The comic strip and especially the mouseover text are making me doubt the wisdom of continuing to read xkcd. I'm sure there's a joke there somewhere, but I find that any joke of the form "I'm right because… you suck!" kind of pisses me off.
See, I wish the xkcd had actually picked some language to which this applies and based it on that, instead of calling a bunch of cultures "primitive" and then generalizing about what sort of counting systems those peoples' languages have. And not bashed anthropologists who might have pointed out a slight deficiency in cultural sensitivity and research.
The comic strip and especially the mouseover text are making me doubt the wisdom of continuing to read xkcd.
The comments thread is fascinating. It is rare that you see people so thin-skinned prepared to show it in public.
xkcd takes the mickey out of nerds and computer geeks on a regular basis, implying they have no real lives. Yet onecheap shot at anthropology and all the humanities supporters have their knickers in a twist!
Apparently rather too people are only prepared to read "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language" provided the sarcasm is never directed at them.
It's a joke people. Not a theoretical discourse on the meaning of "primitive".
xkcd takes the mickey out of nerds and computer geeks on a regular basis, implying they have no real lives. Yet onecheap shot at anthropology and all the humanities supporters have their knickers in a twist!
To begin with, anthropology is a social science ;)
More seriously, I am not "all the humanities supporters," I'm just one person. And not even an anthropologist. So no reason to generalize from me to entire groups of other people.
I'm fine with jokes at my own expense. I read SMBC without problems. But I consider jokes at the expense of "primitive people" to be in poor taste, especially those where the punchline is "my joke is funny because… you suck!" It just doesn't seem very classy.
I don't take the joke to be at the expense of primitive people (or "primitive people"), at least once I stop to consider the comic absurdity inherent in the set-up (culture X doesn't have a language with names for the integers >2, but does have television).
Clearly, the problem is not that they've mocked someone (gasp!), nor that they used the un-PC term "primitive", but rather that they lazily didn't give a crap about the facts when it came to linguistic anthropology. Imagine if they did the same with respect to versions of Linux, for example, or the plot of Lord of the Rings. See z's comment.
People are getting mad about this comic all over the internet, but it's really kind of a silly reaction. In the mouseover text he admits that "this view of numerolinguistic development perpetuates a widespread myth." Then he makes a tongue-in-cheek joke about linguistic anthropologists. For some reason, people have taken this as an all-out-war on anthropology, missing the fact that it is a funny joke that is in a comic strip.
He's made similar jokes before (c.f. http://xkcd.com/114/ ), but no one complained before. But now that his webcomic is really popular, or at least really well-known, people all over are trying to stir up controversy where none exists.
OK, so I realize it's an error to say that the Piraha have a one-two-many counting system. But I was still under the impression that such counting systems did exist. In fact I remember hearing a talk about Warlpiri, where in response to a question of mine the speaker compared not having a word for "one more than two" to not having a word for, say, "paternal grandmother". (Or maybe they were "one-two-three-many", but the idea is the same.)
But I may be remembering wrong. Are there really no such counting systems, or how else is the author disregarding the facts? Is it that such people aren't really primitive?
[(myl) Just to clarify the issue, Dan Everett's analysis of the Pirahã terms in question (discussed here, for example) is that they are "qualifiers" rather than "quantifiers", and mean something like "small size", "large size", "collection" rather than "one", "two", "many". By now there's quite a bit of independent evidence for similar systems among the Pirahã and also among other groups in Brazil and elsewhere. Some other links are here.]
"Cultures that used these systems aren't 'primitive', they are as complex and sophisticated as any that uses a more specific counting system. Many Australian languages with simple counting systems also have very sophisticated kin-term system. I'm sure most English speakers would take offense if speakers of these languages consider us a 'primitive culture' because we don't have a single word for 'the two of us, where I am your maternal grandmother and you are my granddaughter.' "
However, much hinges on which sense of "primitive" we are using. It can mean simple or crude, of course, but in its old-fashioned anthropological sense it basically means "generally similar to early ancestors". So showing that every culture is "complex and sophisticated" in its own ways may be beside the point. The relevant questions are whether our common cultural ancestors had complex or simple kinship systems, complex or simple numerical systems, etc.
Plus, there are tons of respects in which the industrialized world is clearly less primitive by that definition. Nobody thinks that raising meat in huge factory farms, then transporting it to faraway locations where it is consumed by strangers, all along the way people transacting with numbers registered somewhere electronically, is as similar a "hunting" culture as modern hunter-gatherer cultures bear to our shared ancestors.
I'm sure most English speakers would take offense if speakers of these languages consider us a 'primitive culture' because we don't have a single word for 'the two of us, where I am your maternal grandmother and you are my granddaughter
Another example: As all linguists will tell you, Eskimos have more than 50 different words for snow. English has only one word: snow. But nobody would suggest that that makes English speakers "primitive."
"Are there really no such counting systems, or how else is the author disregarding the facts?"
While I am not nearly an expert on this, my understanding is that there are, but they're not necessarily the norm among cultures we might find "primitive" (though I don't like that terminology much – you may mean "similar to our ancestors," but there's no way I can make that word not have a strong negative connotation, at least in my head/grammar). And the comic didn't just say that some one culture, or those that have this sort of number system, would make a TV show like this, it generalized (without actually saying "all primitive cultures," but it was very close to being implied). And sort of made fun of these supposed cultures for their hypothetical failure in the scenario that they tried to emulate us (which would be just as silly as for us to emulate them). As I said, given that there do seem to be languages that work this way, it would've shown a little bit more respect and basis in fact and non-overgeneralization to do a bit of research and find a particular one.
And just maybe, he could mention that it wouldn't *actually* make sense for the people who speak this language to do this, *obviously*, and there's stuff in their languages that we can't do, too. And then if he wanted to make fun of anthropologists he could say, see, you don't need to spend your whole "career" studying this stuff, we real scientists can be culturally sensitive and accurate AND do real research! The way the comic is now, though, it actually seems to indicate that those anthropologists are indeed pretty important since at least this "real scientist" seems to think that people like him are above things like cultural sensitivity.
That said, I'm not sure one comic, one joke, is worth so much complaining; certainly I'm not actually hurt by it (I'm neither a member of a culture one would be likely to call "primitive" (well, maybe if you still hate Russia :P) nor an anthropologist), but I don't think it was in the best taste or all that funny, and I think it could have been made rather better.
And of course I'll keep reading xkcd. It's usually awesome.
"In the mouseover text he admits that "this view of numerolinguistic development perpetuates a widespread myth." Then he makes a tongue-in-cheek joke about linguistic anthropologists. For some reason, people have taken this as an all-out-war on anthropology, missing the fact that it is a funny joke that is in a comic strip."
The sarcasm or jokiness didn't come out so well, which is at least indication of not that great a joke (I don't quite agree of it being funny, either). Certainly if one sees it as joking it's better, but that interpretation is not at all obligatory here and not that salient for me.
"xkcd takes the mickey out of nerds and computer geeks on a regular basis, implying they have no real lives. Yet onecheap shot at anthropology and all the humanities supporters have their knickers in a twist!"
1) Making fun of one's own group is different from making fun of somebody else's
2) Making fun of nerdy stereotypes and the way nerds might fail at non-work-related stuff is different from making fun of, and trivializing, the very work some people do
Again, I'm not upset or hurt, I just don't think that was the best thing for him to do.
"Certainly if one sees it as joking it's better, but that interpretation is not at all obligatory here and not that salient for me."
I can't understand this. It is a comic strip. The one and only function of a comic strip is to tell a joke. If you are considering a comic strip as a comic strip, it is always obligatory to interpret it as a cartoonist's attempt to tell a joke. To do otherwise is entirely disingenuous and seems to be an attempt to look for offense where none exists.
but rather that they lazily didn't give a crap about the facts when it came to linguistic anthropology.
Not true. The mouse-over makes it clear that he knew it might be factually wrong to ascribe a "1- 2 – many" system.
He writes "Cue letters from anthropology majors complaining that this view of numerolinguistic development perpetuates a widespread myth. They get to write letters like that because when you're not getting a real science degree you have a lot of free time. Zing!
The real anger is about the dig at anthropology, not the use of "primitive".
Just as well these people didn't take economics or politics degrees, if they are made that insecure by a mouse-over comment of such trivial nature. Or Maths, come to that.
"If you are considering a comic strip as a comic strip, it is always obligatory to interpret it as a cartoonist's attempt to tell a joke."
Attempt. I think it's also reasonable to expect such attempts to be carried out well and convincingly, though, and not to rely on the medium to be like "remember, guys, this is supposed to be a joke if it doesn't sound like one."
"seems to be an attempt to look for offense where none exists"
Um, that, I can promise, is not the case. If offense was taken, it must've existed, if only through a "misreading" – though, again, I think the burden is on the comic here to actually *sound* like a joke. (Again, though, I'm not so much offended as just wishing he'd done it differently.)
That said, I'm pretty sure our difference boils down to different ways of reading the comic, so it doesn't make that much sense to keep arguing, esp. since it's not a big deal.
I'm a linguistics major, by the way, so don't, at LL of all places, say my reaction is evidence that I couldn't deal with a "real" subject.
I, for one, found the comic funny. That might mean that I'm giving credence to a widespread myth, but it also means that the comic sounded like a joke. Unless my sense of humor is one of those splendid ones that can tell a joke that doesn't look like a joke from a non-joke that doesn't look like a joke. It might even be a joke that looks like a non-joke that doesn't look like a joke, in which case I am especially proud of myself.
There are three channel spots on the dial, presumably Channel One, Channel Two, and Channel Many.
Actually, "real" US TVs (at least from the analog era) don't have a Channel One, as this was removed somewhere around 1948 and transferred to some other radio use by the FCC, so the old-fashioned channel knobs had an odd sort of counting that started at 2. (So did old typewriters which expected you to type a lowercase l for a 1). Many cable boxes, however, do include a channel 1, often for special cable-specific features like on-demand programming. I'm not sure whether the new digital TV standard, which broadcasts at different frequencies entirely, uses a channel 1.
myl: Whether or not I was being serious with my proclamation about Eskimos and snow can be discerned from my comment the other day on another thread.
If I fooled anyone, it won't be the first time I got in trouble on the Internet due to my stubborn refusal to place a /snark tag or some such qualifier in a message. It just seems to ruin the fun for me. The "As all linguists will tell you" line was the only clue I was willing to include.
I laughed at your first post… it was other people doubting your intent that made ME worry you weren't kidding. The world would be a better place if the /snark tag was presumed for internet posts in general and people had to qualify their words when they meant to be serious.
The factoid I use when replying to people who drop the Eskimo fact is: Sure that's interesting but did you know that Linguists now have more than 200 words for people who believe that? Sadly most of those words are considered offensive in at least one language and can't be repeated in polite company."
I think it is completely absurd to say that because someone reacts negatively to something on the Internet, they are not allowed to express their opinion on the Internet. Is the only discourse allowed regarding xkcd one that praises it, always takes it 'the right way', and never feels ill about it? And anyone who spends their time discussing things on the Internet that isn't blind praise for must have no life and too much free time?
That is puerile.
xkcd has problems. The culture that has grown around it is filled with pseudointellectual wankery that worships 'science' like a cargo cult, has no real conception of what 'science' is, and glorifies the 'geek' persona. It consistently denigrates anything not considered 'science' or 'geek', which is ironic because of how much unscientific whatsit accumulates on its forums, and on its irc channels, and on surrounding blog comments.
Full disclosure: I am a mathematics major with an intent to enter research, as well as an interest in philosophy and computer science, and I have immense respect for anyone who finds inquiry worth devoting their life to.
at least once I stop to consider the comic absurdity inherent in the set-up (culture X doesn't have a language with names for the integers >2, but does have television).
Even more absurd is that the show not only has a character designed to teach a skill that hardly exists in that culture (counting), but that the character's schtick is based on the *same* combination of pun and cultural reference to an English-language novel as our own Sesame Street. Now that's what I call convergent cultural evolution!
And aside from the frame of a comic strip (as Ben G points out), the "Zing!" at the end of the mouseover ought to have been a very broad hint that what preceded it was *intended* to be a comically oversimplified cheap shot that cannot be taken as seriously related to reality.
I'm not a linguist or an anthropologist. I thought the panel was mildly amusing till the mouseover, which I thought was snarky and kind of nyaah nyaah nyaah-ish. It reminded me that my daughter (who has a degree in environmental science) refuses to read xkcd on the grounds that quote he is an annoying geek hipster that just thinks he's way cooler than anyone else endquote, and that I never could really see what she meant; but now I do.
Maybe the inherent absurdity of the mouseover text is that while it seems quite empirically plausible that undergraduates majoring in hard science have less free time (i.e. hours of the week not devoted to doing their coursework) than those in other sorts of majors, including but not limited to anthropology, it simultaneously seems empirically implausible that those science majors spend any less time sending off pedantic/humorless corrections to stuff they see on the internet? (Thus it must be some other time-consuming distraction commonly pursued in undergraduate life that gets squeezed out for the science majors: zing!-style nominations welcome.)
And after considering a point made by another commenter, I surmise that my daughters would consider any culture in which you need to change channels by physically walking over to the tv and rotating a knob (e.g., the culture in which their father was born and raised) to be "primitive" indeed.
The mouseover text reminds me a little of the incident where Ronald Reagan told a particular joke then said, "See, I can tell that, being Irish." (The incident is described here.) I always had the feeling that was the real punchline, not the joke itself, but his disclaimer at the end. We live in such a PC, uptight culture that a lot of jokes which broach these taboos end up commenting on the fact that they broached them, and that becomes part of the joke itself.
I'm a little less harsh whenever I hear the Eskimo factoid. I once believed it myself, and a lot of intelligent people have. That's one of the reasons urban legends are so pervasive: they're ideas that most people take for granted, and which few people even think about long enough to question. And some of the time, I don't want to set people straight, because I feel like a party-pooper. So what if some people believe that about Eskimos? What harm does it do? Sure it's a little condescending, but there are far more insulting beliefs about ethnic groups.
I thought the main joke was pretty lame, but the disclaimer was worth it. I felt it was both funny and good-natured.
In response to Wimbrel who wrote above that "anthropology" is a social science, let me point out that while that's true of cultural anthropology, physical anthropology is a natural science, like herpetology or entomology. I wonder why it is that people only think of cultural anthropology when they heard the word? How did that become the unmarked form?
And I'm a little miffed that people seem to take it for granted that you can't be both an anthropologist and a nerd. I was an anthropology major and I certainly am.
I love how people (apparently) unironically keep translating the mousover-text into "this is funny because X and because … you suck" when the panel features a vampire. It adds a whole other (punning) quality to the joke.
It is, as I see it, funny because he provokes anthropology majors, punctures their legitimate complaint in his mouseover text, and then creates a more direct provocation by telling them they are not "real" scientists. It is beautifully done. Not because it is true, but because it isn't.
"the "Zing!" at the end of the mouseover ought to have been a very broad hint that what preceded it was *intended* to be a comically oversimplified cheap shot that cannot be taken as seriously related to reality." <– It wasn't there before. Honest. Had it been, I'd've liked it a lot better, since, as has been pointed out, it makes it much more clearly jokey.
The real shame is that instead of getting their panties in a bunch, people could be using this joke in a popular webcomic to have a real discussion, dare I say a 'teachable moment.'
The first thing I thought of when I saw this comic was an observation I read here on Language Log, to the effect that the speakers of such a language might regard having a special word for 'seven' as colorfully exotic, much as we regard having a special word for 'second cousin once removed on my mother's side.'
I actually find it quite funny that everyone is getting all bent out of shape over the use of the word primative, or that they are going on about how that particular counting system doesn't exist.
The thing is, similar counting systems do exist, and thus this isn't a basically flawed premise. Secondly, no judgment of the counting system is being made. Primitive, as far as I am concerned, first and foremost means old, but could possibly refer to pre-recorded history, societies where they only can pass on oral histories. Finally, the mouseover text says pretty much "Yeah, this is not an accurate commentary on primitive cultures", and then makes a sarcastic joke about the people who would take the time to complain.
In digital television systems the "channel" isn't a fundamental unit. Generally (the remainder of this explanation uses the terminology from DVB not ATSC as used in the US) a bunch of data streams (maybe two dozen) are multiplexed into a fixed rate signal which takes up a similar amount of the radio spectrum to an old-style TV channel. The streams have arbitrary but unique integer identifiers e.g. 5641. The multiplex also includes metadata which can be used to assemble the streams in certain combinations (e.g. English stereo audio for Sesame Street plus video for Sesame Street) and assigns those combinations their own unique identifiers. It can also optionally assign these combinations a name (e.g. PBS Kids) and a smaller integer identifier for convenience.
An ordinary digital television has been programmed to only show these orthodox combinations as "channels", and in some jurisdictions televisions are mandated to use the small integer to give users a familiar interface (i.e. pressing 1 then 5 on the TV remote gives you the same channel as it used to with analogue TV).
So, what was a technical restriction (one video stream plus associated audio = a TV channel) became an element of our culture, and that must now be re-implemented by engineers in new systems where no such restriction exists because it's what people expect.
"I wonder why it is that people only think of cultural anthropology when they heard the word? How did that become the unmarked form?"
That's a good question. I suspect the answer to that is that cultural anthropology is much more frequently popularized (for example, Marvin Harris's extremely popular books). Also, the distinction between physical and cultural anthropology is a subtle distinction for the average (non scientifically literate) person.
Finally, cultural anthropologists became, naturally enough, among the most vocal and passionate defenders of cultural relativism during the last fifty years and this debate strongly seeped into the popular consciousness. Much more interesting is that most people aren't aware that physical anthropologists frequently found themselves on the other side of the debate, causing permanent and acrimonious schisms in many anthropology departments (a few famously were divided into separate buildings).
Oh, also, perhaps many people confuse archaeology with physical anthropology, too. For that matter, all of anthropology.