ayjay + language   40

Language Log » More on trends in the Google ngrams corpus
Every single one of these 14 poster-child examples for the decline of "moral virtue character and virtue" (Kesebir & Kesebir) and "sacred speech" (Merritt) actually rises in frequency over the last few years of the Google ngrams dataset. Is this because the first decade of the 20th century saw a new Great Awakening? I doubt it — I'm pretty sure that those graphs just reflect a changing mix of publications in the underlying collection.

And this pattern is a serious problem for Merritt's argument. Either his personal impression that "sacred speech and spiritual conversation are in decline" is wrong, or his reliance on Google ngram data to show a similar trend across the 20th century is wrong.
language  ethics  religion  from instapaper
26 days ago by ayjay
Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet
The gravitational pull that English now exerts on other languages can also be seen in the world of fiction. The writer and translator Tim Parks has argued that European novels are increasingly being written in a kind of denatured, international vernacular, shorn of country-specific references and difficult-to-translate wordplay or grammar. Novels in this mode – whether written in Dutch, Italian or Swiss German – have not only assimilated the style of English, but perhaps more insidiously limit themselves to describing subjects in a way that would be easily digestible in an anglophone context.

Yet the influence of English now goes beyond simple lexical borrowing or literary influence. Researchers at the IULM University in Milan have noticed that, in the past 50 years, Italian syntax has shifted towards patterns that mimic English models, for instance in the use of possessives instead of reflexives to indicate body parts and the frequency with which adjectives are placed before nouns. German is also increasingly adopting English grammatical forms, while in Swedish its influence has been changing the rules governing word formation and phonology.
language  from instapaper
july 2018 by ayjay
Philip Hensher on Sheffield: ‘The discovery of difference turned me into a writer’
Places were less alike in the 1970s than they are now. To a shy boy, the experience was almost overwhelming. People looked and dressed differently. Speech was quite different – I was quite unprepared for “castle” to rhyme with “cattle”, for the glottal stop that took the place of the definite article, for words that started around here and stopped around here. Gennel; mardy; nesh; gi’o’er. A sister was suddenly “our Mandy”. Food was different – there was something called haslet that you got not from butchers, but with weird specificity, from pork butchers. Most of all, the manners were different. They spoke to you briskly; adult women should not be expected to be shy and retiring; the joke was delivered with a straight face, and usually turned out to be on you. Pretty soon I was giving as good as I got.
England  language 
february 2018 by ayjay
LRB · Bee Wilson · Merely a Warning that a Noun is Coming: The Littlehampton Libels
As well as being obscene, the libels were also ‘decidedly strange’, as Hilliard remarks. This was swearing as a foreign language by someone who had the vocab but was not sure of how to fit the words together. The phrases ‘poxy ass’ and ‘foxy ass’ often pop up in the libels. The ‘foxy’ in question did not mean ‘sassy’, Hilliard points out, but decaying like a foxed book. The phrase ‘piss country whore’, a favourite in Edith’s letters, is not one that Hilliard can trace to any known usage. He wonders whether she perhaps misheard the phrase ‘piss-factory’, meaning a pub. Often, she piles up an excess of adjectives for effect: ‘bloody flaming fucking piss country’, where ‘bloody country’ on its own would do.
language  from instapaper
february 2018 by ayjay
The Shallowness of Google Translate
Another natural question is whether Google Translate’s use of neural networks—a gesture toward imitating brains—is bringing us closer to genuine understanding of language by machines. This sounds plausible at first, but there’s still no attempt being made to go beyond the surface level of words and phrases. All sorts of statistical facts about the huge databases are embodied in the neural nets, but these statistics merely relate words to other words, not to ideas. There’s no attempt to create internal structures that could be thought of as ideas, images, memories, or experiences. Such mental etherea are still far too elusive to deal with computationally, and so, as a substitute, fast and sophisticated statistical word-clustering algorithms are used. But the results of such techniques are no match for actually having ideas involved as one reads, understands, creates, modifies, and judges a piece of writing.
language  translation  AI  from instapaper
january 2018 by ayjay
Why Would the President of the United States, Like, Tweet This Way?
As D’Arcy explains, when “like” is used as a discourse particle, it can serve a range of communicative purposes, even if it can’t be assigned a concrete definition. It can draw focus to a topic of discourse, indicating to those listening that they should pay attention to what comes next. It can also be used as a kind of hedge—or as the linguist Lawrence Shourup puts it, “like” can express “a possible unspecified minor nonequivalence of what is said and what is meant.” (Interestingly, despite the “Valley Girl” stereotype, D’Arcy finds that men actually use “like” as a discourse particle slightly more often than women.)
language  from instapaper
january 2018 by ayjay
You Can't Say That!
Such projects of social transformation give expression to progressive “empathy” for designated classes of victims. But here we encounter another bit of Newspeak, if we grant that empathy properly understood means being sympathetic and alive to human experience in its concrete particularity. Progressive empathy tends to treat persons as instances of categories defined by politics. Drawing a parallel between Communist class struggle and liberal-democratic gender politics, Legutko writes that “a real woman living in a real society, like a real worker living in a real society, is politically not to be trusted because she deviates too much from the political model. In fact, a nonfeminist woman is not a woman at all, just as a noncommunist worker was not really a proletarian.”

One could go further: Willful obtuseness to social phenomena is crucial in constructing the symbolic persons at the heart of these progressive dramas, because the point of the dramas is for the progressive to act out his own virtue as one who embraces the symbol. Progressive purity, based on abstraction from social reality, sometimes has to be guarded by policing the speech of real individuals who are putatively the objects of the progressive’s enthusiasm, or the speech of those who are in more intimate contact with these individuals and threaten to complicate the picture—for example, the speech of the social worker who frankly describes the confusion and unhappiness that mark the lives of transgender people. The great march forward requires the erasure of “gender binaries,” and that is all one needs to know.
politics  culture  language 
november 2017 by ayjay
The Invention of Numbers - Education & Culture
Everett chronicles a great deal of evidence suggesting that humans are hardwired in the brain to distinguish one, two, and three, but no more. There are unwritten languages that can mark nouns and verbs as singular and plural but also trial—but none that mark the “four-al” or beyond. Hunter-gatherer people’s languages tend to have “real” numbers for just one, two, three, and four, with four often being something like “two-two.” Note that even in English, we say not “one-th,” “two-th” or “three-th” but have irregular, one-off forms: first, second, and third, where first and second have no sign of one and two and third is only forcedly relatable to three. After that, however, come the predictable fourth, fifth, sixth, and so on. Babies are best at distinguishing one, two, or three things; beyond that, it gets messy. Roman numerals had simple strokes up to three, but then detoured into subtractive complication with the IV for four.
math  thinking  neuroscience  language 
may 2017 by ayjay
The Kekulé Problem - Issue 47: Consciousness - Nautilus
So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didnt say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course they dont think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didnt precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old. They havent explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.
thinking  language  from instapaper
april 2017 by ayjay
First Words by Stephen M. Barr | Articles | First Things
But evolutionary theory and evolutionary data have come a long way since Darwin. It is now thought that a number of evolutionary developments may have involved fairly large qualitative jumps, including the first appearance of DNA, of cells with nuclei (eukaryotes), of multicellular organisms, and of sexual reproduction. Such jumps are very rare “one-off” events. So it must have been, argue Berwick and Chomsky, with Merge. It presumably had to happen in a single individual:

Such a change takes place in an individual—and perhaps, if fortunate, in all of [his or her] siblings too, passed on from one or (less likely) both parents. Individuals so endowed would have advantages, and the capacity might proliferate through a small breeding group over generations.
What advantage did Merge and hierarchical language confer? Here Berwick and Chomsky make one of their most important claims: Merge and syntactically hierarchical language were not, to begin with, an instrument of communication at all, but of thought. This makes sense, as it would have been valueless for communication when only one person possessed it. Externalization developed later and more gradually.
language 
march 2017 by ayjay
Using natural language processing to reverse engineer code
The source code of computer program is text, but not a text. That is, it consists of plain text files, but it’s not a text in the sense that Paradise Lost or an email is a text. The most efficient way to parse a programming language is as a programming language. Treating it as an English text will loose vital structure, and wrongly try to impose a foreign structure.

But what if you have two computer programs? That’s the problem I’ve been thinking about. I have code in two very different programming languages, and I’d like to know how functions in one code base relate to those in the other. The connections are not ones that a compiler could find. The connections are more psychological than algorithmic. I’d like to reverse engineer, for example, which function in language A a developer had in mind when he wrote a function in language B.
programming  language  from instapaper
march 2017 by ayjay
Foucault from Beyond the Grave | JHIBlog
In the 1964 Brussels lectures, Foucault contends that early modern Europe (during what he calls “the classical age”) did not, strictly speaking, have literature—at least in the way we have since come to understand the term—for the simple reason that it interpreted itself culturally as the tributary of the word of God. People in this period, of course, wrote novels. Some even experimented with the kind of knowing self-consciousness about their own literary artifices—referring in writing to the fact that they were writing—that would later become associated with literary modernism (Foucault offers a fascinating analysis, for instance, of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste). Yet what distinguishes these earlier endeavor from the literature of the modern age is the fact that, during the classical age, “any work of language existed as a function of a certain mute and primitive language, that the work was charged with restoring.” This “language that [came] before languages” was the “word of God, it was the truth, it was the model” (La Grande étrangère, 100). Rhetoric was the means through which human utterances, in all their obtuseness, could acquire something of the limpidity of divine speech. But what we have come to call literature only emerges once God has died—or become dumb, to be precise. Literature is the attempt from within the unremitting chatter of discourse to mark language, to dent it, possibly to re-enchant or overcome it—hence modern literature’s frequently transgressive character. But once it has ceased to represent the word of God, once it has become simple the words filling a page, literature becomes an emblem of human finitude. As such, it cannot be other than “beyond the grave” (104).

Foucault’s claim that, strictly speaking, literature does not exist as an independent realm of discourse until the late eighteenth century parallels the claim he would soon make in The Order of Things that “man” (in the sense of the “human”) did not exist as a specific object of knowledge until the same period. The birth of the human sciences and the genesis of literature are both, Foucault, maintains, consequences of t God’s retreat.
language  lit  theology  theory 
december 2016 by ayjay
Josef Pieper, Über die Schlichtheit der Sprache in der Philosophie
Je mehr also, noch einmal, ein Schriftsteller der im Volke gesprochenen natürlichen Rede nahe bleibt, je schlichter (heißt das) seine Sprache – desto reicher ist sie an Wirklichkeitsfracht. [...]

Die Sprache des Philosophierens entfernt sich von der Sprache der Dichtung nicht dadurch, daß sie aufhört, sachlich und nüchtern zu sein, sondern dadurch, daß sie ihre Schlichtheit verliert, fast hätte ich gesagt, ihre Unschuld. Vom fachlichen Terminus führt kein Weg zum dichterischen Wort; im Gegenteil, er verdeckt die Tatsache, daß ein Weg, hin und her, zwischen Philosophie und Poesie schon gebahnt ist. Einzig das Wasser der schlichten Rede, das, weil es selber unsichtbar ist, den Lichtstrahl bis auf den Grund dringen läßt, ist fähig der Verwandlung in den Wein der Dichtung.
CSL  philosophy  language 
november 2016 by ayjay
Evidence Rebuts Chomsky's Theory of Language Learning
The research suggests a radically different view, in which learning of a child’s first language does not rely on an innate grammar module. Instead the new research shows that young children use various types of thinking that may not be specific to language at all—such as the ability to classify the world into categories (people or objects, for instance) and to understand the relations among things. These capabilities, coupled with a unique hu­­­man ability to grasp what others intend to communicate, allow language to happen. The new findings indicate that if researchers truly want to understand how children, and others, learn languages, they need to look outside of Chomsky’s theory for guidance. [...]

At the time the Chomskyan paradigm was proposed, it was a radical break from the more informal approaches prevalent at the time, and it drew attention to all the cognitive complexities in­­volved in becoming competent at speaking and understanding language. But at the same time that theories such as Chomsky’s allowed us to see new things, they also blinded us to other aspects of language. In linguistics and allied fields, many researchers are be­­coming ever more dissatisfied with a totally formal language approach such as universal grammar—not to mention the empirical inadequacies of the theory. Moreover, many modern re­­searchers are also unhappy with armchair theoretical analyses, when there are large corpora of linguistic data—many now available online—that can be analyzed to test a theory.
linguistics  language  from instapaper
september 2016 by ayjay
The False Promise of a ‘Conversation’ About Race - The Chronicle of Higher Education
Black people, then, need no "conversation" that isn’t aimed directly at concrete changes, such as eliminating the war on drugs, teaching poor children how to read according to methods proven scientifically to work, and providing as many women as possible with long-acting reversible contraceptives. That is, black America needs policy, not psychological revolution. All of those things could happen in an imperfect America where no "conversation" has taken place, where nonblacks continue to eat their hot dogs on the Fourth of July without a thought of what happened to black people in the past (a scenario that irritates Coates), where whites in psychological tests reveal themselves to have ugly little biases against black faces as opposed to white ones, where Donald Trump continues to pretend not to know what David Duke’s feelings about black people are, and where, in general, black people, like everyone else, grapple with a grievously less than perfect nation and try their best.

Hillary Clinton need not, and should not, think of the deaths in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas as an occasion to foster a national dialogue "about race." She should foster a national dialogue about making it so that cops don’t kill so many innocent black people, and about pathways toward legislation for a few other goals. Neither she, nor any conversation, can fix the past, eradicate all racist sentiment, or create a populace refulgently enlightened about black America’s story. That’s a dream it’s time to let go of.

That calls to get real things done rather than to hope for whites to "really understand" are now seen as uncharitable and backward is a testament to how deeply the post-Black Power ideology has permeated the consciousnesses of those seeking to create change for black America. In reference to Gillion’s title, we need governing not with words, but with words rigorously linked to intended actions. There was a time when this was called activism, in contrast to what could aptly be called lexicalism — or, in its way, discursive governance.
race  politics  language 
july 2016 by ayjay
Language Log » More bovine excrement to rebut
Claim (1) makes a historical assertion that is ridiculous and a causal claim that is unintelligible. To imagine that language only became "prominent" after Caxton and others had developed printing is truly absurd. Perhaps the briefest and most salient thing I can say about it is to point out that the finest and most detailed phonological description of any language was done about 3,000 years ago for Sanskrit by an ancient Indian known to us as Panini (sticklers note: the first "n" should have a dot under it to indicate retroflexion). If language was not "prominent" for Panini and his devoted circle of followers, successors, and commentators, I don't know what it would mean for language to be "prominent". But Panini was not literate: his phonological description was cast in the form of a dense oral recitation rather like a kind of epic poem, and designed to be memorized and repeated orally. The wonderful Devanagari writing system had yet to be developed. (When it was, naturally it was beautifully designed for Indic languages, because it had the insight of a phonological genius underpinning it.)

As for what it would mean for the "prominence" of language to have "caused the externalization and objectification of 'knowledge'," I am baffled. This sounds like some sort of postmodernist claim, and I have no comment on it, except that it is empty unless fleshed out, and sounds extraordinarily implausible. Preliterate peoples not only know things, they also know that they know them, and can talk about who has the knowledge and who doesn't, and so on. Knowledge is a commodity for all of us humans. That seems like enough externalization and objectification to rebut the claim.
language  linguistics 
july 2016 by ayjay
Roy Harris reviews ‘From Locke to Saussure’ by Hans Aarsleff · LRB 19 August 1982
Aarsleff confesses to the ambitious aim of wishing ‘to restore the study of language to its rightful place in intellectual history’. His concern is not the history of linguistics in the narrow sense, about which he has little good to say. One of his complaints is that the standard histories misrepresent the rise of modern linguistics, in particular the role of Saussure. What they offer is valid only if taken as ‘the internal history of an institutionalised professorial craft’. For Aarsleff, quite rightly, the history of linguistics is far more than this. To cut its very long story very short, Aarsleff’s book as a whole develops the following theme. The philosophical prolegomena to 20th-century linguistics has been grossly misunderstood. Worse still, it has been misrepresented through the abuse of such labels as ‘rationalist’ and ‘empiricist’ by later scholars seeking to bolster their own positions. The ground for this distortion was prepared in advance by the 19th century’s lack of sympathy with the ideas of the 18th. ‘Our chief problem with the 18th century,’ says Aarsleff, ‘is still the 19th century.’ Saussure’s intellectual indebtedness is to the tradition which goes back through the idéologues to Condillac in France and Locke in England. It is to that same tradition that Humboldt and Herder rightly belong. The new linguistics inaugurated by Saussure and Bréal (who comes out as a pioneer of greater stature than anyone has hitherto acknowledged) was a conscious reaction against the German-dominated pseudo-science of language foisted upon a gullible academic world by the more extravagant comparative philologists and ‘Victorian sages’ like Max Müller. The éminence grise of the new linguistics was none other than Taine. (This will come as a major surprise to today’s younger generation of theoretical linguists, many of whom have probably never read a word of Taine, or – is it too unkind to suggest? – even heard of him.) But it was probably from Taine that Saussure got the key concept of valeur, the corresponding doctrine of the linguistic sign, and even the famous image of the recto and verso of a sheet of paper. Also appearing in Aarsleff’s cast of historical characters are celebrated figures such as Leibniz and Wordsworth, as well as more obscure ones like Destutt de Tracy and Thomas Sprat, historian of the Royal Society. In each case Aarsleff never fails to say something interesting or to bring out some nuance in the part they played as contributors to the thread of history he is trying to follow through.
linguistics  language  history  ideas 
june 2016 by ayjay
D.F.W.’s Favorite Grammarian - The New Yorker
to Bryan Garner

And people like you and me, we just don’t have our finger on the pulse anymore. What people are looking for is not the kind of stuff we’re talking about. You’ll want to cut this out [of the interview]. I don’t say that to my students because my line with them is still, “Look, you’re at this elite school, you’re going to end up in the professions…Right? You need to quack this way…. But the truth is that between sophisticated advertising and national-level politics, I am at a loss as to what people’s use of language is now meant to convey and connote to the receiver.
writing  language 
june 2016 by ayjay
Spoken Sanskrit
The participants were exceptionally learned, and included many of the best specialists in the world on Sanskrit poetics. I was impressed by their ability to recite Sanskrit, but what really astonished me was hearing Sanskrit spoken as though it were a living language. When Nagaraja Rao spoke extemporaneously and eloquently in Sanskrit, my jaw dropped. As I watched him putting together complex sentences, I could almost hear the brainwheels whirling in the background. It was a mind-boggling experience for me to hear Sanskrit spoken that way. I could only understand a small fraction of what was being said, but it was clear that the other participants (who were all Sanskrit scholars) could understood everything, or almost everything, that Nagaraja was saying.

The reasons why I was so astonished to hear Sanskrit being spoken this way were that I had always thought of it as long-dead, classical language and because, from having studied it for several years, I was intimately familiar with the extraordinary complexity of its grammar, which made me think that it was not suited for quotidian purposes.
language  linguistics 
january 2016 by ayjay
vannevar
vannevar: /van'@�var/, n.

A bogus technological prediction or a foredoomed engineering concept, esp. one that fails by implicitly assuming that technologies develop linearly, incrementally, and in isolation from one another when in fact the learning curve tends to be highly nonlinear, revolutions are common, and competition is the rule. The prototype was Vannevar Bush's prediction of ‘electronic brains’ the size of the Empire State Building with a Niagara-Falls-equivalent cooling system for their tubes and relays, a prediction made at a time when the semiconductor effect had already been demonstrated. Other famous vannevars have included magnetic-bubble memory, LISP machines, videotex, and a paper from the late 1970s that computed a purported ultimate limit on areal density for ICs that was in fact less than the routine densities of 5 years later.
tech  language 
july 2015 by ayjay
How to design a metaphor – Michael Erard – Aeon
It was the Princeton psycholinguist Sam Glucksberg who in 2003 argued that metaphors are really categorisation proposals. Provocations, you might call them. You’re suggesting that one thing belongs with another. But the thing that lets us make sense of ‘paintbrush as pump’ – or ‘lawyer as shark’ – is that ‘pump’ is the name of a category for liquid-moving mechanisms, just as ‘shark’ is the name of the category for predatory individuals. Words such as ‘pump’ and ‘shark’ aren’t just the names of individual things; they also speak to generalities. They have what Glucksberg calls ‘dual reference’. He points out others that have become conventionalised metaphors. ‘Butcher’ refers to ‘anyone who should be skilled but is incompetent’, ‘jail’ to ‘any unpleasant, confining situation’, ‘Enron’ to ‘any dramatic accounting scandal’, and ‘Vietnam’ to any ‘disastrous military intervention’.

An alternative theory comes from the psycholinguist Dedre Gentner at Northwestern University in Illinois, who describes metaphor as a ‘mapping’ between two concepts. On this view, understanding comes about in two steps. In the first, the most obvious shared structural properties between the concepts are matched. In Schön’s paintbrush metaphor, what’s matched up is that pumps move liquids and so do paintbrushes. In the second step, other comparisons are made. That’s when the researchers wondered if the empty spaces between the brush’s bristles might be as crucial to paint delivery as the vacuum of a pump is to water movement. (They are.)
language  from instapaper
june 2015 by ayjay
Talking with Marilynne Robinson | Work in Progress
Calvin was a classic Renaissance humanist. I did a dissertation on Shakespeare, and I read a great deal of humanism in the period—and when you read Calvin, you know immediately what he’s doing. He starts out the Institutes of the Christian Religion by saying how spectacular a human person is, the fact that we can solve problems in our dreams—I think lots of people have that experience—and the huge potency of our imagination. His first proof of the soul is the fact that human beings want to know why the planets move; they want to know why the stars are assorted as they are. The scientific imagination of a human being is a proof of his soul.

If you take the Thomistic system, that has an objective order, in effect, that things fall into. Calvin has no objective system in that sense: he locates everything in the perceptions, in the imagination, in the mind, so that all experience is visionary and every person is an equally competent perceiver of the vision, of any vision given to him. But it’s not vision in the sense of illusion; it’s vision in the sense of perception—with understanding, of course. You can see that he goes directly into Romanticism, he goes directly into Transcendentalism. He’s profoundly egalitarian, on the early egalitarian assumption that was so important in this culture: that everyone is a visionary, in effect. That the area of the sacred is the area of human perception—God addressing experience to that perception—which creates, he says very explicitly, a holiness around the life of any person.

There are all these things in him that are very beautiful and, so far as I know, unique—and certainly a departure from any of the theology that was done in his time. You really do have to go back to Augustine to find anything to compare. The potency of education as a phenomenon in New England, for example, comes directly out of Calvinism. He believed in gender equality, in the sense that he said—you know that in the Thomistic system, women were made less in the image of God than men; women were imperfect men. And in Calvinism, he says everyone of course is an image of God—and specifically in the context of the equality of women—saying that the brilliance of the human face is the image of God.

He is extraordinarily humanistic. I don’t know—even among modern theologians, I think there’s no one to compare. To have lost him is a great loss, and I think that part of the rejection of Calvin came from the reaction against the Civil War, because the abolitionist movement was so much the project of Calvinist churches and institutions like Yale Divinity School and Amherst College and so on. And there was this great inversion brought about, so we’re supposed to think New England was the repressive society when the South held slaves. What is the logic of that? When women in New England, for example, had vastly greater civil rights than women in the South, who typically couldn’t inherit from their husbands when their husband died, who lost their children when their husband died to their husband’s oldest male relative. The difference of the liberalism of New England relative to virtually anywhere else in the Western world is just extraordinary. And it comes directly out of Calvinistic civilization.
fiction  writing  language  theology 
january 2015 by ayjay
A Dozen Words for Misunderstood: Language and Thoughts - Pacific Standard: The Science of Society
McWhorter’s book should convince any doubters that strong-form Whorfianism is a bad idea whose time will never stop coming. So why does this bad idea, apparently without evidence, keep getting re-discovered and confidently touted? It is, after all, not the sort of thing one would expect people to want to believe. It implies that we are prisoners of our dictionaries, and that our words distort our worlds in ways we cannot escape. The belief in a strong version of Sapir-Whorf means that other people are in a sense unknowable, and that some have virtues and skills (skepticism, color perception) that are unattainable to us. Call it a belief in the inevitable inequality of language speakers.

One reason for its persistence, McWhorter proposes, is that we are humble. Social and cognitive science has repeatedly shown that our minds are particularly bad at knowing their limits. A Whorfian linguistic constraint would be just one more such distortion, like the visual blind-spot that is on the retina of every human who has ever lived, but that most of us never learn about unless we take a neuroscience class. It also appeals to our sense that human diversity is greater than we once thought. McWhorter’s anti-Whorfian sentence “all humans are mentally alike” is, for me anyway, not an immediately appealing one. Whorfianism encourages the belief that every language is a beautiful and unique snowflake—or some other snow-entity, thinkable only by Eskimos. But it’s telling, McWhorter notes, that Whorfians tend only to celebrate languages for their differences (making Tuyuca speakers out to be skeptics, say), and never vilify them (making Chinese out to be credulous).

I would propose another attraction: Sapir-Whorf lets us off the hook. The theory suggests that some thoughts or ways of seeing the world are simply not possible for us—and that can be comforting, particularly if it means we’re limited in the same way that thousands or millions of other speakers of our language are limited. Less comforting is the post-Whorfian reality: that our potential thoughts are not limited by constraints of language, but by our own deeper inabilities to imagine, perceive, and feel. For those who thought they could blame words, that is an unsettling thought in any language.
language  culture 
june 2014 by ayjay
Author Michael Billig asks: Do we ‘Learn to Write Badly’ in the Social Sciences? « Cambridge Extra at Linguist List
1. What were the greatest challenges you faced in writing Learn to Write Badly?

The most obvious and difficult challenge was to write clearly. Anyone, who criticises the way that other academics write, inevitably sets themselves up as a potential target. So, I had to try to avoid the faults that I was identifying in others. I am criticising a style of writing, which is currently ingrained within the social sciences and which young postgraduates are being taught to use routinely. Therefore, I am sure that readers will be able to find passages where my own writing falls into this style. But, at least I have tried to escape, drafting and re-drafting in order to say things as simply and clearly as I can.

The other big challenge was to avoid just making a rant. I wanted to analyse the language used by social scientists and to say why the current, economic conditions of university life, with the constant pressure to publish, are encouraging bad writing. At root, I am analysing the linguistic features of much social science writing: abstracted, unpopulated prose, with heavy use of big nouns and verbs in the passive voice. I argue that, when it comes to describing human actions, this way of writing is far more imprecise and contains far less information than simpler, ordinary language. Because I did not want to be accused of selecting extreme examples just to fit my case, I tried to take examples where I found them. In analysing academic writing, I needed to cite studies from linguistics, educational research, sociology etc. And then I would turn on these studies to show how their authors were using language, sometimes to inflate their own claims or to conceal ambiguities or just to sound impressively technical. Normally academics like it when someone else cites their work. Some of those, whom I cite in ‘Learn to Write Badly’, will not be so glad.
academe  writing  language 
december 2013 by ayjay
Beginners' Latin
This tutorial is a beginners' guide to the Latin used in documents between 1086 and 1733. It is the first online tutorial to help you learn the Latin from this period.
history  language 
december 2012 by ayjay
Douglas Hofstadter, On Seeing A's and Seeing As
Ulam parried, "What makes you so sure that mathematical logic corresponds to the way we think? Logic formalizes only a very few of the processes by which we actually think. The time has come to enrich formal logic by adding to it some other fundamental notions. What is it that you see when you see? You see an object as a key, a man in a car as a passenger, some sheets of paper as a book. It is the word 'as' that must be mathematically formalized.... Until you do that, you will not get very far with your AI problem."

To Rota's expression of fear that the challenge of formalizing the process of seeing a given thing as another thing was impossibly difficult, Ulam said, "Do not lose your faith--a mighty fortress is our mathematics," a droll but ingenious reply in which Ulam practices what he is preaching by seeing mathematics itself as a fortress!

If anyone else but Stanislaw Ulam had made the claim that the key to understanding intelligence is the mathematical formalization of the ability to "see as," I would have objected strenuously. But knowing how broad and fluid Ulam's conception of mathematics was, I think he would have been able to see the Letter Spirit architecture and its predecessor projects as mathematical formalizations.
language  philosophy  tech 
may 2012 by ayjay
‘Run,’ a Verb for Our Frantic Times - NYTimes.com
Which is the most lustrously complex word among the three quarters of a million or so words and senses that make up this vast mongrel tongue we know as the English language?

Well, according to the O.E.D.’s chief editor, John Simpson, we now have a winner — and a winner that may well say something about the current state of English-speaking humankind. For while in the first edition of the O.E.D., in 1928, that richest-of-all-words was “set” (75 columns of type, some 200 senses), the victor in today’s rather more frantic and uncongenial world is, without a doubt, the three-letter word “run.”
language  bloggable 
may 2011 by ayjay
Martin Amis: My father's English language | Books | The Guardian
Plans for Kingsley's memorial service were quite far advanced when the typescript of the present book (then hardly more than a family rumour) was delivered to my door. I picked it up with a trepidation that the first few pages briskly dispersed. Here it was again, my father's voice – funny, resilient, erudite, with touches of very delicate feeling (see the entries under Brave and Gender), and, throughout, sublimely articulate. In truth, The King's English contains more concentrated artistic thrust than any of the five novels that followed his masterpiece of 1986, The Old Devils. The reason for this is, I think, clear enough. Love of life, like all human talents, weakens with age. But love of language, in his case, never did begin to fade.
language  modbrit 
may 2011 by ayjay
Corballis, M.C.: The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization.
The Recursive Mind challenges the commonly held notion that language is what makes us uniquely human. In this compelling book, Michael Corballis argues that what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom is our capacity for recursion: the ability to embed our thoughts within other thoughts. "I think, therefore I am," is an example of recursive thought, because the thinker has inserted himself into his thought. Recursion enables us to conceive of our own minds and the minds of others. It also gives us the power of mental "time travel"--the ability to insert past experiences, or imagined future ones, into present consciousness.
language  neuroscience 
may 2011 by ayjay
Is English Special Because It's "Globish"? | The New Republic
One is that a language represents a way of thinking, that to speak a certain language is to have your thoughts channeled in certain directions. People adore this idea – you know, such as that the Hopi language has no tense marking and reflects their cyclical sense of time, as promulgated by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. I have watched audiences audibly purr when a linguist suggests that something about the way speakers of an indigenous language put their words together suggests something about Their Way Of Thinking, such as one case where we were to suppose that a Native American group were especially fond of slurping and sucking on things!).

The problem is that this view of language just doesn’t go through. Whorf, for the record, was a fire inspector by day and apparently knew Hopi about as well as I know Indonesian, as Hopi has plenty of time expressions. There are plenty of people who insist that the Language is Thought idea is valid, but few have engaged the counterarguments, usefully summarized by Steven Pinker (I, too, have pitched in in this vein).
language 
june 2010 by ayjay
World Affairs Journal - The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English
The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic. The click sounds in certain African languages are magnificent to hear. In many Amazonian languages, when you say something you have to specify, with a suffix, where you got the information. The Ket language of Siberia is so awesomely irregular as to seem a work of art.
But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a distinct human minority. Most people, in the West or anywhere else, find the fact that there are so many languages in the world no more interesting than I would find a list of all the makes of Toyota.  So our case for preserving the world’s languages cannot be based on how fascinating their variegation appears to a few people in the world. The question is whether there is some urgent benefit to humanity from the fact that some people speak click languages, while others speak Ket or thousands of others, instead of everyone speaking in a universal tongue.
language 
october 2009 by ayjay
A Requiem for Philology
The close-connected linguistic school of Philology still exists in a several universities with a few specializing students. Developing fast in the early 20th century, it has largely disappeared from the American college system. Gone also is that generation of nit-picking pedantic students who thought the detail inherent in the study of the classical texts was the message of the field. We have lost many close readers and close thinkers as our public eye has become loose, accustomed to glancing at two second flash-shots on block-buster film and TV. We tend to get overall meanings, we think and buy on impulse and we don't read the fine print on our personal and political contracts well. But that may be the nature of the world we live in. We are crowding the world with our citizens, our global dollars, our international schemes and schedules. We don't seem to have time for anything that moves along hard and slow.
language 
september 2009 by ayjay
Edge: HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? By Lera Boroditsky
Humans communicate with one another using a dazzling array of languages, each differing from the next in innumerable ways. Do the languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and the way we live our lives? Do people who speak different languages think differently simply because they speak different languages? Does learning new languages change the way you think? Do polyglots think differently when speaking different languages?
language  bloggable 
july 2009 by ayjay
The Jargon File
This document is a collection of slang terms used by various subcultures of computer hackers. Though some technical material is included for background and flavor, it is not a technical dictionary; what we describe here is the language hackers use among themselves for fun, social communication, and technical debate.
tech  language 
february 2009 by ayjay
On Language - Bleeping Expletives - NYTimes.com
Today we are going to deal with the media coverage of profanities, expletives, vulgarisms, obscenities, execrations, epithets and imprecations, nouns often lumped together by the Bluenose Generation as coarseness, crudeness, bawdiness, scatology or swearing. But roundheeled readers should stop smacking their lips and rubbing their hands because the deliberately shocking subject can be treated with decorum, in plain words, without the titillating examples of “dirty words.” (Titillating, from the Latin titillare, “to tickle,” is clean.
language 
january 2009 by ayjay
Henry Porter: The pity of a child's dictionary that junks words of imagination | Comment is free | The Observer
It is difficult to read the list of words excluded from the new Oxford Junior Dictionary without a sharp sense of regret. Here are some of the words that have been culled: catkin, brook, minnow, acorn, buttercup, heron, almond, marzipan, ash, beetroot, bray, bridle, porpoise, gooseberry, raven, carnation, blackberry, tulip, catkin, porridge and conker. But you are likely to be overwhelmed by a greater sadness when you see the words that have elbowed them out. They include celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro, square number, block graph, attachment, database and analogue.
language 
december 2008 by ayjay
Thumbspeak: Louis Menand: The New Yorker
In some respects, texting is a giant leap backward in the science of communication. It’s more efficient than semaphore, maybe, but how much more efficient is it than Morse code? With Morse code, to make an “s” you needed only three key presses. Sending a text message with a numeric keypad feels primitive and improvisational—like the way prisoners speak to each other by tapping on the walls of their cells in “Darkness at Noon,” or the way the guy in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” writes a book. And, as Crystal points out, although cell phones keep getting smaller, thumbs do not. Usually, if you can text a person you can much more quickly and efficiently call that person. But people sometimes text when they are close enough to talk face to face. People like to text. Why is that?
language  culture  tech  reading 
october 2008 by ayjay

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