Category Archives: language

On Language Influencing Non-verbal Thought

from reference 1

Does the language we speak influence our non-verbal thoughts? This question is a stratifying one: some think that language is synonymous with thought, while others consider it a component of our mental abilities or a type of output, no more representative of underlying cogitation than the way we walk or move our arms.

A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science weighs in on this matter with experimental results indicating that individuals who speak very different languages (English, Turkish, Chinese, & Spanish) seem to non-verbally represent events in similar ways.

Specifically, in one task, the researchers asked their subjects to communicate an event such as “boy tilts glass” (read in each individual’s native language) with gestures. In a second task, they were asked to reconstruct an event using pictures. In order to quantify performance in these tasks, the researchers examined the ordering that gestures or pictures were used. They reasoned that because grammatical structures dictate that words be used in potentially divergent ways depending on language, that this structure might extend to the order in which gestures or pictures are used as well. Interestingly, they found that there was no quantitative difference in performance between speakers of different languages, suggesting that there is a common underlying mode of event representation which is minimally influenced by spoken language.

1. Goldin-Meadow S, So WC, OzyĆ¼rek A, Mylander C. (2008) The natural order of events: how speakers of different languages represent events nonverbally. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 105(27):9163-8.

On Reading The Unreadable

Phaistos Disc

This is the Phaistos Disc. It is the first piece of printed writing and nobody can read it. It is loosely dated to 1900BC (the Greek Government will not allow it to be subjected to thermoluminescent testing which would clear up its time of origin). It is clearly printed in the sense that each character was stamped onto this piece of clay, not etched or written as all other pieces of writing from this period. Many attempts have been made to decipher it, but the prevailing feeling is that these have been unsuccessful. I find mysteries like this beautiful and exciting because they area great challenge and reminder of how much our knowledge relies on a kind of collective remembrance of things. Without such distributed knowledge, where would we be?

Ode to Sentences

Why are we so averse to long sentences? Is there some inherent property rendering them anathema to our natural mode of communication? There is certainly no grammatical rule excluding their use. In fact, some of the most gorgeous sentences in all of English prose are those which might be labeled run-on! Consider the following lead sentence from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!:

“From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.”

Or the following from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake:

(To say nothing of course of the ends of either Wake or Ulysses, which descend into language completely lacking in punctuation.)

“His husband, poor old A’Hara (Okaroff?) crestfallen by things and down at heels at the time, they squeak, accepted the (Zassnoch!) ardree’s shilling at the conclusion of the Crimean war and, having flown his wild geese, alohned in crowds to warnder on like Shuley Luney, enlisted in Tyrone’s horse, the Irish whites, and soldiered a bit with Wolsey under the assumed name of Blanco Fusilovna Bucklovitch (spurious) after which the cawer and marble halls of Pump Court Columbarium, the home of the old seakings, looked upon each other and queth their haven ever more for it transpires that on the other side of the water it came about that on the field of Vasileff’s Cornix inauspiciously with his unit he perished, suying, this papal leafless to old chap give, rawl chawclates for mouther-in-louth.”

The former is perhaps a bit more intelligible at first blush than the latter, but both prove a point. Long sentences allow for a different kind of expressive hue.

Beyond their aesthetic appeal, the existence of (semi) meaningful long sentences serves another purpose: they speak to one goal of Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar.

In brief, linguistics prior to Chomsky was a taxonomic science, sure in the descriptive quality of its program to catalog the “corpus” of a language: all the phonemes (sounds) and morphemes (combinations of sounds). Amongst several issues Chomsky raised with this system was the fact that there are an infinite number of possible sentences, making any attempt to index them an impossible task, and generally pointing to the inadequacy of such a strategy. Beyond this, however, Chomsky was interested in exposing some sort of mentally internalized grammar, some system at work in each of us when we compose sentences.

The standard example cited to demonstrate that there are unending possibilities for sentence construction is an example of some iterative procedure such as: “The man whose house had a roof that sagged at the point where the ladder had fallen when the repairman lost his balance while looking at the woman who was passing because…” In my opinion, these examples don’t really go far towards characterizing such a lumenous system for building sentences because we do not use anything like them in speaking or writing. Though we are clearly capable of deducing the meaning of the instance cited above, the fact that we don’t employ them also speaks to the nature of whatever subconscious lingual machinery we’ve got.

I suppose I’ve not clarified the question of sentential length, but what I have tried to do is point to the fact that sentence length is somehow reflective of the possible modes of expression that one can achieve as defined by our personal grammars. Perhaps we will find that as we evolve, the need for ever more subtle communications will lead to long dense sentences like those above. Another possibility is that such objects will remain in their traditional home of stylized prose. In any case, none of us should be afraid of the dreaded run on.

Language Acquisition

Apparently these things start to learn words at an accelerated rate around the two year mark. That is to say that they seem to abruptly begin to amass and employ a wide variety of words. This phenomenon is referred to as “vocabulary explosion.”

Convincing generalized theories of language acquisition have been around for around 30 years, the most successful of which is probably Noam Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. But such theories do not attempt to describe the dynamics of communication mastery introduced above. That is one of the tasks of the ingenious minds at work on the subject today.

A recent submission to Science Magazine by the Psychologist Bob McMurray (ref. 1) attempts to computationally model the observed acceleration of the word uptake process. Although past explanations of this phenomenon have invoked specialized and well timed brain mechanisms, Dr. McMurray’s work attempts a more parsimonious description.

He concludes:

“Acceleration is guaranteed in any system in which (i) words are acquired in parallel, that is, the system builds representations for multiple words simultaneously, and (ii) the difficulty of learning words is distributed such that there are few words that can be acquired quickly and a greater number that take longer. This distribution of difficulty derives from many factors, including frequency, phonology, syntax, the child’s capabilities, and the contexts where words appear.”

He goes on to demonstrate that languages seem to display such a distribution of word difficulty, and to show that his model captures the accelerating behavior well.

The real beauty of the work however, is the posited inherent parallelism. Such ability in the human brain has long been suggested by a wide variety of scientists and philosophers. Indeed, I scarcely need use the word suggested, as we know that certain things happen in parallel, the processing of visual information, for instance, does not happen one pixel at a time but rather proceeds by working on the entire pattern of light that falls on the retina at once.

Dr. McMurray has thus figured out an elegant way to apply what should be thought of as a basic property of the brain to explain what seemed an exceedingly difficult problem, something everybody who works on complex systems hopes to be able to do.

1. McMurray B., (2007) Defusing the childhood vocabulary explosion.
Science 317 (5838):631.