Geoffrey Pullum is annoyed to hear a reporter state that "Arabic famously has over 40 terms for different types of camel" - not so much for whether it's true or not as because "they are presented as if profound and significant and clearly supportive of exoticizing claims about far-away nomadic peoples like Arabs and Eskimos, when in fact even if they were true they would be utterly unsurprising." I suppose I should point out that it is true - unsurprisingly. I don't know much more than three (Classical) Arabic words for "camel" ('ibil camels in general, jamal male camel, nāqah female camel); but people I can only describe as camel geeks have taken the trouble to post lists of terms for camels of various ages, sexes, colours, and breeds - and there appear to be 38 more terms for female camels classified by their breeding status alone, and another 14 for different Saudi camel breeds (and I'm ignoring at least another 6 lists of specialised terms for camels just on that site.) If I were a professional camel breeder or something (perish the thought!) I would no doubt know all these terms; but otherwise, who needs them?
But "Arabic famously has over 40 terms for different types of camel" is nonetheless misleading. People have a habit of thinking of technical vocabularies as aspects of a language - English has n terms for types of dog, Japanese has x terms for types of seaweed, etc. But that doesn't really work. It's not English speakers that have more than thirty terms for places of articulation; it's linguists working in a certain tradition. If they publish in a different language but studied in the same place, they'll just calque or borrow the words; if they cut their teeth on Panini or Sibawayh - in the original or in English translation - they will use a differently organised vocabulary even if they're writing in English. Likewise, an English camel breeder (if such a thing exists) will most likely just borrow the terminology of whichever region he got his camels from wholesale, as sure as an English sushi restaurant will borrow Japanese sushi terminology. Some Fulani tribes have shifted to Songhay - primarily a language of town-dwellers, with few native words for livestock types - but kept their cattle-herding lifestyle; unsurprisingly, they've also kept Fulani's enormous set of words for different types of cow, and not suddenly forgotten how to tell one cow from another. If practically every speaker of a language knows a given technical terminology, then it might make sense to view it as a property of the language; but that certainly isn't the case here.
Why is language typology possible?
2 hours ago