When writing posts on this blog I’m never sure whether anybody will comment and how many comments there will be. Yesterday’s unresearched, ill-thought-out little post has stirred up plenty of discussion, which, to some extent, was the idea. You could say I was playing devil’s advocate. Other posts that I spend hours crafting from nothing but the finest, most carefully-researched factoids might generate few if any comments.

It’s always interesting to hear your opinions and experiences. Each comment you leave reveals a little more about you, and I find these tidbits interesting.

Once upon a time, the only trace most people left was their name on a gravestone. Now you can leave snippets of information about yourself in many places, especially online. This should make it easier for our descendents to trace us, their ancestors, unless the future turns out to be something like it’s portrayed in such fine movies as Water World, The Day After Tomorrow or Terminator.

This entry was posted in General.

16 Responses to Comments

  1. Polly says:

    There are some posts that I expected to see more responses to. I sometimes look forward to a discussion of a particular topic and nothing arises. Oh well, different interests.

    This is a much more civil and level headed part of cyberspace than I’m used to seeing. There was no name-calling even with that last post (checking…yup, no name-calling). There are other “discussions” on the net where that could have easily degenerated into an exchange of expletives. Actually, I don’t have a problem with “bad” words except when they are leveled AGAINST someone.
    Even the few critiques you got were directed at your statement and not you personally, and were very MILD in comparison to the text-lynching you would have gotten in another forum for a post like that. I laughed and thought it was noble that M.A. would think her comment was “harsh”; it was about right IMO. I think it’s great how the discussion is kept at such a cerebral level, here. Probably why I only post here and nowhere else.
    I try to keep my non-language views out of the discussion and I think others do, too. The exceptions are tangentially relevant or (hopefully) humorous / informative / insightful remarks and personal experiences with languages. This prevents the diluting of the subject of this website – which as I understand it is: language and writing systems.

    I don’t have much faith in the preservation of personal, electronic data. I think stone carving is more reliable to preserve writing through the ages. Much that’s non-essential will be lost in legacy systems that will be incompatible with future systems, like beta, or 8-track, or even videotapes someday. Our collective memories are getting shorter not longer.

    Well, keep up the good work…Everyone!

  2. ISPKN says:

    I always like to read everyone else’s comments. It’s always interesting to comment on other people’s thoughts instead of letting them comment on yours. I also think this is a very civil blog. I just looked at a language blog on another website and I quickly noticed that they were terribly unhappy with each other. Hopefully this website will never become like that.

  3. parkbench says:

    Yeah. I love discovering those higher tiers of the net where people congregate to just share knowledge like this.

    “I don’t have much faith in the preservation of personal, electronic data. I think stone carving is more reliable to preserve writing through the ages.”

    I disagree completely. The nature of the internet and indeed simply digital media is that it is essentially forever. It is so very hard for things to be “lost” if they are deliberately kept. Digital archives of film footage are a thousand times more reliable than reels of film waiting to disintegrate in musty backrooms of some guy’s basement.

    In Free Culture, Lessig makes a relevant point: in p2p programs, data isn’t *taken* from one user to another. If you download a file, you have it, *and* the “source” has it. Copying, redundancy–tautology is the savior of history as a systematic study, because computers are damn good at it.

  4. I just think it’s neat that you have so many people reading your blog to comment on it, Simon. I probably will never have that many looking at mine till I start posting more than once a month! Of course it’s in Spanish, and there’s not quite as many Spanish-speaking people on the Web as English-speaking.

  5. Alain Vaillancourt says:

    Le futur pourrait être bien rose et pas dystopique du tout, mais sera-t-il Anglais? S’il ne l’est pas, alors que seront les pierres trilingues qui permettront aux générations lointaines de comprendre nos propos? Cette inscription n’est que bilingue alors je crains qu’elle ne soit perdue à jamais, comme tant d’autres.

    The future could very well be bright and shiny and not dystopic at all, but will it be English? If it isn’t, then what will be the trilingual stones which will let distant generations understand our discussions? This writing is only bilingual so I fear that it will be lost forever, like so many others.

  6. People are drawn to controversy like opposite poles on a magnet, it seems.

    I appreciate the fact that you speak so honestly in today’s post about what happened in yesterday’s blog. Honestly I did worry about how I was coming across because I knew I felt very strongly about the subject. But not only did I not want to make a personal attack–I didn’t want to get caught playing the fool if data had come up that conclusively proved your statements. One part of trying to take a scientific mindset is that in the end, whether you like it or not, you have to go where the evidence leads and not subordinate science to the soapbox.

    Maybe someday somebody will come across a study that will tell all of us which way it is. But I hope you understand the fact that I ask for a high standard of proof on scientific matters doesn’t mean anything about what I think of you as a person. THAT is a mostly subjective judgment. 😉

    Now before I change subjects entirely, I’m interested to know why it is that debating decorum has fallen off so sharply in our society to where the fact that we got through a controversial topic pretty much unscathed sticks out as an anomaly. One reason I tend to get so insistent about hard data in debate (even to some extent in religious debate) is that I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people flame each other over nothing but opinions…something is wrong when people think, for instance, that they can state objectively that one album is better than the other unless they’re referring to its technical specifications. Now is it just American society or does it seem to be a problem to those of you in other countries? I’d especially be interested to know if it holds true in non-English-speaking countries.

    Alain–Provided the human race gets through this century in numbers enough to survive, I’m not so sure English will get totally lost. I can see it going the way of Latin someday to where it’s mainly studied in the academic realm, but barring something very cataclysmic, something that not only caused the rise of another language but made the use of English an item of persecution, I have a feeling it will turn into an academic language and one that a large family of future languages comes from.

    As for how long electronic data as a whole survives, that also depends on whether or not we have a major, cataclysmic event. If none occurs, I have a feeling a lot of data will continue to be recycled onto new systems, especially as it becomes easier to move and store large amounts of it. (Of course, if Moore’s Law ever stops holding true at some point, that will also become troublesome.) If there IS a cataclysm…well, in the cases of some data, you’d better hope you printed it out. And even then, that’ll only last depending on who hand-copies what like in the days of old…

    My, my, I have such an optimistic mind, don’t I? It’s no accident that my screen name comes from a fictional prophet of doom… 😉

  7. SamD says:

    Let’s face it: some topics just stir people up more than others. I can get all sorts of facts and subjective information about languages from any number of sources. The advantage of a blog and a forum is that it is so much more about people and their experiences and their ways of looking at the world. That’s why I check this site out every morning.

    The discussion here is quite civil, and it’s another reason I like it. I like the sense that I’m not the only one who is fascinated by languages other than my own and believes one language is never enough.

  8. Alain: On my personal website ( I try to have at least the larger topics described quadrilingually – in Portuguese (my national language), English (due to its wide application), German (which I learned at home even before Portuguese) and Esperanto (which I still believe has the potential). Hélas, pas de Français. Je l’ai appris, mais mon vocabulaire actif est assez réduit… 🙁

  9. Robert Dupuy says:

    regardless of the proclivities of the top .01% of humans (i.e. people who could learn 10 or more languages)…men or women, most of us are not in that league.

    So it’s not personally useful to me, to know if that list is made up of mostly women or men, because what I know for sure, is I’m not on that list.

    We know about men and women, that they are different. And that means certain proclivities probably do exist for men, as well as women.

    We can safely say that women are better at bearing children. That on average, men weigh more than women….but talk about much else, and you find this furious response.

    It was mostly civil here, and I’m glad. But the reality is, polyglotism is more prevalent in men, than women. On the other hand…go back 20 years and men did better in college, and fast forward to today, women do better, not only better, but men are starting to do worse in college.

    Obviously, societies feelings do have impacts on many people. But, the problem I see, is that while it went unchallenged the many biased statements that ‘women are better at languages’….statements about any proclivity of men, bring out immediate disproportionate reactions…and therefore we never got to discuss the original point. Which is that men, in general, probably do tend towards ‘obsessive’ behavior…but that in itself, is not necessarily bad. Yes, thats a big can of worms…no I don’t have to prove every sentence with a 10 page science report. Those who make that sort of claim…don’t really talk that way themselves. We can have a lighter conversation now…and more in depth one later, that is normal.

  10. More thoughts says:

    Let me try out some difference of opinion 😉

    As I read through your remarks, I found the gentlemen’s speculation that perhaps women were less represented on Wikipedia’s list of noted polyglot’s because women has less opportunity to self-promote their abilities in times past, to be quite a fanciful interpretation of history.

    Am I to think that their was a prejudice against women that only prevented them from becoming famous polyglots, but didn’t otherwise impede their ability to be polyglots? Sorry, but that stretches logic to its limit. To be a polyglot in ancient times, you had to be exposed to multiple languages. Access to education, to travel freely, exposure to multiple cultures, were all more prevalent to men.

    No, not only were women less likely to be famous polyglots, they were less likely to have the opportunity to develop ‘hyperpolygotism’ in general.

    I think the person so desparately didn’t want to concede that point, but its just silly.

    About scientific study…I agree and applaud the other poster’s efforts to call for scientific method, but that could only be used to study innate ability. It would have no bearing on a historic survey as to what actually happened. And simply because we cannot say everything about everyone at every moment in history, doesn’t mean we cannot come to general conclusions.

    About innate ability, I agree that men and women, in general, are so close to having the same innate ability that its silly for another poster to say ‘women are better at languages’. I also think you cannot wait for a study about polyglot abilities of men to come out, because in today’s world grants go to women’s studies, very few for men’s studies. I personally deal with universities a lot, and I know many with women’s programs, and personally, I know of none with men’s programs.

    So we’ll have to go it alone on this discussion, without a study. But I do think we can say some interesting things. For one, women tend to produce more words in a day than men, and as we know from this very websites blog on ‘overlearning’ that type of practice should tend to make someone better at achieving automaticity.

    On the other hand…men, in my experience…. well let me backtrack, why did men dominate women historically…creating that bad environment for female polyglotism? Are men different than women? If they are, can we say they are more aggressive? Can that aggression be used in the pursuit of language learning?

    Well…without answering those questions which we could dispute forever, I would suggest that I would not be surprise if men continued to have a slight advantage in a completely insignificant way, even in a more modern world. It takes a huge amount of effort to learn one language…and I am not even sure if its a good thing or bad to learn 6 or more. I think at some point, maybe you aren’t being too balanced.

  11. Just for the record, in my comments on that thread, I did not say for sure that women are better or worse at languages: I simply reported my observations which was that in college, my language classes were very much female-dominated.

    The problem with making claims about intellectual capacity–with either gender–is that it risks leading to one or the other using such claims to pigeonhole each other, which is not fair to anybody. It leads to prejudice against both men and women. Some women have claimed, for instance, that men are inferior parents in comparison to women, and this has even led to horrendous custody decisions by judges where a child was sent to live with an unfit mother when the father would have been in that case a much better parent. I will not back a claim that men are less capable of being fit and loving parents any more than I will back an unsubstantiated claim about the female intellectual capacity.

    But Robert, the truth is that when making a potentially incendiary claim, it does need to be backed up. The reason intellectual capacity claims are so heated is that they have been used to justify all sorts of pigeonholing not just on a gender basis but for race.

    Where I do think there are possible differences between men and women may be in their preferences; little boys and girls given a choice between the same two play activities will show provable differences in what activity they choose of their own free will. However, barring physical strength contests, I don’t think we can safely say that if a male or female shows a preference for something “atypical” (and thus has the drive to want to succeed at it), that they are by nature less likely to succeed at it.

    Culture and access to education have to be treated seriously as reasons for imbalances as well, because without the right tools at one’s disposal, raw potential will not be fulfilled or will fall short of its mark. A woman with the potential to be a polyglot, but who cannot travel or get an education, will never show that latent ability. Just the same, a man who has the potential to be a great nurse but is dissuaded by social displeasure against his career choice will never get to show how great he could have been. I believe many men have the potential to be excellent in caretaking activities if they have the desire to do it, just as I believe women have the potential to be excellent engineers or linguists if that’s their desire.

    We cannot confound desire and ability because they often do not go together. I am told, for instance, that my abilities for math are extremely strong, and over time I have come to believe it. Were I to throw my entire heart and soul into it, I have no doubt I would do extremely well at it and become quite accomplished. I do not have the desire to do this, however, so if you tested me and compared me to a male math professor or engineer, of course I would fall short in comparison because I haven’t chosen to sharpen that particular skill beyond what I need for a practical and career reason.

  12. renato says:

    Well, this is one of the best web pages, especially about languages, it is always updated. I congratulated you for it.
    I would like to give more opinion about the subjects, but really, I will not give my opinion about a language or a fact that I really don’t understand. If I don’t know a single word about Wolof (for example) I think I can’t give my opinion about this language. If I do this, I will be an unserious person and would be giving a serious site a clown clothes. This I won’t do. So I hope This page continous as it is. Sometimes with more, sometimes with less coments.

  13. Jared says:

    Controversy excites humans. Sometimes it seems as if it doesn’t matter what topic is picked; if there are two opposing opinions, people will polarize. We like to argue, and we’ll pick whatever forum is available to do so. If everybody was afraid to give one’s opinion about something, the world be a lot more comfortable but a lot less interesting.

  14. Polly says:

    “I don’t think we can safely say that if a male or female shows a preference for something ‘atypical’… that they are by nature less likely to succeed at it. “- I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: preference vs. innate ability. We shouldn’t confound or conflate the two.

    It struck me as I was reading that the human race seems to have learned a lot from its mistakes. We CONSTANTLY refer back to the errors of slavery and the NAZI genocide and, here in the US, the internment of Japanese during WWII, Jim Crow laws, and racism in general. I’m no historian, but I don’t see where past societies have been as self-aware or conscious of the potential pitfalls of the “us/them” mentality as we are today. Then again, maybe we will just form allegiances across borders based on ideology rather than race or culture. In some ways that may be more dangerous, because the whole nation-state concept will be imperiled because of a lack of internal cohesion. Linguistic and racial barriers to entry into a culture ensured a certain amount of homogeneity which, in turn, produced safety, consensus, and order. Japan is still a good example of that. I’m not saying it’s ideal or that the sacrifices needed in terms of human life and the destruction of minority cultures is morally desirable. It’s just an observation.

  15. Joe Sweeney says:

    I’ve only just discovered this wonderful website, Omniglot. Kudos Simon! I read with interest the thread here under General, but must confess I am dumbfounded by the flurry of sleaze sites after the last serious post by Polly. What do others make of this? Is this the response of a cynic who is trying to make a point that we might not have “learned a lot from [our] mistakes,” as Polly suggests—and with which I agree, although not without qualifications. Human beings have been adept at physical progress, but not as successful at moral and ethical progress. Perhaps that is the point of the author of Ecclesiates who says [paraphrasing], “There is nothing new under the sun.”

    The topic raised here, concerning the differences (if any) in men’s and women’s ability to learn languages is interesting and complex. The secondary subjects invoked—science in general, social conditioning, nature vs. nuture—are worthy of independent blogs. And how complex this subject of the differences between men and women is!! Much has been written on it, ranging from the pop (which, given authors’ tendencies to merely assert claims without any support, seem to me to muddy the waters and give rise to contemporary myths) to the best scholarship in biology, anthropology, political analysis, etc.

    As regards writing, communication and current state of awareness among the American public as well as the citizens of the world who are largely plugged into the American Mass Marketing/Media Bullshit Machine, it seems to me more than ever Orwell’s words of warning should be heeded. Mass communication affords some wonderful things to mankind, but some not-so-wonderful things. And since history shows mankind learns the lessons of virtue quite reluctantly [Hegel: “History is a slaughter bench.”], those with their sights on virtue should not suppose those committed to the profits of vice will be persuaded by sententious arguments. Does anyone with an ounce of sense think Ruppert Murdoch will be persuaded to cease and desist his unabashed attempt to propogandize the globe?

    However, as fellow lovers of language we would certainly all agree with something Murdoch knows quite well: Words have power. As Dostoyevsky said in the opening pages of Crime and Punishment, “I wonder what men are most afraid of….Any new departure, and especially a new word —that is what they fear most of all…”

  16. Much like the names of our ancestors are faceless reminders on tombstones and family Bibles, I think our residual online traces – forum posts, or comments like this one – will be much of our future legacies, and will hopefully show a little more of our personalities.

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