The problem of translation

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes: One Enlightenment aspiration that the science-­fiction industry has long taken for granted, as a necessary intergalactic conceit, is the universal translator. In a 1967 episode of “Star Trek,” Mr. Spock assembles such a device from spare parts lying around the ship. An elongated chrome cylinder with blinking red-and-green indicator lights, it resembles a retracted light saber; Captain Kirk explains how it works with an off-the-cuff disquisition on the principles of Chomsky’s “universal grammar,” and they walk outside to the desert-­island planet of Gamma Canaris N, where they’re being held hostage by an alien. The alien, whom they call The Companion, materializes as a fraction of sparkling cloud. It looks like an orange Christmas tree made of vaporized mortadella. Kirk grips the translator and addresses their kidnapper in a slow, patronizing, put-down-the-gun tone. The all-­powerful Companion is astonished.

“My thoughts,” she says with some confusion, “you can hear them.”

The exchange emphasizes the utopian ambition that has long motivated universal translation. The Companion might be an ion fog with coruscating globules of viscera, a cluster of chunky meat-parts suspended in aspic, but once Kirk has established communication, the first thing he does is teach her to understand love. It is a dream that harks back to Genesis, of a common tongue that perfectly maps thought to world. In Scripture, this allowed for a humanity so well ­coordinated, so alike in its understanding, that all the world’s subcontractors could agree on a time to build a tower to the heavens. Since Babel, though, even the smallest construction projects are plagued by terrible delays. [Continue reading…]

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How the language you speak changes your view of the world

By Panos Athanasopoulos, Lancaster University

Bilinguals get all the perks. Better job prospects, a cognitive boost and even protection against dementia. Now new research shows that they can also view the world in different ways depending on the specific language they are operating in.

The past 15 years have witnessed an overwhelming amount of research on the bilingual mind, with the majority of the evidence pointing to the tangible advantages of using more than one language. Going back and forth between languages appears to be a kind of brain training, pushing your brain to be flexible.

Just as regular exercise gives your body some biological benefits, mentally controlling two or more languages gives your brain cognitive benefits. This mental flexibility pays big dividends especially later in life: the typical signs of cognitive ageing occur later in bilinguals – and the onset of age-related degenerative disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s are delayed in bilinguals by up to five years.

[Read more…]

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How we know

In a review of The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, by James Gleick, Freeman Dyson writes: James Gleick’s first chapter has the title “Drums That Talk.” It explains the concept of information by looking at a simple example. The example is a drum language used in a part of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the human language is Kele. European explorers had been aware for a long time that the irregular rhythms of African drums were carrying mysterious messages through the jungle. Explorers would arrive at villages where no European had been before and find that the village elders were already prepared to meet them.

Sadly, the drum language was only understood and recorded by a single European before it started to disappear. The European was John Carrington, an English missionary who spent his life in Africa and became fluent in both Kele and drum language. He arrived in Africa in 1938 and published his findings in 1949 in a book, The Talking Drums of Africa. Before the arrival of the Europeans with their roads and radios, the Kele-speaking Africans had used the drum language for rapid communication from village to village in the rain forest. Every village had an expert drummer and every villager could understand what the drums were saying. By the time Carrington wrote his book, the use of drum language was already fading and schoolchildren were no longer learning it. In the sixty years since then, telephones made drum language obsolete and completed the process of extinction.

Carrington understood how the structure of the Kele language made drum language possible. Kele is a tonal language with two sharply distinct tones. Each syllable is either low or high. The drum language is spoken by a pair of drums with the same two tones. Each Kele word is spoken by the drums as a sequence of low and high beats. In passing from human Kele to drum language, all the information contained in vowels and consonants is lost. In a European language, the consonants and vowels contain all the information, and if this information were dropped there would be nothing left. But in a tonal language like Kele, some information is carried in the tones and survives the transition from human speaker to drums. The fraction of information that survives in a drum word is small, and the words spoken by the drums are correspondingly ambiguous. A single sequence of tones may have hundreds of meanings depending on the missing vowels and consonants. The drum language must resolve the ambiguity of the individual words by adding more words. When enough redundant words are added, the meaning of the message becomes unique.

In 1954 a visitor from the United States came to Carrington’s mission school. Carrington was taking a walk in the forest and his wife wished to call him home for lunch. She sent him a message in drum language and explained it to the visitor. To be intelligible to Carrington, the message needed to be expressed with redundant and repeated phrases: “White man spirit in forest come come to house of shingles high up above of white man spirit in forest. Woman with yam awaits. Come come.” Carrington heard the message and came home. On the average, about eight words of drum language were needed to transmit one word of human language unambiguously. Western mathematicians would say that about one eighth of the information in the human Kele language belongs to the tones that are transmitted by the drum language. The redundancy of the drum language phrases compensates for the loss of the information in vowels and consonants. The African drummers knew nothing of Western mathematics, but they found the right level of redundancy for their drum language by trial and error. Carrington’s wife had learned the language from the drummers and knew how to use it.

The story of the drum language illustrates the central dogma of information theory. The central dogma says, “Meaning is irrelevant.” Information is independent of the meaning that it expresses, and of the language used to express it. Information is an abstract concept, which can be embodied equally well in human speech or in writing or in drumbeats. All that is needed to transfer information from one language to another is a coding system. A coding system may be simple or complicated. If the code is simple, as it is for the drum language with its two tones, a given amount of information requires a longer message. If the code is complicated, as it is for spoken language, the same amount of information can be conveyed in a shorter message. [Continue reading…]

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Learning a language? Sleep on it and you’ll get the grammar

By Kathy Rastle, Royal Holloway and Jakke Tamminen, Royal Holloway

In 2006, former US president George Bush supported his embattled defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the words: “But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.” This quotation quickly entered the folklore of political humour. But to psychology researchers, it revealed something fundamental about human language.

At that time, most Americans had not encountered the word decider. While this is a common word in some parts of the world, it refers to the part of a game that determines the winner. So how did people understand what it meant? They understood it because across all of the words that people know, the suffix –er often transforms a verb into a person (as in teacher, builder, dancer). Thus, a decider must be someone who decides.

The ability to extract general principles from a small number of examples is fundamental to language and literacy. In teaching children how to read, teachers introduce sets of words like chin, church, chest, chess, chop, to convey information about how to pronounce particular letters. This general knowledge might then be applied to new words like chick. In later years of primary school, children develop general knowledge about the functions of affixes. Through exposure to relevant sets of words like uncertain, unknown, unhappy, children become able to use affixes like -un in new contexts.

[Read more…]

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How climate may have shaped languages

Scientific American reports: Opera singers and dry air don’t get along. In fact, the best professional singers require humid settings to help them achieve the right pitch. “When your vocal cords are really dry, they’re a little less elastic,” says Caleb Everett, an anthropological linguist at the University of Miami. As a result, singers experience tiny variations in pitch, called jitter, as well as wavering volume—both of which contribute to rougher refrains.

If the amount of moisture in the air influences musical pitch, Everett wondered, has that translated into the development of fewer tonal languages in arid locations? Tonal languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Cherokee, rely on variations in pitch to differentiate meaning: the same syllable spoken at a higher pitch can specify a different word if spoken at a lower pitch or in a rising or falling tone.

In a survey of more than 3,700 languages, Everett and his collaborators found that those with complex tones do indeed occur less frequently in dry areas than they do in humid ones, even after accounting for the clustering of related languages. For instance, more than half of the hundreds of languages spoken in tropical sub-Saharan locations feature complex tones, whereas none of the two dozen languages in the Sahara do. Overall, only one in 30 complex tonal languages flourished in dry areas; one in three nontonal languages cropped up in those same regions. The results appeared in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. [Continue reading…]

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Can a dying language be saved?

Judith Thurman writes: It is a singular fate to be the last of one’s kind. That is the fate of the men and women, nearly all of them elderly, who are — like Marie Wilcox, of California; Gyani Maiya Sen, of Nepal; Verdena Parker, of Oregon; and Charlie Mungulda, of Australia — the last known speakers of a language: Wukchumni, Kusunda, Hupa, and Amurdag, respectively. But a few years ago, in Chile, I met Joubert Yanten Gomez, who told me he was “the world’s only speaker of Selk’nam.” He was twenty-one.

Yanten Gomez, who uses the tribal name Keyuk, grew up modestly, in Santiago. His father, Blas Yanten, is a woodworker, and his mother, Ivonne Gomez Castro, practices traditional medicine. As a young girl, she was mocked at school for her mestizo looks, so she hesitated to tell her children — Keyuk and an older sister — about their ancestry. They hadn’t known that their maternal relatives descended from the Selk’nam, a nomadic tribe of unknown origin that settled in Tierra del Fuego. The first Europeans to encounter the Selk’nam, in the sixteenth century, were astonished by their height and their hardiness — they braved the frigid climate by coating their bodies with whale fat. The tribe lived mostly undisturbed until the late eighteen-hundreds, when an influx of sheep ranchers and gold prospectors who coveted their land put bounties on their heads. (One hunter boasted that he had received a pound sterling per corpse, redeemable with a pair of ears.) The survivors of the Selk’nam Genocide, as it is called — a population of about four thousand was reduced to some three hundred — were resettled on reservations run by missionaries. The last known fluent speaker of the language, Angela Loij, a laundress and farmer, died forty years ago.

Many children are natural mimics, but Keyuk could imitate speech like a mynah. His father, who is white, had spent part of his childhood in the Arauco region, which is home to the Mapuche, Chile’s largest native community, and he taught Keyuk their language, Mapudungun. The boy, a bookworm and an A student, easily became fluent. A third-grade research project impassioned him about indigenous peoples, and Ivonne, who descends from a line of shamans, took this as a sign that his ancestors were speaking through him. When she told him of their heritage, Keyuk vowed that he would master Selk’nam and also, eventually, Yagán — the nearly extinct language of a neighboring people in the far south — reckoning that he could pass them down to his children and perhaps reseed the languages among the tribes’ descendants. At fourteen, he travelled with his father to Puerto Williams, a town in Chile’s Antarctic province that calls itself “the world’s southernmost city,” to meet Cristina Calderón, the last native Yagán speaker. She subsequently tutored him by phone. [Continue reading…]

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How to save jobs and destroy the planet

If I was invested with the powers of a dictator, I’d be especially ruthless in one particular way: I’d show no mercy to those guilty of crimes against language.

No, I wouldn’t be another Bryan Henderson — the Wikipedia editor who has a vendetta against the phrase “comprised of.”

The guilty, in my book, are not those who fail to bow in obeisance to the mythical gods of grammar. What I view as an inexcusable abuse of language is to regard it as nothing more than a tool of deception.

The people who specialize in this corrupt art, work in advertising, public relations, and politics, and they create things like this:

The American Progressive Bag Alliance.

Plastic bags — fluttering down windswept streets, getting caught in branches, blocking drains, choking animals, poisoning groundwater, and colonizing oceans — might seem to have a life of their own. Apparently they are now also demanding political rights and claim they are progressive.

It turns out, however, that APBA is not an alliance of bags, but instead (predictably) it represents the transnational corporate power and interests of the plastics industry:

  • Advance Polybag, Inc. – bag manufacturer
  • The Dow Chemical Company – resin maker
  • ExxonMobil Corporation – HDPE resin maker
  • Hilex Poly Co., LLC. – bag manufacturer, co-founder
  • Inteplast – bag manufacturer
  • NOVA Chemicals, Inc. – polyethylene manufacturer
  • Superbag Corporation – bag manufacturer
  • Total Petrochemicals USA – polyethylene manufacture
  • Unistar Plastics, LLC – bag manufacturer

I imagine that those came up with the name American Progressive Bag Alliance, have to drug themselves to sleep — and probably drug themselves at work, too. Either that, or through a self-administered lobotomization which cuts out principles for the sake of career, the conscience they were born with, withered away a long time ago.

If, like me, you’ve never heard of this alliance before, Bill Raden explains what they have done:

Just when Californians were getting used to the idea of living without getting free, single-use grocery bags at the supermarket checkout, Secretary of State Alex Padilla recently announced that a referendum effort aimed at rescinding the plastic bag ban signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September had qualified for the 2016 ballot. Pending the results of next year’s vote, the announcement effectively suspends the July 1 implementation of the measure, Senate Bill 270, which would have been the first statewide bag ban in the nation. (Citywide bans, such as those passed in Los Angeles and San Francisco, will remain in place.)

Padilla’s office says that a random sampling found that the measure’s supporters collected at least 555,236 valid signatures — more than the 504,706 needed. Ironically, Padilla had been a key force behind the passage of SB 270, when he was in the State Senate.

Californians currently use about 11 billion disposable plastic shopping bags annually with a market value that the plastic bag industry estimates at between $100 million to $150 million. Those sales will now be secure for an additional 15 months.

The effort to put the so-called “people’s veto” onto the ballot was mounted by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, the same industry consortium that bitterly fought passage of the ban.

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25 maps that explain the English language

Vox: English is the language of Shakespeare and the language of Chaucer. It’s spoken in dozens of countries around the world, from the United States to a tiny island named Tristan da Cunha. It reflects the influences of centuries of international exchange, including conquest and colonization, from the Vikings through the 21st century. Here are 25 maps and charts that explain how English got started and evolved into the differently accented languages spoken today. [Continue reading…]

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How to rewild our language of landscape

Robert Macfarlane writes: Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while a feadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

The “Peat Glossary” set my head a-whirr with wonder-words. It ran to several pages and more than 120 terms – and as that modest “Some” in its title acknowledged, it was incomplete. “There’s so much language to be added to it,” one of its compilers, Anne Campbell, told me. “It represents only three villages’ worth of words. I have a friend from South Uist who said her grandmother would add dozens to it. Every village in the upper islands would have its different phrases to contribute.” I thought of Norman MacCaig’s great Hebridean poem “By the Graveyard, Luskentyre”, where he imagines creating a dictionary out of the language of Donnie, a lobster fisherman from the Isle of Harris. It would be an impossible book, MacCaig concluded:

A volume thick as the height of the Clisham,

A volume big as the whole of Harris,

A volume beyond the wit of scholars.

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place. And it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.

Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. I wanted to answer Norman MacCaig’s entreaty in his Luskentyre poem: “Scholars, I plead with you, / Where are your dictionaries of the wind … ?” [Continue reading…]

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Crows understand analogies

crow

Scientific American reports: People are fascinated by the intelligence of animals. In fact, cave paintings dating back some 40,000 years suggest that we have long harbored keen interest in animal behavior and cognition. Part of that interest may have been practical: animals can be dangerous, they can be sources of food and clothing, and they can serve as sentries or mousers.

But, another part of that fascination is purely theoretical. Because animals resemble us in form, perhaps they also resemble us in thought. For many philosophers — including René Descartes and John Locke — granting intelligence to animals was a bridge too far. They especially deemed abstract reasoning to be uniquely human and to perfectly distinguish people from “brutes.” Why? Because animals do not speak, they must have no thoughts.

Nevertheless, undeterred by such pessimistic pronouncements, informed by Darwin’s theory of evolution, and guided by the maxim that “actions speak more loudly than words,” researchers today are fashioning powerful behavioral tests that provide nonverbal ways for animals to disclose their intelligence to us. Although animals may not use words, their behavior may serve as a suitable substitute; its study may allow us to jettison the stale convention that thought without language is impossible. [Continue reading…]

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Humans and animals — the power and limitations of language

Stassa Edwards writes: In his Apology for Raymond Sebond (1576), Michel de Montaigne ascribed animals’ silence to man’s own wilful arrogance. The French essayist argued that animals could speak, that they were in possession of rich consciousness, but that man wouldn’t condescend to listen. ‘It is through the vanity of the same imagination that [man] equates himself with God,’ Montaigne wrote, ‘that he attributes divine attributes for himself, picks himself out and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures.’ Montaigne asked: ‘When I play with my cat, who knows if she is making more of a pastime of me than I of her?’

Montaigne’s question is as playful as his cat. Apology is not meant to answer the age-old question, but rather to provoke; to tap into an unending inquiry about the reasoning of animals. Perhaps, Montaigne implies, we simply misunderstand the foreign language of animals, and the ignorance is not theirs, but ours.

Montaigne’s position was a radical one – the idea the animals could actually speak to humans was decidedly anti-anthropocentric – and when he looked around for like-minded thinkers, he found himself one solitary essayist. But if Montaigne was a 16th century loner, then he could appeal to the Classics. Apology is littered with references to Pliny and a particular appeal to Plato’s account of the Golden Age under Saturn. But even there, Montaigne had little to work with. Aristotle had argued that animals lacked logos (meaning, literally, ‘word’ but also ‘reason’) and, therefore, had no sense of the philosophical world inhabited and animated by humans. And a few decades after Montaigne, the French philosopher René Descartes delivered the final blow, arguing that the uniqueness of man stems from his ownership of reason, which animals are incapable of possessing, and which grants him dominion over them.

Everyone know what it’s like to forget someone’s name. It could be the name of a celebrity and the need to remember might be non-existent, and yet, as though finding this name might be an antidote to looming senility, it’s hard to let go of such a compulsion until it is satisfied.

From infancy we are taught that success in life requires an unceasing commitment to colonize the world with language. To be lost for words, is to be left out.

Without the ability to speak or understand, we would lose our most vital connection with the rest of humanity.

Montaigne understood that it was a human conceit to imagine that among all creatures, we were the only ones endowed with the capacity to communicate:

Can there be a more formall and better ordained policie, divided into so severall charges and offices, more constantly entertained, and better maintained, than that of Bees? Shall we imagine their so orderly disposing of their actions, and managing of their vocations, have so proportioned and formall a conduct without discourse, reason, and forecast?

What Montaigne logically inferred in the 1500s, science would confirm centuries later.

While Stassa Edwards enumerates the many expressions of a human desire for animals to speak, my sense is that behind this desire there is an intuition about the limitations of language: that our mute companions often see more because they can say less.

We view language as a prism that allows us perceive order in the world and yet this facility in representation is so successful and elegantly structured that most of the time we see the representations much more clearly than we see the world.

Our ability to describe and analyze the world has never been more advanced than it is today and yet for millennia, humans have observed that animals seem to be able to do something that we cannot: anticipate earthquakes.

Perhaps our word-constructed world only holds together on condition that our senses remain dull.

The world we imagine we can describe, quantify, and control, is in truth a world we barely understand.

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How the internet undermines the value of talking

Nick Bilton writes: According to a producer in Hollywood, people have been staying clear of email and opting for cellphones over the past two weeks as studios have been bolstering firewalls and email systems. “Everyone has been doing business on their cellphone since this happened,” the person said, asking not to be named. “The reality is, every studio has emails in their system that would cause the [same] chaos if they came out.”

Or as Jenni Konner, a writer and executive producer for HBO’s “Girls,” said on Twitter Tuesday night: “The worst thing about the Sony hacks is people using the phone again.”

It’s not only people in Hollywood who are picking up the phone again in case of an email hack.

For the rest of us, the Sony hacking is just another example of how our emails are highly insecure. “Don’t put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of The New York Times the next day,” said Brian Krebs, who specializes in cybercrime and operates the website Krebs on Security. “It’s like putting a postcard in the mail.”

“And you can’t unsay anything you’ve said on the Internet,” Mr. Krebs added.

What’s so terrible about having to use the phone?

I know — it requires that massively inconvenient social accommodation which requires people to share time.

Nowadays everyone thinks they should be able to control their own time without engaging in submissive forms of behavior like answering phone calls.

Text allows people to connect without sharing space or time.

The sacrifice however, is that text lacks the fluidity of speech. What is said can instantly be modified, modulated and shaped within the flow of conversation.

Instead of bemoaning the inconvenience of talking, maybe its time for everyone to reacquaint themselves with its value.

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Massive genetic effort confirms bird songs related to human speech

Scientific American reports: Songbirds stutter, babble when young, become mute if parts of their brains are damaged, learn how to sing from their elders and can even be “bilingual” — in other words, songbirds’ vocalizations share a lot of traits with human speech. However, that similarity goes beyond behavior, researchers have found. Even though humans and birds are separated by millions of years of evolution, the genes that give us our ability to learn speech have much in common with those that lend birds their warble.

A four-year long effort involving more than 100 researchers around the world put the power of nine supercomputers into analyzing the genomes of 48 species of birds. The results, published this week in a package of eight articles in Science and 20 papers in other journals, provides the most complete picture of the bird family tree thus far. The project has also uncovered genetic signatures in song-learning bird brains that have surprising similarities to the genetics of speech in humans, a finding that could help scientists study human speech.

The analysis suggests that most modern birds arose in an impressive speciation event, a “big bang” of avian diversification, in the 10 million years immediately following the extinction of dinosaurs. This period is more recent than posited in previous genetic analyses, but it lines up with the fossil record. By delving deeper into the rich data set, research groups identified when birds lost their teeth, investigated the relatively slow evolution of crocodiles and outlined the similarities between birds’ and humans’ vocal learning ability, among other findings. [Continue reading…]

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There is no language instinct. Chomsky was wrong

Vyvyan Evans writes: Imagine you’re a traveller in a strange land. A local approaches you and starts jabbering away in an unfamiliar language. He seems earnest, and is pointing off somewhere. But you can’t decipher the words, no matter how hard you try.

That’s pretty much the position of a young child when she first encounters language. In fact, she would seem to be in an even more challenging position. Not only is her world full of ceaseless gobbledygook; unlike our hypothetical traveller, she isn’t even aware that these people are attempting to communicate. And yet, by the age of four, every cognitively normal child on the planet has been transformed into a linguistic genius: this before formal schooling, before they can ride bicycles, tie their own shoelaces or do rudimentary addition and subtraction. It seems like a miracle. The task of explaining this miracle has been, arguably, the central concern of the scientific study of language for more than 50 years.

In the 1960s, the US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky offered what looked like a solution. He argued that children don’t in fact learn their mother tongue – or at least, not right down to the grammatical building blocks (the whole process was far too quick and painless for that). He concluded that they must be born with a rudimentary body of grammatical knowledge – a ‘Universal Grammar’ – written into the human DNA. With this hard-wired predisposition for language, it should be a relatively trivial matter to pick up the superficial differences between, say, English and French. The process works because infants have an instinct for language: a grammatical toolkit that works on all languages the world over.

At a stroke, this device removes the pain of learning one’s mother tongue, and explains how a child can pick up a native language in such a short time. It’s brilliant. Chomsky’s idea dominated the science of language for four decades. And yet it turns out to be a myth. A welter of new evidence has emerged over the past few years, demonstrating that Chomsky is plain wrong. [Continue reading…]

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Gossip makes human society possible

Julie Beck writes: While gossiping is a behavior that has long been frowned upon, perhaps no one has frowned quite so intensely as the 16th- and 17th-century British. Back then, gossips, or “scolds” were sometimes forced to wear a menacing iron cage on their heads, called the “branks” or “scold’s bridle.” These masks purportedly had iron spikes or bits that went in the mouth and prevented the wearer from speaking. (And of course, of course, this ghastly punishment seems to have been mostly for women who were talking too much.)

Today, people who gossip are still not very well-liked, though we tend to resist the urge to cage their heads. Progress. And yet the reflexive distaste people feel for gossip and those who gossip in general is often nowhere to be found when people find themselves actually faced with a juicy morsel about someone they know. Social topics—personal relationships, likes and dislikes, anecdotes about social activities—made up about two-thirds of all conversations in analyses done by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. The remaining one-third of their time not spent talking about other people was devoted to discussing everything else: sports, music, politics, etc.

“Language in freely forming natural conversations is principally used for the exchange of social information,” Dunbar writes. “That such topics are so overwhelmingly important to us suggests that this is a primary function of language.” He even goes so far as to say: “Gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible.”

In recent years, research on the positive effects of gossip has proliferated. Rather than just a means to humiliate people and make them cry in the bathroom, gossip is now being considered by scientists as a way to learn about cultural norms, bond with others, promote cooperation, and even, as one recent study found, allow individuals to gauge their own success and social standing. [Continue reading…]

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What Shakespeare can teach science about language and the limits of the human mind

Jillian Hinchliffe and Seth Frey write: Although [Stephen] Booth is now retired [from the University of California, Berkeley], his work [on Shakespeare] couldn’t be more relevant. In the study of the human mind, old disciplinary boundaries have begun to dissolve and fruitful new relationships between the sciences and humanities have sprung up in their place. When it comes to the cognitive science of language, Booth may be the most prescient literary critic who ever put pen to paper. In his fieldwork in poetic experience, he unwittingly anticipated several language-processing phenomena that cognitive scientists have only recently begun to study. Booth’s work not only provides one of the most original and penetrating looks into the nature of Shakespeare’s genius, it has profound implications for understanding the processes that shape how we think.

Until the early decades of the 20th century, Shakespeare criticism fell primarily into two areas: textual, which grapples with the numerous variants of published works in order to produce an edition as close as possible to the original, and biographical. Scholarship took a more political turn beginning in the 1960s, providing new perspectives from various strains of feminist, Marxist, structuralist, and queer theory. Booth is resolutely dismissive of most of these modes of study. What he cares about is poetics. Specifically, how poetic language operates on and in audiences of a literary work.

Close reading, the school that flourished mid-century and with which Booth’s work is most nearly affiliated, has never gone completely out of style. But Booth’s approach is even more minute—microscopic reading, according to fellow Shakespeare scholar Russ McDonald. And as the microscope opens up new worlds, so does Booth’s critical lens. What makes him radically different from his predecessors is that he doesn’t try to resolve or collapse his readings into any single interpretation. That people are so hung up on interpretation, on meaning, Booth maintains, is “no more than habit.” Instead, he revels in the uncertainty caused by the myriad currents of phonetic, semantic, and ideational patterns at play. [Continue reading…]

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Your brain on metaphors

Michael Chorost writes:

The player kicked the ball.
The patient kicked the habit.
The villain kicked the bucket.

The verbs are the same. The syntax is identical. Does the brain notice, or care, that the first is literal, the second
metaphorical, the third idiomatic?

It sounds like a question that only a linguist could love. But neuroscientists have been trying to answer it using exotic brain-scanning technologies. Their findings have varied wildly, in some cases contradicting one another. If they make progress, the payoff will be big. Their findings will enrich a theory that aims to explain how wet masses of neurons can understand anything at all. And they may drive a stake into the widespread assumption that computers will inevitably become conscious in a humanlike way.

The hypothesis driving their work is that metaphor is central to language. Metaphor used to be thought of as merely poetic ornamentation, aesthetically pretty but otherwise irrelevant. “Love is a rose, but you better not pick it,” sang Neil Young in 1977, riffing on the timeworn comparison between a sexual partner and a pollinating perennial. For centuries, metaphor was just the place where poets went to show off.

But in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By, the linguist George Lakoff (at the University of California at Berkeley) and the philosopher Mark Johnson (now at the University of Oregon) revolutionized linguistics by showing that metaphor is actually a fundamental constituent of language. For example, they showed that in the seemingly literal statement “He’s out of sight,” the visual field is metaphorized as a container that holds things. The visual field isn’t really a container, of course; one simply sees objects or not. But the container metaphor is so ubiquitous that it wasn’t even recognized as a metaphor until Lakoff and Johnson pointed it out.

From such examples they argued that ordinary language is saturated with metaphors. Our eyes point to where we’re going, so we tend to speak of future time as being “ahead” of us. When things increase, they tend to go up relative to us, so we tend to speak of stocks “rising” instead of getting more expensive. “Our ordinary conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature,” they wrote. [Continue reading…]

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The way we live our lives in stories

Jonathan Gottschall: There’s a big question about what it is that makes people people. What is it that most sets our species apart from every other species? That’s the debate that I’ve been involved in lately.

When we call the species homo sapiens that’s an argument in the debate. It’s an argument that it is our sapience, our wisdom, our intelligence, or our big brains that most sets our species apart. Other scientists, other philosophers have pointed out that, no, a lot of the time we’re really not behaving all that rationally and reasonably. It’s our upright posture that sets us apart, or it’s our opposable thumb that allows us to do this incredible tool use, or it’s our cultural sophistication, or it’s the sophistication of language, and so on and so forth. I’m not arguing against any of those things, I’m just arguing that one thing of equal stature has typically been left off of this list, and that’s the way that people live their lives inside stories.

We live in stories all day long—fiction stories, novels, TV shows, films, interactive video games. We daydream in stories all day long. Estimates suggest we just do this for hours and hours per day — making up these little fantasies in our heads, these little fictions in our heads. We go to sleep at night to rest; the body rests, but not the brain. The brain stays up at night. What is it doing? It’s telling itself stories for about two hours per night. It’s eight or ten years out of our lifetime composing these little vivid stories in the theaters of our minds.

I’m not here to downplay any of those other entries into the “what makes us special” sweepstakes. I’m just here to say that one thing that has been left off the list is storytelling. We live our lives in stories, and it’s sort of mysterious that we do this. We’re not really sure why we do this. It’s one of these questions — storytelling — that falls in the gap between the sciences and the humanities. If you have this division into two cultures: you have the science people over here in their buildings, and the humanities people over here in their buildings. They’re writing in their own journals, and publishing their own book series, and the scientists are doing the same thing.

You have this division, and you have all this area in between the sciences and the humanities that no one is colonizing. There are all these questions in the borderlands between these disciplines that are rich and relatively unexplored. One of them is storytelling and it’s one of these questions that humanities people aren’t going to be able to figure out on their own because they don’t have a scientific toolkit that will help them gradually, painstakingly narrow down the field of competing ideas. The science people don’t really see these questions about storytelling as in their jurisdiction: “This belongs to someone else, this is the humanities’ territory, we don’t know anything about it.”

What is needed is fusion — people bringing together methods, ideas, approaches from scholarship and from the sciences to try to answer some of these questions about storytelling. Humans are addicted to stories, and they play an enormous role in human life and yet we know very, very little about this subject. [Continue reading… or watch a video of Gottschall’s talk.]

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