Why do humans want to have sex with attractive people?

The learned researcher Susan James (Vote #1: Susan James’ answer to Why do humans want to have sex with attractive people?) is of course right in the evolutionary selection angle, and even more right in the cultural situatedness of attractiveness. The body-ideal of Botswana sure isn’t the ideal of the 2016 US, which wasn’t the ideal of 1956 US.

But there’s a bit of semantics being missed here. It’s not that the notion of attractiveness is preexisting, and people want to have sex with people bearing that characteristic. There is physical fitness or suitability for child-bearing, which has visual correlates; in fact Susan has pointed them out in previous answers (I think;, though Quora Search, so I can’t find them). So breasts or butts (or six packs) tend to correlate with attractiveness.

But attractiveness is also culturally determined; there are plenty of cultures in which big butts or physical fitness are not prized as attractive. In fact attractiveness is defined the other way around. Attractive people are defined as those people that humans (in that particular culture) want to have sex with.

(And that also helps you with LGBTI+, which a narrowly evolutionary approach doesn’t.)

Is use of diminutives that lost their diminutive meaning a common phenomenon in the development of languages?

I believe it is (add Russian, bigtime), but I’ve just gone through half a dozen historical linguistics textbooks, and it’s not discussed separately in any of them. I was even struggling to find a good term describing this phenomenon: lexicalised diminutives I guess is the best.

The problem is that semantic change is massively variegated, and the typologies of semantic change (which covers this) are pretty vague. This could be argued to be an instance of litotes/understatement, or an instance of generalisation, or an instance of bleaching.

How can someone be a top Quora anything for 2017 already?

There was a switch in 2015 (someone correct me if I’m wrong) from Top Quorans being named for the year past, to Top Quorans being named for the year ahead (though of course still judged on their past year’s output).

How are you so knowledgeable?

Hoo boy. I’m being A2A’d this by Michaelis Maus, and he’s a trenchant one: I can’t give him a glib answer, and I can’t just protest that I’m an impostor.


  • I read a lot as a kid, as others did, and picked up a lot of encyclopaedic knowledge that way. It helps to connect the dots when you know what the dots are. It was harder when I was a kid, because no Interwebs; I ended up reading through most of the World Book Encyclopedia, and I also read pretty generally through my high school, local, and university library.
  • I read the newspaper religiously back in the day, which gave me good news and international awareness.
  • I studied a specific subject at university level:
    • I determined to gain a grounding of linguistics, a subject I actually loved, after University Engineering let me down.
    • I determined to become a world authority in the subject matter my PhD was within.
    • I lectured undergrads for a couple of semesters, which helps you systematise that knowledge.
  • I became online-search aware, when online search replaced reading.
  • I spent a couple of years reading Wikipedia the way I used to read through my local library.

And here’s the impostor bit. I answer a lot of questions that, by Quora’s standards (and by many users’ standards) I have no business answering. I have a superficial knowledge of the subject matter, that needs to be bolstered by Wikipedia; and the body of my answer is intelligent guesswork, based on extrapolation from situations or disciplines I am more familiar with, or from a willingness to think through foundational assumptions.

Most A2As I respond to from Mehrdad Dəmirçi fall into that category (and there a lot I don’t respond to, because even I have my limits). I know very little about Iran. Until this past year on Quora, I had not even clicked how many Azeris there are in Iran. So I have no business answering Why does Iran have a variety of ethnic groups? As a Greek, I know less than Wikipedia does about the Ottoman Empire; I was actually guessing at the meanings of the terms when I answered Why do you think Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism Failed?

I think the answers I wrote come across as knowledgable (you tell me), but they really are intelligent guesses.

For which I make no apology. Intelligence is the ability to make connections, not just the hoarding of facts. The specialist has the best sense of where the connections lie, but the generalist (or at least, the specialist in a slightly related field) is still equipped to draw conclusions.

And if I get stuff wrong, I expect people here to pipe up and tell me so.

Can you identify all the Canadian provinces/territories?

I want to preface my response by saying thank you to Sam Morningstar, by continuing with the strategy I set off in How many African countries can you identify on a map?

I also want to say that I have the deepest of respect and affection for my fellow members of the Commonwealth, from the great country of Canada.

I want to say that, because that’s not what my knowledge of Canadian geography says.

So, how have I sinned?

  • Swapped Alberta and Saskatchewan. Saskatatatchewan. Skachatewan. That guy.
  • Thought Nunavut was the new name for the Northwest Territories. It’s the new name for half the Northwest Territories.
  • Thought I didn’t need to name the Northwest Territories properly anymore, because they’d been replaced by Nunavut.
  • Labrador’s part of the official name of Newfieland? Why, Canada? But yes, Mike Bowerbank, I know Labrador is the mainland bit.
  • Wow. I actually got the location of PIE right. Who knew. Didn’t even need a magnifying glass, Mike. In fact, I thought I got it wrong, because no way was PIE that big.

Ancient Greek: where is a “w” sound used in Greek?

OK, Nick wading in.

Like James Garry and Robert Todd said: the digamma, ϝ, is an archaic letter of Greek, pronounced as /w/. It is present as a sound in Linear B, and it survived into Aeolic, but it did not survive into the other *written* dialects of Greek.

We know it was there in Ancient Greek for three reasons.

  • First, Indo-European reconstruction. Like James said, we know that οἶνος oinos used to be ϝοῖνος woinos, from other Indo-European languages preserving a related sound; e.g. Latin vinum.
  • Second, internal reconstruction. In particular, syllabic augment of vowels. The past tense of ἔργω ergō “I work” should be *ἦργον ērgon, with an eta [ɛːrɡon]. It is instead εἶργον eirgon, with an ei [eːrɡon]. That makes no sense, until you realise (a) that Attic ei corresponds to Homeric ἔεργον eergon [eerɡon], and (b) that happens because there used to be a /w/ there: ἔ-ϝεργον ewergon. So it’s just an epsilon prefixed to a consonant, like all other syllabic augments
    • Why yes, *wergō is cognate with English work.
  • Linear B is not an argument for working out where digammas were, because that’s circular: we were able to decipher Linear B based on the external and internal reconstruction of Greek.
  • The final criterion is hiatus in Homer, gaps between vowels in the metre that do not make sense by how Greek verse is supposed to work. They do make sense, if we posit that there used to be digammas there in the original verse.

There is a delightful Xena fanfic about the digamma: For Ant of a Nail

So digammas are not written down in Homer, but we know they were there. They were only written down in Aeolic and Linear B.

Ioannis Stratakis (podium-arts.com) is meticulous in his reconstruction; I also hear digammas in his Herodotus. ἴδεν, he pronounces as ϝίδεν; we have evidence for that both from Latin, and from internal reconstruction (the augmented aorist is εἶδεν, with a syllabic augment).

ἄστυ – Wiktionary tells me that ἄστυ used to have a digamma too:

From ϝάστυ ‎(wástu), with possible connection with Sanskrit वस्तु ‎(vastu, “house”) and Latin verna.

Will Australia become a republic soon?

As Richard Farnsworth said, republicans are waiting for an unpopular and unfamiliar monarch to raise the question again. OTOH the celebrity appeal of Kate & Wills (which is driving the millennials’ affection for the monarchy) could still see it stick around.

Part of the problem is that republicanism doesn’t have the emotional vigour it did in the 1999 referendum, or as energetic a proponent as Keating. Yes, Turnbull is a republican, and came to political prominence through the referendum; but come on, Turnbull is hostage to his right wing on everything, this can’t be an exception.

There’s a complacency of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” around the republic, and affection for Wills & Kate. Australia may well not go there. Plus, the rebellion against elite republicanism in favour of some Stupid-Arse “As Seen On TV” popularly elected president did republicanism real lasting damage in Australia. The mob want a Trump (or a Scott Cam), and the elites want nothing that will impact the constitution as we know it.

What unpopular opinions do you have about linguistics?

Not that controversial, but I think there’s a lot to be said for diachronic explanations of language, and the synchronic/diachronic distinction is somewhat artificial.

Nick Nicholas’ answer to What is functional grammar? will explain that a little bit: functional accounts are kind of diachronic to begin with (what function does this linguistic component serve in communication => how did this linguistic component develop to fit this function). And more hardcore functionalism is all about language structures as process rather than as blueprints; hence the more extreme formulation of Paul Hopper’s Emergent Grammar.

There are linguists who think that way, but it’s fair to say it’s a minority view.

I’ve ranted defending philology in Nick Nicholas’ answer to What are the differences between linguistics and philology? That looks controversial and fuddy duddy; where it’s actually going isn’t, although again it’s a minority view: language is socially embedded, and ignoring the social to focus only on linguistic structures is a simplification. It is an epistemologically necessary simplification at times, of the kind you see all the time in less mushy disciplines like Physics (frictionless plane).

But language change in particular is always socially mediated; and much more “pure” “synchronic” language stuff is socially messed up than people like to admit. In particular, language phonemes at times seem to me to be a frictionless plane.