The significance of ‘untranslatable’ words

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Tim Lomas writes: [‘untranslatable’] words exert great fascination, not only in specialised fields like linguistics or anthropology (Wierzbicka, 1999), but also in popular culture. Part of the fascination seems to derive from the notion that such words offer ‘windows’ into other cultures, and thus potentially into new ways of being in the world. As Wierzbicka (1997, p. 5) puts it, ‘words with special, culture-specific meanings reflect and pass on not only ways of living characteristic of a given society, but also ways of thinking’. Thus, ‘untranslatable’ words are not only of interest to translators; after all, many such professionals argue that it can be difficult to find exact translations for most words, and that nearly all terms lose some specificity or nuance when rendered in another tongue (Hatim & Munday, 2004). Rather, ‘untranslatability’ reflects the notion that such words identify phenomena that have only been recognised by specific cultures. Perhaps the most famous example is Schadenfreude, a German term describing pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Such words are not literally untranslatable, of course, since their meaning can be conveyed in a sentence. Rather, they are deemed ‘untranslatable’ to the extent that other languages lack a single word/phrase for the phenomenon.

The significance of such words is much debated. A dominant theoretical notion here is ‘linguistic relativity’ (Hussein, 2012). First formulated by the German philosophers Herder (1744–1803) and Humboldt (1767–1835), it came to prominence with the linguist Sapir (1929) and his student Whorf (1940). Their so-called ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ holds that language plays a constitutive role in the way that people experience, understand and even perceive the world. As Whorf (1956, pp. 213–214) put it, ‘We dissect nature along lines laid out by our native languages … The world is presented as a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized … largely by the linguistic systems in our minds’. This hypothesis comes in various strengths. Its stronger form is linguistic determinism, where language inextricably constitutes and constrains thought. For instance, Whorf argued that the Hopi people had a different experience of time due to particularities in their grammar, such that they lacked a linear sense of past, present and future. This strong determinism has been criticised, e.g. by Pinker (1995), who argued that the Hopi experience of time was not particularly different to that of Western cultures. However, the milder form of the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, simply holds that language shapes thought and experience. This milder hypothesis is generally accepted by most anthropologists and other such scholars (Perlovsky, 2009). [Read more…]

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Human sounds convey emotions clearer and faster than words

McGill University: It takes just one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions conveyed by vocalizations, according to researchers from McGill. It doesn’t matter whether the non-verbal sounds are growls of anger, the laughter of happiness or cries of sadness. More importantly, the researchers have also discovered that we pay more attention when an emotion (such as happiness, sadness or anger) is expressed through vocalizations than we do when the same emotion is expressed in speech.

The researchers believe that the speed with which the brain ‘tags’ these vocalizations and the preference given to them compared to language, is due to the potentially crucial role that decoding vocal sounds has played in human survival.

“The identification of emotional vocalizations depends on systems in the brain that are older in evolutionary terms,” says Marc Pell, Director of McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the lead author on the study that was recently published in Biological Psychology. ”Understanding emotions expressed in spoken language, on the other hand, involves more recent brain systems that have evolved as human language developed.” [Continue reading…]

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The deep space of digital reading

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Paul La Farge writes: In A History of Reading, the Canadian novelist and essayist Alberto Manguel describes a remarkable transformation of human consciousness, which took place around the 10th century A.D.: the advent of silent reading. Human beings have been reading for thousands of years, but in antiquity, the normal thing was to read aloud. When Augustine (the future St. Augustine) went to see his teacher, Ambrose, in Milan, in 384 A.D., he was stunned to see him looking at a book and not saying anything. With the advent of silent reading, Manguel writes,

… the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal.

To read silently is to free your mind to reflect, to remember, to question and compare. The cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf calls this freedom “the secret gift of time to think”: When the reading brain becomes able to process written symbols automatically, the thinking brain, the I, has time to go beyond those symbols, to develop itself and the culture in which it lives.

A thousand years later, critics fear that digital technology has put this gift in peril. The Internet’s flood of information, together with the distractions of social media, threaten to overwhelm the interior space of reading, stranding us in what the journalist Nicholas Carr has called “the shallows,” a frenzied flitting from one fact to the next. In Carr’s view, the “endless, mesmerizing buzz” of the Internet imperils our very being: “One of the greatest dangers we face,” he writes, “as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.”

There’s no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips. [Continue reading…]

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Connections aren’t conversations – while technology enables, it can also interfere

By Daria Kuss, Nottingham Trent University

A prisoner was in the US was recently released after 44 years of incarceration for the attempted murder of a police officer. Emerging onto the streets of New York City, Otis Johnson, now 69, found himself bewildered by the world before him. Seeing people apparently talking to themselves on the street, futuristic headphones dangling from their ears, reminded him of CIA agents. People barely paid attention to their surroundings, and instead studied their smartphones while crossing the street, engrossed in their own personal bubbles.

Technology had delivered Johnson a massive culture shock, the shock of a world where technology has quickly changed the way we live and the way we relate to one another.

In 2013 Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and esteemed professor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote Alone Together, in which she questioned the extent to which social media is bringing people together. Following decades of research on the profound impact of modern technology on human relationships, Turkle concluded that with the omnipresence of technology “we’re moving from conversation to connection”.

Connection, it seems, denotes a very different quality of social interaction in comparison to conversation, as it refers to continuous streams of little titbits of information, such as those neatly packaged into 140 characters on Twitter.

Conversation, on the other hand, refers to listening and empathic understanding, actively attending to another person, rather than fleetingly commenting on their status updates online while simultaneously talking on the phone, doing the laundry, or preparing the children’s dinner.

[Read more…]

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How a joke can help us unlock the mystery of meaning in language

By Vyvyan Evans, Bangor University

What do you get if you cross a kangaroo with an elephant?

You’ll have to wait for the punchline, but you should already have shards of meaning tumbling about your mind. Now, jokes don’t have to be all that funny, of course, but if they are to work at all then they must construct something beyond the simple words deployed.

Language is the tissue that connects us in our daily social lives. We use it to gossip, to get a job, and give someone the sack. We use it to seduce, quarrel, propose marriage, get divorced and yes, tell the odd gag. In the absence of telepathy, it lets us interact with our nearest and dearest, and in our virtual web of digital communication, with hundreds of people we may never have met.

But while we now know an awful lot about the detail of the grammatical systems of the world’s 7,000 or so languages, scientific progress on the mysterious elixir of communication – meaning – has been a much tougher nut to crack.

[Read more…]

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Possessed by a mask

Sandra Newman writes: It is an acknowledged fact of modern life that the internet brings out the worst in people. Otherwise law-abiding citizens pilfer films and music. Eminent authors create ‘sock puppets’ to anonymously praise their own work and denigrate that of rivals. Teenagers use the internet for bullying; even more disturbingly, grown-ups bully strangers with obsessive zeal, sometimes even driving them from their homes with repeated murder threats. Porn thrives, and takes on increasingly bizarre and often disturbing forms.

Commentators seem at a loss to satisfactorily account for this surge in antisocial tendencies. Sometimes it’s blamed on a few sociopathic individuals – but the offenders include people who are impeccably decent in their offline lives. The anonymity of online life is another explanation commonly given – but these behaviours persist even when the identities of users are easily discovered, and when their real names appear directly above offensive statements. It almost seems to be a contagion issuing from the technology itself, or at least strong evidence that computers are alienating us from our humanity. But we might have a better chance of understanding internet hooliganism if we looked at another form of concealment that isn’t true concealment, but that nonetheless has historically lured people into behaving in ways that are alien to their normal selves: the mask.

There doesn’t seem to be any culture in which masks have not been used. From the Australian outback to the Arctic, from Mesolithic Africa to the United States of the 21st century, people have always made and employed masks in ways that are seemingly various and yet have an underlying commonality. Their earliest appearance is in religious ritual. [Continue reading…]

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When languages die, we lose a part of who we are

By Anouschka Foltz, Bangor University

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) is in full gear and climate change is again on everyone’s mind. It conjures up images of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, droughts, flooding, threatened habitats, endangered species, and displaced people. We know it threatens biodiversity, but what about linguistic diversity?

Humans are the only species on the planet whose communication system exhibits enormous diversity. And linguistic diversity is crucial for understanding our capacity for language. An increase in climate-change related natural disasters may affect linguistic diversity. A good example is Vanuatu, an island state in the Pacific, with quite a dramatic recent rise in sea levels.

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. These languages exhibit enormous diversity, from the number of distinctive sounds (there are languages with as few as 11 different sounds and as many as 118) to the vast range of possible word orders, structures and concepts that languages use to convey meaning. Every absolute that linguists have posited has been challenged, and linguists are busy debating if there is anything at all that is common to all languages in the world or anything at all that does not exist in the languages of the world. Sign languages show us that languages do not even need to be spoken. This diversity is evidence of the enormous flexibility and plasticity of the human brain and its capacity for communication.

Studying diverse languages gives us invaluable insights into human cognition. But language diversity is at risk. Languages are dying every year. Often a language’s death is recorded when the last known speaker dies, and about 35% of languages in the world are currently losing speakers or are more seriously endangered. Most of these have never been recorded and so would be lost forever. Linguists estimate that about 50% of the languages spoken today will disappear in the next 100 years. Some even argue that up to 90% of today’s languages will have disappeared by 2115.

[Read more…]

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A scientific approach designed to precisely calibrate the metrics needed for quantifying bullshit

Science News reports: Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel was known for his meteoric rise, until he was known for his fall. His research on social interactions, which spanned topics from infidelity to selfishness to discrimination, frequently appeared in top-tier journals. But then in 2011, three junior researchers raised concerns that Stapel was fabricating data. Stapel’s institution, Tilburg University, suspended him and launched a formal investigation. A commission ultimately determined that of his more than 125 research papers, at least 55 were based on fraudulent data. Stapel now has 57 retractions to his name.

The case provided an unusual opportunity for exploring the language of deception: One set of Stapel’s papers that discussed faked data and a set of his papers based on legitimate results. Linguists David Markowitz and Jeffrey Hancock ran an analysis of articles in each set that listed Stapel as the first author. The researchers discovered particular tells in the language that allowed them to peg the fraudulent work with roughly 70 percent accuracy. While Stapel was careful to concoct data that appeared to be reasonable, he oversold his false goods, using, for example, more science-related terms and more amplifying terms, like extreme and exceptionally, in the now-retracted papers.

Markowitz and Hancock, now at Stanford, are still probing the language of lies, and they recently ran a similar analysis on a larger sample of papers with fudged data.

The bottom line: Fraudulent papers were full of jargon, harder to read, and bloated with references. This parsing-of-language approach, which the team describes in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, might be used to flag papers that deserve extra scrutiny. But tricks for detecting counterfeit data are unlikely to thwart the murkier problem of questionable research practices or the general lack of clarity in the scientific literature.

“This is an important contribution to the discussion of quality control in research,”Nick Steneck, a science historian at the University of Michigan and an expert in research integrity practices, told me. “But there’s a whole lot of other reasons why clarity and readability of scientific writing matters, including making things understandable to the public.” [Continue reading…]

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The strange persistence of first languages

Julie Sedivy writes: Like a household that welcomes a new child, a single mind can’t admit a new language without some impact on other languages already residing there. Languages can co-exist, but they tussle, as do siblings, over mental resources and attention. When a bilingual person tries to articulate a thought in one language, words and grammatical structures from the other language often clamor in the background, jostling for attention. The subconscious effort of suppressing this competition can slow the retrieval of words—and if the background language elbows its way to the forefront, the speaker may resort to code-switching, plunking down a word from one language into the sentence frame of another.

Meanwhile, the weaker language is more likely to become swamped; when resources are scarce, as they are during mental exhaustion, the disadvantaged language may become nearly impossible to summon. Over time, neglecting an earlier language makes it harder and harder for it to compete for access.

According to a 2004 survey conducted in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, fewer than half of people belonging to Generation 1.5 — immigrants who arrive before their teenage years — claimed to speak the language they were born into “very well.” A 2006 study of immigrant languages in Southern California forecast that even among Mexican Americans, the slowest group to assimilate within Southern California, new arrivals would live to hear only 5 out of every 100 of their great-grandchildren speak fluent Spanish.

When a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history. Language is memory’s receptacle. It has Proustian powers. Just as smells are known to trigger vivid memories of past experiences, language is so entangled with our experiences that inhabiting a specific language helps surface submerged events or interactions that are associated with it. [Continue reading…]

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Linguistic diversity in the U.S: 320 languages spoken; 1 in 5 Americans don’t speak English at home

Quartz reports: Every year, the US Census Bureau releases data on the languages spoken in American homes. Usually it groups the languages in 39 major categories. Now it has released much more detailed figures, which show that Americans speak not 39, but more than 320 distinct languages.

The bureau collected the data from 2009 to 2013 as part of the American Community Survey, which asks Americans all kinds of questions to create highly granular estimates on various demographic indicators. The new data estimate that more than 60 million Americans speak a language other than English at home.

Included are 150 Native American languages, as well as relatively obscure ones like Pennsylvania Dutch, Icelandic, Mongolian, and many others. The data estimate that Sudanese, for example, is spoken at home by only 35 Americans. Patwin, spoken by a group of Americans native to northern California, it estimates at just four speakers. [Continue reading…]

There are some anomalies in the data presented here — such as the 12,320 speakers of “African.” That should say: African, not further specified.

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The dangerous consequences of routinized venomousness in public life

Pankaj Mishra writes: In the guise of hyper-patriotism, trash talk has gone mainstream in the world’s two biggest democracies. Donald Trump, the leading candidate in Republican primaries, set a new low in public discourse by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” The Hindu nationalist chief minister of one of India’s richest states recently underscored the deterioration in India’s political culture by declaring Muslims could only live in the country if they stopped eating beef.

One hopes that a dignified retort of the kind that defused the menace of McCarthyism — “Have you no decency, sir?” — terminates this season of demagogues. But public support for them suggests that a disturbingly broad assault is underway on democratic values — indeed, on civility itself.

People foaming at the mouth with hate and malice have become a common sight on both traditional and social media. Mobs in India and mass shooters in America have thrived in this climate of irrationalism. Many people, it seems, can think only in the categories of friends and foes, group loyalty or treason; their preference for abuse kills all possibilities of reasoned debate. [Continue reading…]

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A conversation with Koko the gorilla

Roc Morin writes: One of the first words that Koko used to describe herself was Queen. The gorilla was only a few years old when she first made the gesture — sweeping a paw diagonally across her chest as if tracing a royal sash.

“It was a sign we almost never used!” Koko’s head-caretaker Francine Patterson laughed. “Koko understands that she’s special because of all the attention she’s had from professors, and caregivers, and the media.”

The cause of the primate’s celebrity is her extraordinary aptitude for language. Over the past 43 years, since Patterson began teaching Koko at the age of 1, the gorilla has learned more than 1,000 words of modified American Sign Language—a vocabulary comparable to that of a 3-year-old human child. While there have been many attempts to teach human languages to animals, none have been more successful than Patterson’s achievement with Koko.

If Koko is a queen, then her kingdom is a sprawling research facility in the mountains outside Santa Cruz, California. It was there, under a canopy of stately redwoods, that I met research-assistant Lisa Holliday.

“You came on a good day,” Holliday smiled. “Koko’s in a good mood. She was playing the spoon game all morning! That’s when she takes the spoon and runs off with it so you can’t give her another bite. She’s an active girl. She’s always got her dolls, and in the afternoon, her kittens — or as we call them, her kids.”

It was a winding stroll up a sun-spangled trail toward the cabin where Patterson was busy preparing a lunch of diced apples and nuts for Koko. The gorilla’s two kitten playmates romped in a crate by her feet. We would go deliver the meal together shortly, but first I had some questions for the 68-year-old researcher. I wanted to understand more about her famous charge and the rest of our closest living relatives. [Continue reading…]

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After centuries of colonial violence, a resurgence of indigenous language learning

Jason Coppola reports: It’s a crisis point in history for Native American languages. Without a concerted effort to revitalize them, many will soon go extinct, succumbing to the generations-long effort to destroy them.

“You could reasonably say every single Native American language, including the large ones, are endangered,” said linguist K. David Harrison, a National Geographic fellow teaching at Swarthmore College. “There’s no room for complacency whatsoever.”

The Maori people of New Zealand are one of many groups that have struggled against the violent effects of colonization on their languages. In 1840, the Maori came under the rule of the British Crown as more and more European settlers arrived and more land was needed to accommodate them. Land conflicts eventually broke out into all-out war, ending with huge tracts of Maori land being confiscated by the government. Displacement, poverty and racism became commonplace. Their struggle now reflects that of other Indigenous peoples and nations across the globe fighting to preserve their knowledge, culture and traditional way of life. [Continue reading…]

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How language can shape a sense of place

Claire Cameron writes: English speakers and others are highly egocentric when it comes to orienting themselves in the world. Objects and people exist to the left, right, in front, and to the back of you. You move forward and backward in relation to the direction you are facing. For an aboriginal tribe in north Queensland, Australia, called the Guugu Ymithirr, such a “me me me” approach to spatial information makes no sense. Instead, they use cardinal directions to express spatial information (pdf). So rather than “Can you move to my left?” they would say “Can you move to the west?”

Linguist Guy Deustcher says that Guugu Ymithirr speakers have a kind of “internal compass” that is imprinted from an extremely young age. In the same way that English-speaking infants learn to use different tenses when they speak, so do Guugu Ymithirr children learn to orient themselves along compass lines, not relative to themselves. In fact, says Deustcher, if a Guugu Ymithirr speaker wants to direct your attention to the direction behind him, he “points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.” Whether that translates into less egocentric worldviews is a matter for further study and debate.

Other studies have shown that speakers of languages that use cardinal directions to express locations have fantastic spatial memory and navigation skills — perhaps because their experience of an event is so well-defined by the directions it took place in. [Continue reading…]

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Discover a society with no absolutes, populated by the ultimate empiricists — people happy without God

Daniel Everett summarizes the lesson for linguistics from his research of the Pirahã people and their language:

The lesson is that language is not something mysterious that is outside the bounds of natural selection, or just popped into being through some mutated gene. But that language is a human invention to solve a human problem. Other creatures can’t use it for the same reason they can’t use a shovel: it was invented by humans, for humans and its success is judged by humans.

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