African languages and descriptional density

I have recently been having some fun with bibliographical data. Specifically, I have tried to determine a simple way to calculate the "descriptional density" for various African languages, especially with regard to grammar descriptions.

Descriptional density (a concept I’ve invented myself, I think) aims to determine how well-described any given language is in terms of existing grammar books and dictionaries. For instance, if a given language has only one grammar book written about it, and another language has fourteen grammar books written about it, then obviously the latter language is more well-described than the former. In other words, it’s descriptional density is higher.

There are no doubt many factors that should be taken into account when calculating something like descriptional density, such as number of publications or titles, size of description, number of authors involved, number of varieties described, availability of the grammar(s), and so on. However, many such factors are difficult to operationalize in simple ways. For instance, the size of a grammar book is not always related to its inherent usefulness, quality or even comprehensiveness. The availability of an item is difficult to determine easily (at least as a numerical value). Indeed, there are seemingly only two factors that can be handled without stumblig onto major difficulties, and still get a reasonably informative result: number of titles or works (W) and time span (T). These can be worked into a formula as follows:

DD formula

In general, one grammar book equals a W value of 1. However, many grammar books appear in second, third, fourth, etc., editions. It seems unintuitive to give a second edition the same weight as a first edition. After all, it is still essentially the same book, albeit with some minor or major revisions. Hence it seems convenient to distinguish primary works (W1) from secondary works (W2). While primary works are given a value of 1, secondary works are given a value of 1/3 (a third).

T (time span) represents the number of years spanning between the publication of the first and the latest grammar. For instance, my bibliography includes 135 primary works (grammar books) for Swahili. The earliest of these was published in 1850, and the latest in 2006. This gives a time span of 156 years. In order for this number not to inflate the calculations unnecessarily, it needs to be whittled down a bit, which is why I use the square root of the actual time span in the formula.

By adding the total number of primary works (W1), with a third of the total number of secondary works (W2), and the square root of the time span (T), we get a total index value representing the descriptional density (DD) for any given particular language.

Here, then, is a list of fifteen of the largest Bantu languages spoken in Africa, ranked according to their DD (descriptional density) values:

    Swahili 173.49 135 + 78 156
    Zulu 70.53 42 + 48 157
    Kikongo 67.29 45 + 11 347
    Chewa/Nyanja 51.11 31 + 26 131
    Xhosa 42.15 20 + 27 173
    Shona 41.63 26 + 15 113
    Setswana 39.08 20 + 18 171
    Lingala 37.29 23 + 11 113
    Sesotho 31.45 16 + 9 155
    North Sotho 25.91 14 + 3 119
    Luba-Kasai 25.82 13 + 7 110
    Kirundi 24.23 12 + 7 98
    Kinyarwanda 21.54 9 + 9 91
    Sukuma 20.87 11 + 1 91
    Kikuyu 17.31 7 + 2 93

Notice how the ranking only roughly corresponds to the actual number of grammar descriptions (whether we look at primary works only or primary and secondary works jointly). By taking time span into account, we get a bit more sophisticated picture of how well-described any given language is. As already mentioned, I have only looked at grammar descriptions. For a more comprehensive look, I need to look also at dictionaries, but that is a project for another sleepless night.

You can read more details about this here.

11 things you may not want to know about Winnie-the-Pooh

There are many ways in which one can read literary texts. One can interpret them at face value, or one can read various things into them. For instance, did you know that the stories about Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends comprise an allegory of male sexuality; in fact, a very old-fashioned one. With the exception of Kanga, all characters are male, and they each represent different aspects of male sexuality and associated desires, inhibitions, fears, prejudices, etc. The stories also include a typically male (albeit ancient) bipolar view of female sexuality: the caring Madonna (Kanga) and the always-accessible whore (the honey pot).

1. Winnie-the-Pooh is the personification of male (adolescent) sexuality. He is not quite sure what he wants, or even who he is. His actions are often hampered by his fears or his ignorance. Winnie-the-Pooh is in fact a symbol for the penis.

2. The Honey Pot, Winnie-the-Pooh’s favourite thing, represents the male fantasy of a vagina. It is the ultimate objectification of female sexuality. It is passive, will-less, and locked up in a safe place until male lust (i.e. Winnie-the-Pooh) wants a piece of it. As such, the Honey Pot is also a symbol for the whore.

3. Piglet is the unwilling virgin. He is the little kid who wants to be a big kid, like all his friends. Piglet represents the young adolescent’s frustrations and insecurities about never being sure if the others think he’s a grown-up or if they know he’s just a kid pretending to be a grown-up.

4. The Owl represents pretence. He wants to be wise. He tries very hard to appear wise. In fact, he has come to live the image he has created for himself. He is the guy who wants wants everyone else to think he knows all about what to do with the girls, but in reality he is just the same fumbling fool as the rest of us.

5. Eeyore is downbeat, cautious, self-pitying. He is always holding himself back, never allowing himself to enjoy things. He wants new experiences (i.e. date girls), but he is never likely to do so, because he fears what it might lead to. Eeyore is the personification of repressed sexuality.

6. Rabbit is that annoying acquaintance we all know, who is convinced that he is more experienced and mature than anyone else. He is different from the Owl, who knows his limitations but hides them, while Rabbit has no self-awareness at all. He wants to be in charge of all things around him, because he knows best, even when he doesn’t. In the bedroom, Rabbit is the one with the whip, always in fear of loosing control.

7. The Heffalump represents everything that our mothers warned us about, such as bad company, unhealthy living, strangers in cars, etc., as well as their consequences, like unwanted pregnancies, naughty diseases, and so on. Still, we’re all curious animals, and we’re strangely drawn to the Heffalump, perhaps because it is so taboo. The irony of the Heffalump is, of course, that it is no independent danger at all, but a part of our own beings. In fact, the search for the Heffalump represents all those trials and errors we make as young adolescents looking for love, identity, and adulthood. Hence the Heffalump is a symbol of puberty, or more specifically, an escalating awareness of our own sexuality.

8. Kanga represents the teenage mother. (Roo is her child.) Kanga is a mother because she wasn’t afraid of the Heffalump, or at least not afraid enough. But even so, she is a responsible mother. In fact, Kanga is a symbol for the Madonna. Her main role in the story is to control Roo’s unlimited lust for life, clearly in a vain attempt to stop him from repeating her mistake(s).

9. Roo, Kanga’s baby, is the fearless, life-enjoying optimist. He is totally without inhibitions and fears. He represents all our desires for constant adventure and joy. He is like a stereotypical hippie advocating free, boundless sex. He is always willing to jump into anything, as long as it looks fun. And if it doesn’t look fun, he’ll jump into it anyway.

10. Tigger is a wannabee adventurer who wants to enjoy life, but is too dumb to understand what or why things happen the way they do. As he lacks Roo’s naive self-confidence, he also lacks the courage to go all the way. He is the insecure boy who wants to hit on the pretty girls, but always gets cold feet in the last moment (eminently exemplified in stories by Tigger climbing into the tree and freezing). Tigger represents unfulfilled sexual desires, which makes him the eternal masturbator (symbolised by his constant bouncing up and down).

11. Christopher Robin is the only genuinely asexual character in the story. In a way, he is God. He gave life to all the characters. He is the moderator of their lives. He feels for them and cares for them. He is the benevolent, respectful leader we all wish we had.

I hope you can still enjoy Winnie-the-Pooh.

(Apologies to Bruno Bettelheim.)


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