Repost from the old site.
Via Marilyn Vos Savant in Parade Magazine, we are told that Tiki-Tiki, otherwise known as Sranan Togo, a creole with 100,000 native speakers and many more second languages speakers on Suriname, has the smallest vocabulary of any known language – with only 250 words. This claim is credulously repeated elsewhere on the Net.
It is true that Internet dictionaries of Tiki-Tiki do show few words, possibly as few as several hundred. The SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) page says that Sranan Togo has maybe 3,000-4,000 words, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of words for major world languages (Vos Savant notes that English has the largest vocabulary at 250,000).
Many of those English words are neologisms, that is, new words that are being created on the fly, especially on places like the Internet. I actually think that English has more than 250,000 words, but I can’t prove it. As slang and whatnot proliferates in a widely spoken language, it gets pretty darn hard to count up all the words, much less write them all down.
There are other ways to create words, so it is not really so true to say that certain languages have low vocabularies. For instance, many languages spoken by small tribes have an almost endless productive variety of features for word production. In some (or perhaps many) such languages, roots can be manipulated almost endlessly to create new words to describe just about anything.
Nouns can turn into adjectives, adverbs and verbs and verbs can turn into nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Adding morphological particles onto existing roots creates a process whereby one root could possibly create up to 1000 or so new words if one is creative enough.
This potential is lost in much of the nonsense about “primitive” versus “advanced” languages, a distinction that hardly exists anyway. The truth is that the most insanely maddening languages on Earth, languages so crazy that brilliant linguists are still trying to figure them out, are spoken in general by the world’s most primitive and backwards peoples.
As a language gets bigger and used more by a civilization, it gets stupidified more and more as it loses its complexity. The reason is that people need to be on time and earn a paycheck. They need to say things quickly, make the sale or hang up the cellphone, and get to work on time.
In a more primitive situation, people are hunter-gatherers or they are laid-back agriculturalists who just take it easy and tend their fields all day. Despite blatherings of IQ theorists, even primitive humans are highly intelligent beings. We can prove this by looking at the insanely brilliant languages they have constructed all by their own selves.
We think that people get bored in these primitive settings, as their high intellect is not stimulated enough. One of the things these tribes do to stimulate their high intelligence is to play games with languages. This is why you such wildly complicated languages in such places. Much of this complexity is superfluous (noun markers, case endings, etc.) and can easily be jettisoned if one wishes to become a multitasking metrosexual.
Anyway, I did some quick research on Sranan Togo and found this paper. Creoles are intensively studied by linguists for a variety of reasons. As part of this paper, the authors used a German-language dictionary of Early Sranan Togo, Neger-Englisches Wörterbuch , completed in 1783 by Christian Ludwig Schumann. This dictionary contains 2,391 types and 17,731 tokens.
Types and tokens are often used in creole literature because it gets hard to figure out what exactly is a word in a creole language. Types and tokens is a semantic distinction derived from philosophy. Briefly, a type is a generic and a token is a specific instance of that generic. For instance, tree would be a type and maple tree would be a token. Waterfall would be a type and Vernal Falls would be a token. Man would be a type and Jesus would be a token.
So in 1783, an early version of this creole already had 20,122 words. It must only have increased its vocabulary since then. I’m calling bullshit on this 250 words line.
A creole is different from a pidgin. A pidgin is often created by immigrants to a new country where none of them understand each other.
Early immigrants to Hawaii created some pidgins. Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians, Koreans, etc. were all thrown together on sugar and pineapple plantations and no one could understand each other. English was the main language. The immigrants took English, I believe, and then layered onto it parts of their native languages and finally created a pidgin that they could all understand.
A pidgin is a mess, since it is a language made by adults, and due to brain constraints, adults cannot create a functional language out of thin air on the fly. The pidgin is then spoken to the adults’ kids, who pick it up as a first language. But kids are little language-creating genius machines, and they somehow take this messed-up pidgin and transform into a full-fledged language, a creole, by expanding it in a variety of important ways.
The creole is then transmitted to kids again, and soon the pidgin dies and everyone is speaking creole. It took some time for us to figure out what was really going on here, but we are pretty confident that kids are indeed expanding the pidgin and turning it into a creole. A guy named Derek Bickerton at the University of Hawaii has done some great work in this area.
I actually bought and tried to read Bickerton’s Language and Species, but I only got 40% of the way through it. Some of this stuff gets pretty intense. I don’t want to say ponderous, but pretty soon you have the book down on the desk and both of your hands are wrapped over your head Praying Mantis-like, bent down over the book, as you try to suck the concepts into your humiliated mind.
In Suriname, actually formerly Dutch Guyana, Sranan Togo is the mother tongue of some 100,000 descendants of former slaves brought to the country. It has also become a lingua franca for other ethnicities in the place, including speakers of Hindustani, Amerindian, Javanese, Dutch, and Chinese tongues.
Like all of the Guyanas, there is quite a fine mess of ethnicities in Suriname, and I think they have been breeding together for a while such that race is becoming a bit of an afterthought.
As another aside, although Vos Savant, in addition to being a hottie, is quite brilliant and is even smarter than I am, it is not true that she has the highest IQ on Earth, or that her IQ is 220 or whatever. She got that score at age 10 or so. There are others who have gotten sky high scores at that age.
At a young age, IQ is computed by looking at how the young person’s mind compares to older peoples minds. In adults, we do not compute it that way, and adult scores are never as high as the same kids’ score. In Vos Savant and other extremely high-IQ kids, their IQ’s have seen considerable regression in adulthood, but they are still sky-high.
Glad to see she’s getting a paycheck just by being smart. Wish I could.
- Braun, Maria and Plag, Ingo. (2002). How Transparent is Creole Morphology? A Study of Early Sranan Word-Formation. University of Siegen, Germany. Yearbook of Morphology 2002. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Schumann, Christian Ludwig. (1783). Neger-Englisches Wörterbuch. Editio Tertia. Paramaribo.