous and is generally beyond the scope of this paper.

7 The mathematically inclined reader incapable of comprehending social norms or recognizing the most obvious of social cues may even persist in wondering whether Acht-chooCa-rayBoTkweyFi’eenCa-rayBoOthAt could ever refer to the number 95,482. Again, Schweresprache numerology prevents this with a simple notion of operator precedence, which the attentive reader will infer easily once these pesky bouts of wondering stop.

8 Using fingers and toes, but no thumbs.

9 Using fingers and toes, but the left foot is taboo.

From the Archives!SpecGram Propaganda XThe SpecGram Archive Elves™
New Children’s Programming from SpecGram TV
SpecGram Vol CLXXIX, No 1 Contents