Misunderstood childhood questions

Topic for the day: What are some questions that you remember asking as a child, but which the adults failed to understand?

I’d like to share two.

— 1 —

The first was about the future of human society. I’d read about concepts such as “civilisation” and “barbarism” in books, and wondered if human society might someday advance to a point so different from what we usually refer to as “civilisation” that it merits a new name. This would not be a degenerate state, but a transcendent one that makes civilisation look primitive. If so, what would be the achievement that defines the beginning of that new stage?

I don’t remember how I worded the question, but I do remember Dad missed the point, insisting that the only way civilisation could be replaced by something else is if society regressed to a more primitive state.

If a child asked me the same question now, I’d probably point out that “civilisation” is not rigidly defined, and there is no single invention that marks either its beginning or its end (even if books marketted at children sometimes claim otherwise). And even if there were such a defining moment, it could be identified only in hindsight: by people looking back at the past. Asking which future invention would bring a new stage of development to pass might be an inspiring question for a science fiction writer, but is too speculative for the real world. (Child me would not have liked that answer, but it’s the truth.)

— 2 —

The second was about mathematics and language: “What’s the ‘th’ number for twenty-one?” (pronouncing ‘th‘ as the unvoiced fricative). What I meant was, if 1/2 is a half, 1/3 is a third, 1/4 is a quarter, 1/5 is a fifth, 1/6 is a sixth and so on, what is the word for 1/21?

Dad was utterly baffled, with no idea what a ‘th’ number might be. Admittedly it could just as easily mean an ordinal number rather than a reciprocal (except that of course I knew the ordinal of 21 was “twenty-first”), but he couldn’t see that it meant anything at all.

Some people will insist that the answer is in fact “a twenty-first”, and have no problem saying, “I ate a twenty-first of the pie“. But that answer is not widely agreed upon, and to many of us it sounds ridiculous. In fact, there is no widely agreed-upon answer: there just isn’t enough call for a pronunciation of 1/21 analagous to “quarter” for 1/4 for the English language to have evolved one.

You are welcome to add your thoughts.

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