Sunshine Recorder

Link: Life Without Language

Thought without symbols — life without language — it’s a cognitive reality that is virtually impossible for most modern humans to fathom. For the vast majority of us, our thought processes have been profoundly shaped by the introjection of language into our cognitive worlds, the taking on board of a massive intellectual prosthesis, the collective product of countless generations. Human thought, for the majority, is not simply the individual outcome of our evolved neural architecture, but also the result of our borrowing of the immense symbolic and intellectual resources available in language. What would human thought be like without language?

The question of the relationship between language and ‘mind’ (a word I hate using), or between symbolic resources and cognitive abilities (there, that’s equally vague!), is philosophically intriguing, but hard to address in anything other than the hypothetical.

Herodotus tells the story of the Pharoah Psammetichus (Psamtik I), who allegedly gave two newborn children to a shepherd to raise without language, taking care of them and paying close attention to their first words. Psammethicus hoped to learn which language was the oldest, which one infant allegedly revealed by calling for ‘bekos,’ the Phrygian word for ‘bread.’ In fact, most historically recorded cases of feral children, however, suggest that they do not develop any language ability at all, perhaps even failing to develop symbolic abilities (or maybe not enough researchers speak Phrygian).

We might try to imagine thinking without language, but, of course, we’d be doing that with language itself. In my own work, I’m interested in thought — or maybe I should say perception and action — that is only partially rendered into language (high speed, perceptually-driven decision making and action in sports). But what would thought be like for those without language?

The rare case of individuals without language offers some potential window in on life across the intellectual Rubicon, if we had developed mentally without immersing ourselves in the shared symbols and communicative reality of language. Although we tend to think that only those who are profoundly intellectually disabled, criminally neglected or raised by non-humans fail to learn language, in fact, adolescents and adults without language may not be as rare as we think. Author Susan Schaller has written about the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who grew up in a house with hearing parents who could not teach him sign language in her book, Man without Words.

The website, Works and Conversations, has a discussion of Schaller’s story, how she became interested in sign language through a fluke accident, but especially her work with Ildefonso, who had grown up without learning sign language or any other form of communication. The piece, Leap of Faith, the Story of a Contemporary Miracle, was written by Richard Whittaker in 2009 (although I only recently came across it). It’s a fascinating interview, and, although I may disagree with Schaller in certain ways, I think her story of trying to teach Ildefonso, not merely sign language, but the symbolic process itself, is absolutely fascinating.

Schaller meets Ildefonso

In the interview, Schaller describes how she originally became fascinated with sign language, when she happened into the very first lectures held in sign language by Lou Fant in 1972 in a course called ‘Visual Poetry.’ Hit by a catering truck near the end of high school, Schaller had been excused from her classes so she took the opportunity to sneak into college classes that sounded interesting at Cal State Northridge. She was so moved by what she saw that she wound up joining a volunteer signing drama group even though, as she puts it, she knew three signs when she signed up.

If you want more of Schaller’s story, I suggest you go to the original interview, or better yet, her book, but Schaller eventually wound up quite committed to signing. Asked to work as a sign interpreter, Schaller found herself in a class for ‘Reading skills’ that was little more than a warehouse for all the deaf students, no matter what their educational needs. In the midst of a swarm of signing and movement, she spotted an individual, clearly deaf, who was also clearly unable to sign:

I went to the door to walk out and was actually turning the handle to leave, when I see this man who looked so frightened. He was holding himself as if he were wearing a straightjacket. He was backed up in a corner, protecting himself. I saw that he was studying mouths, he was studying people. Even though he was frightened, he was still watching: what is happening, what is happening?

She observed as another aide, one who couldn’t sign very well, tried to reach the frightened man. When the other assistant gave up, Schaller tried to engage the man and his true situation started to dawn on her:

I walked up to him and signed, “Hello. My name is Susan.” He tried to copy that and did a sloppy rendition of “Hello, my name is Susan.” Obviously he didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t language. And I was shocked.

He looked Mayan and I thought, well, if he knew Mexican sign language, he wouldn’t try to copy. That’s not a normal thing to do, even if you don’t know the language. I couldn’t walk away. I slowly figured out that this man had no language. As I said, I could see that he was very intelligent. I could see he was trying very hard. I was twenty-two years old. I had no idea of what I was doing. I was faced with how to communicate the idea of language to someone without language.

The man she would call, ‘Ildefonso,’ had figured out how to survive, in part by simply copying those around him, but he had no idea what language was. Schaller found that he observed people’s lips and mouth moving, unaware that they were making sound, unaware that there was sound, trying to figure out what was happening from the movements of the mouths. She felt that he was frustrated because he thought everyone else could figure things out from looking at each others’ moving mouths.

One problem for Schaller’s efforts was that Ildefonso’s survival strategy, imitation, actually got in the way of him learning how to sign because it short-circuited the possibility of conversation. As she puts it, Ildefonso acted as if he had a kind of visual echolalia (we sometimes call it ‘echopraxia’), simply copying the actions he saw:

He’d just try to form signs and copy what I was doing. But his facial expression was always, is this what I’m supposed to do?

That question was on his face all of the time. It was terribly frustrating. It went on hour after hour, for days and days and days. Then I had an idea. If I died tonight, I may have had only one truly brilliant thought in my life. What was it that attracted me to this man? His intelligence and his studiousness, the fact he was still trying to figure things out-those two things.

I decided to stop talking to him. Instead, I taught an invisible student. I set up a chair, and I started being the teacher to an invisible student in an empty chair. Then I became the student. I would get into the other chair and the student would answer the teacher. I did this over and over and over. And I ignored him. I stopped looking at him.

Even with the ‘brilliant idea,’ the road ahead was hard, and Schaller talks about wondering when one of them was going to give up. Finally, they had a breakthrough moment which I want to quote at length because it really is a remarkable story (I got goosebumps from reading it):

What happened is that I saw a movement. I stopped. I was talking to an empty chair, but out of my peripheral vision I saw something move. I look at Ildefonso and he had just become rigid! He actually sat up in his chair and became rigid. His hands were flat on the table and his eyes were wide. His facial expression was different from any I’d seen. It was just wide with amazement!

And then he started-it was the most emotional moment with another human being, I think, in my life so that even now, after all these years, I’m choking up [pauses]-he started pointing to everything in the room, and this is amazing to me! I’ve thought about this for years. It’s not having language that separates us from other animals, it’s because we love it! All of a sudden, this twenty-seven-year-old man-who, of course, had seen a wall and a door and a window before-started pointing to everything. He pointed to the table. He wanted me to sign table. He wanted the symbol. He wanted the name for table. And he wanted the symbol, the sign, for window.

The amazing thing is that the look on his face was as if he had never seen a window before. The window became a different thing with a symbol attached to it. [emphasis added, GD] But it’s not just a symbol. It’s a shared symbol. He can say “window” to someone else tomorrow who he hasn’t even met yet! And they will know what a window is. There’s something magical that happens between humans and symbols and the sharing of symbols.

That was his first “Aha!” He just went crazy for a few seconds, pointing to everything in the room and signing whatever I signed. Then he collapsed and started crying, and I don’t mean just a few tears. He cradled his head in his arms on the table and the table was shaking loudly from his sobbing. Of course, I don’t know what was in his head, but I’m just guessing he saw what he had missed for twenty-seven years.

Schaller argues that this is the ‘first breakthrough about what language is’: “Oh, everything has a name!” (from her account).

The account is powerful and moving, I find, and Schaller says that it changed both of their lives. For Ildefonso, he didn’t just learn that ‘things have names’ (at least in a given linguistic community), he simultaneously changed the way he thought and joined a community of people who can think in ways that are intimately tied to each other. The breakthrough was both internal and external, simultaneously cognitive and social.

For Schaller, the experience stuck with her, and she eventually sought out work on language-less adults. She couldn’t find anything, so she sent a letter to Oliver Sachs, who much eventually undergo apotheosis as the patron saint of the quirky and well-written account of psychopathology and neurological injury. Sachs wanted to meet her and told her, ‘You must write this down! In DETAIL!’ Sachs eventually wrote the preface to her book about Ildefonso.

The plight of the language-less

How many people are language-less? I have no idea, but Schaller does some hypothetical estimates that I found pretty shocking.

The first book is about one languageless person I met. But many people have treated him as a freak, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And I knew this happens all the time. About 10% of the population in the world, on average, is born with some sort of hearing impairment. Out of that ten percent, one percent is profoundly deaf. That’s a basic statistic, but the really sad statistic is that 92% of all profoundly deaf people are born to hearing parents. Only 8% are lucky enough to be born to signing parents. So they have no handicap!

I doubt very much that her last point is accurate, but the key to this paragraph is to think about the numbers. Even if you start adjusting down the numbers she’s using — for example, suggesting that more than 8% of profoundly deaf children have parents who might be willing to learn sign language — you still have a very significant irreducible number of people who are likely to be language-less substantially into adolescence or beyond. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of this field, but I’d be fascinated to hear from someone who works in the area, for instance, with recently immigrated deaf individuals coming from developing countries where they might not have sign language communities.

In the absence of a sign-supporting community, deaf individuals likely can only develop rudimentary sign systems if they’re isolated from other deaf people; since no one else will be using the deaf person’s signs as a first language, it will likely have a reduced grammar and simple structure, at best. That is, if anyone is willing to sign to the unfortunate isolated individual at all – the tragic and disturbing fact is, as Schaller highlights, some groups are ideological opposed to making concessions, demanding that deaf individuals try to adapt to an unmoved (and unmoving) hearing population.

There are examples of communities of deaf people spontaneously inventing new sign languages, but the case of a profoundly deaf individual in a hearing community, isolated from other individuals struggling to communicate visually, would offer little opportunity for this kind of innovation (see, for example, the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language, discussed here and here). Deprived of communication and symbolic interaction, it’s unclear how a personal language could really develop the stability or systematicity it would need to become a true language (Wittgenstein, for example, says that the idea of a private language is incoherent).

What is it like to live without language? Unfortunately, Ildefonso doesn’t help us too much with that:

It’s another frustration that Ildefonso doesn’t want to talk about it. For him, that was the dark time. Whenever I ask him, and I’ve asked him many, many times over the years, he always starts out with the visual representation of an imbecile: his mouth drops, his lower lip drops, and he looks stupid. He does something nonsensical with his hands like, “I don’t know what’s going on.” He always goes back to “I was stupid.”

It doesn’t matter how many times I tell him, no, you weren’t exposed to language and… The closest I’ve ever gotten is he’ll say, “Why does anyone want to know about this? This is the bad time.” What he wants to talk about is learning language.

Schaller is also passionate about the human rights of the deaf, and deeply critical of the movement to mainstream deaf children to the detriment of sign language learning. For example, the use of cochlear implants with deaf children can be seen as directly undermining the possibility that deaf kids will find a place in a signing community although it increases their chances of getting by in the majority hearing community. With the implants, children’s language development can be significantly delayed from what it would be with sign; it’s particularly ironic because kids can learn to sign quicker and earlier than they can learn to speak.

The use of cochlear implants and speech-only teaching methods, forcing children to, as much as possible, learn to lip read or build upon whatever artificially-enhanced hearing they might be able to get, is especially controversial in the deaf community. I had an MAA (Master of Applied Anthropology) student who did fascinating research on the deaf community in Australia, and she found that many members felt that their community was dying at the hands of these technologies and teaching ideologies (this is all particularly ironic because my home university, Macquarie, is a centre for research on cochlear implants).

In fact, I can see both sides of this argument although I favour the use of sign language; I worked as a teaching aide in a school for the deaf, and once upon a time, could hold my own in sign. For parents of deaf children, however, it must seem terrifying to have a child who will fundamentally live in a different community, within a deaf subculture, perhaps with diminished opportunities, justifying virtually any intervention. Schaller calls these interventions human rights violations: ‘What I see more and more is that the hearing world has completely medicalized this situation [being deaf]. I’m not saying parents are bad, but they are being influenced by the “experts,” and they are blind.’

In fact, she’s right on a number of levels, and fear of another person’s marginalization never justifies attempting to eradicate what makes them different: the same logic can lead to repression of children’s non-normal sexuality, suppression of minority languages or cultures and a host of other ‘interventions’ that just seek to make people ‘normal’ for their own good. But before I start down this road (and in to material I teach in my human rights classes), I want to get back to the question of cognition.

Link: Vladimir Nabokov's “The Art of Translation”

Link: Language and Reality

As a writer, I am greatly concerned with the written word. And, as a writer, I am greatly troubled by it. Our system of language, our system of signs, is terribly inconclusive. The sign itself is simple enough. On the one side you have the signifier, the word itself, written or spoken. On the other, you have the signified –the referent –the thing itself. The problem is that when you look at it closely, it falls apart. It seems that nothing in the universe can stand firm under enough scrutiny. Is this a fact of reality, though? or just human limitation?

The first problem we find with a closer look at the sign, is that it is arbitrary. There is nothing that actually ties the word ‘tree’ to the concept of ‘tree’ or the thing itself. We could have just as easily chosen ‘moose’ as a signifier for the word tree. The the letters that make it up, the sound those letters make when spoken –none of it has anything to do with a tree. It is simply consensus that allows for us to think of a tree when someone ‘tree.’ A collective agreement constructing our linguistic reality.

The second problem arises with abstract concepts or objects without an agreed upon significance, such as race and gender. Here the signifier is what Claude Lévi-Strauss called a ‘floating signifier.’ Or to use his words “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified.” Some words have no agreed upon definition. One person’s understanding of the word could be vastly different from another’s. Because these signs are then open to interpretation, they lose all meaning. Because they can mean anything, they mean nothing.

The third, fourth, fifth, and so on(th) problems come when we welcome postmodernism and Jacques Derrida into the discussion. Here we find the claim that all signifiers, not just those attached to obvious abstractions, are floating. Words, or signs of any kind, never point directly to a referent. When I say bicycle, you think of a blue and shiny frame with curved handle-bars. I think of a rickety old squeaking thing with rusted handlebars. Or, we could take the name of a big corporation for example, “Corporation X.” It points simultaneously to the CEO as a figurehead, the many employees, the area of influence, the mission, the location, the wealth. More signs, more signifiers, more referents. There is no conclusion in the utterance or writing of a word, only constant, floating referral.

How then do we come to name or define things? When does four legs and a slab make a table? If I take a leg away, is it still a table? It probably isn’t what you think of when I say table. It certainly isn’t what you would find in a dictionary. Of course there are tables with three legs, or even one large central leg. So it cannot be the legs. So, if I take all the legs away, that shouldn’t matter. But it does. Maybe it is in the purpose of the thing? A raised, flat surface upon which we can safely place things. A desk is a table, then. No. So a table is not a desk. A chair could be a table. But it isn’t. So a table is not a chair. A table is sometimes made of wood, but it is not a tree. When did the tree stop being a tree? When it died? No? At what point in its slow decomposition does it cross the threshold of ‘treeness,’ and become something else?  Certainly the resulting soil is not a tree.

And so we go, on and on and on. Never actually getting to what constitutes ‘tableness,’ and only ever deciding what it is not. Defining it by negative isolation. Coming only to see some vague shape of table surrounded by endless signifiers — floating in perpetual referral –which would themselves fall apart under similar scrutiny. In this light, nothing can exist in isolation, because it only the very existence of other things that can define it. Furthermore, nothing can exist without language. The act of naming and defining and categorizing the world is not an act of organization then, but an act of creation, which is why, perhaps ‘The Word’ plays such a significant role in Christian mythology. The languages of science or of mathematics are not inherent to the world, awaiting our discovery –we dressed the naked world in them, and now that is the world we see, the world we know. Surely there were different ways to define it; other forms of categorization would have done just as well as this one.

So, what does this mean for a writer? Well, I guess it means were in the business of lying, of spinning yarns, if you will, so that instead of chaos, readers find harmony. We perpetuate the delusion that if we put enough pieces together, we will see a completed puzzle with a pretty picture of the universe painted on top of it. We build great monuments with arbitrary blocks. We say things as if they inhere to the world, but they don’t. These words here, shapeless words all of them, insist upon a truth that doesn’t exist. Yet here I write, and there you read. Suckers all of us. Devout believers in a reality that makes sense. A faithful congregation of the deaf and blind and dumb in collective, reassuring, anesthetizing denial. I suppose denial is an essential human trait. After all, it gives us all that we have.

物の哀れ

Meaning literally “”a sensitivity to ephemera,” mono no aware is a concept coined by Japanese literary and linguistic scholar Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century to describe the essence of Japanese culture, and it remains the central artistic imperative in Japan to this day. The phrase is derived from the word aware, which in Heian Japan meant sensitivity or sadness, and the word mono, meaning things, and describes beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things, and a gentle sadness at their passing. It can also be translated as the “ah-ness” of things, life and love.

According to mono no aware, a falling or wilting autumn flower is more beautiful than one in full bloom; a fading sound more beautiful than one clearly heard. The sakura or cherry blossom tree is the epitome of this conception of beauty; the flowers of the most famous variety, somei yoshino, nearly pure white tinged with a subtle pale pink, bloom and then fall within a single week. The subject of a thousand poems and a national icon, the cherry blossom tree embodies for Japan beauty as a transient experience.

Mono no aware states that beauty is a subjective rather than objective experience, a state of being ultimately internal rather than external. Based largely upon classical Greek ideals, beauty in the West is sought in the ultimate perfection of an external object: a sublime painting, perfect sculpture or intricate musical composition; a beauty that could be said to be only skin deep. The Japanese ideal sees beauty instead as an experience of the heart and soul, a feeling for and appreciation of objects or artwork—most commonly nature or the depiction of—in a pristine, untouched state.

An appreciation of beauty as a state which does not last and cannot be grasped is not the same as nihilism, and can better be understood in relation to Zen Buddhism’s philosophy of earthly transcendence: a spiritual longing for that which is infinite and eternal—the ultimate source of all worldly beauty. As the monk Sotoba wrote in Zenrin Kushu (Poetry of the Zenrin Temple), Zen does not regard nothingness as a state of absence, but rather the affirmation of that which is unseen, existing behind empty space: “Everything exists in emptiness: flowers, the moon in the sky, beautiful scenery.”

(Source: jaitra.srichinmoycentre.org, via sunrec)

Link: Utopian For Beginners

An amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented.

Languages are something of a mess. They evolve over centuries through an unplanned, democratic process that leaves them teeming with irregularities, quirks, and words like “knight.” No one who set out to design a form of communication would ever end up with anything like English, Mandarin, or any of the more than six thousand languages spoken today.

“Natural languages are adequate, but that doesn’t mean they’re optimal,” John Quijada, a fifty-four-year-old former employee of the California State Department of Motor Vehicles, told me. In 2004, he published a monograph on the Internet that was titled “Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language.” Written like a linguistics textbook, the fourteen-page Web site ran to almost a hundred and sixty thousand words. It documented the grammar, syntax, and lexicon of a language that Quijada had spent three decades inventing in his spare time. Ithkuil had never been spoken by anyone other than Quijada, and he assumed that it never would be.

In his preface, Quijada wrote that his “greater goal” was “to attempt the creation of what human beings, left to their own devices, would never create naturally, but rather only by conscious intellectual effort: an idealized language whose aim is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression via spoken human language, while minimizing the ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language.”

Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible. Ideas that could be expressed only as a clunky circumlocution in English can be collapsed into a single word in Ithkuil. A sentence like “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes simply “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.”

It wasn’t long after he released his manuscript on the Internet that a small community of language enthusiasts began to recognize what Quijada, a civil servant without an advanced degree, had accomplished. Ithkuil, one Web site declared, “is a monument to human ingenuity and design.” It may be the most complete realization of a quixotic dream that has entranced philosophers for centuries: the creation of a more perfect language.

Ithkuil’s first piece of press was a brief mention in 2004 in a Russian popular-science magazine called Computerra. An article titled “The Speed of Thought” noted remarkable similarities between Ithkuil and an imaginary language cooked up by the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein for his novella “Gulf,” from 1949. Heinlein’s story describes a secret society of geniuses called the New Men who train themselves to think more rapidly and precisely using a language called Speedtalk, which is capable of condensing entire sentences into single words. Using their efficient language to communicate, the New Men plot to take over the world from the benighted “homo saps.”

Soon after the publication of the Russian article, Quijada began to receive a steady stream of letters from e-mail addresses ending in .ru, peppering him with arcane questions and requesting changes to the language to make its words easier to pronounce. Alexey Samons, a Russian software engineer based in Vladivostok, took on the monumental task of translating the Ithkuil Web site into Russian, and before long three Russian Web forums had sprung up to debate the merits and uses of Ithkuil.

At first, Quijada was bewildered by the interest emanating from Russia. “I was a third humbled, a third flattered, and a third intrigued,” he told me. “Beyond that, I just wanted to know: who are these people?”


Why Great Sign Language Interpreters Are So Animated
Lydia Callis’s “mesmerizing” work during Hurricane Sandy called attention to how facial and body movements are parts of grammar in the visual language.
As New York City Mayor Bloomberg gave numerous televised addresses about the preparations the city was making for Hurricane” Sandy, and then the storm’s aftermath, he was joined at the podium by a sign language interpreter, who immediately became a twitter darling. People watching the addresses tweeted that she was “amazing,” “mesmerizing,” “hypnotizing,” and “AWESOME.” Soon, her name was uncovered — Lydia Callis — and animated GIFs of her signing were posted. A couple of hours later, a tumblr was born. New York magazine called her “Hurricane Sandy’s breakout star.”
Callis was great, but not because she was so lively and animated. She was great because she was performing a seriously difficult mental task — simultaneously listening and translating on the spot — in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation. Sure, she was expressive, but that’s because she was speaking a visual language. Signers are animated not because they are bubbly and energetic, but because sign language uses face and body movements as part of its grammar.
In American Sign Language, certain mouth and eye movements serve as adjectival or adverbial modifiers.
In this example, Bloomberg is explaining that things will get back to normal little by little. Callis is making the sign INCREASE, but her tight mouth and squinting eyes modify the verb to mean “increase in tiny increments.” This facial expression can attach to various verbs to change their meaning to “a little bit.”
Here, Bloomberg is urging people not to put out their garbage for collection because it will end up making a mess on the streets. Callis is making a sign for SPILL, while at the same time making what is known as the ‘th’ mouth adverbial. This mouth position modifies the verb to mean “sloppily done.” If you attach it to WALK, WRITE, or DRIVE, it means “walk sloppily,” “write messily,” or “drive carelessly.”
Movements of the head and eyebrows indicate sentence-level syntactic functions.
In this example, Bloomberg is warning people that the worst of the storm is coming. Callis signs WORST SOON HAPPEN. Her eyebrows are raised for WORST and SOON, then lowered for HAPPEN. This kind of eyebrow raise indicates topicalization, a common structure used by many languages. In topicalization, a component of a sentence is fronted, and then commented upon. A loose approximation of her sentence would be “Y’know the worst? Soon? It’s gonna happen.”
Here, Bloomberg is urging people to use common sense and take the stairs instead of the elevator. Callis signs NEED GO-UP FLOOR USE STAIRS. During NEED GO-UP FLOOR her eyes are wide and her eyebrows raised. Then her eyebrows go down sharply and her eyes narrow for USE STAIRS. The wide-eyed eyebrow raise marks a conditional clause. It adds the sense of “if” to the portion it accompanies. The second clause is a serious command. She signs, “if you need to go up a floor, use the stairs.”

Why Great Sign Language Interpreters Are So Animated

Lydia Callis’s “mesmerizing” work during Hurricane Sandy called attention to how facial and body movements are parts of grammar in the visual language.

As New York City Mayor Bloomberg gave numerous televised addresses about the preparations the city was making for Hurricane” Sandy, and then the storm’s aftermath, he was joined at the podium by a sign language interpreter, who immediately became a twitter darling. People watching the addresses tweeted that she was “amazing,” “mesmerizing,” “hypnotizing,” and “AWESOME.” Soon, her name was uncovered — Lydia Callis — and animated GIFs of her signing were posted. A couple of hours later, a tumblr was born. New York magazine called her “Hurricane Sandy’s breakout star.”

Callis was great, but not because she was so lively and animated. She was great because she was performing a seriously difficult mental task — simultaneously listening and translating on the spot — in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation. Sure, she was expressive, but that’s because she was speaking a visual language. Signers are animated not because they are bubbly and energetic, but because sign language uses face and body movements as part of its grammar.

In American Sign Language, certain mouth and eye movements serve as adjectival or adverbial modifiers.

In this example, Bloomberg is explaining that things will get back to normal little by little. Callis is making the sign INCREASE, but her tight mouth and squinting eyes modify the verb to mean “increase in tiny increments.” This facial expression can attach to various verbs to change their meaning to “a little bit.”

Here, Bloomberg is urging people not to put out their garbage for collection because it will end up making a mess on the streets. Callis is making a sign for SPILL, while at the same time making what is known as the ‘th’ mouth adverbial. This mouth position modifies the verb to mean “sloppily done.” If you attach it to WALK, WRITE, or DRIVE, it means “walk sloppily,” “write messily,” or “drive carelessly.”

Movements of the head and eyebrows indicate sentence-level syntactic functions.

In this example, Bloomberg is warning people that the worst of the storm is coming. Callis signs WORST SOON HAPPEN. Her eyebrows are raised for WORST and SOON, then lowered for HAPPEN. This kind of eyebrow raise indicates topicalization, a common structure used by many languages. In topicalization, a component of a sentence is fronted, and then commented upon. A loose approximation of her sentence would be “Y’know the worst? Soon? It’s gonna happen.”

Here, Bloomberg is urging people to use common sense and take the stairs instead of the elevator. Callis signs NEED GO-UP FLOOR USE STAIRS. During NEED GO-UP FLOOR her eyes are wide and her eyebrows raised. Then her eyebrows go down sharply and her eyes narrow for USE STAIRS. The wide-eyed eyebrow raise marks a conditional clause. It adds the sense of “if” to the portion it accompanies. The second clause is a serious command. She signs, “if you need to go up a floor, use the stairs.”


The Beauty of Words
In 1890, after living and working in the U.S. for 20 years, Greek-born Lafcadio Hearn moved to Japan and immediately fell in love with a culture and language about which he would then write until his death fourteen years later. In 1893, he sent the following wonderful letter to his friend and occasional editor, Basil Hall Chamberlain, and eloquently defended the use of unintelligible but physiognomically beautiful Japanese words in his English-language work.

June 5, 1893
Dear Chamberlain,—
Thanks for strictures and suggestions. I changed the text as you desired, except in the case of the word Kuruma. That has been fully explained in preceding articles. (By the way, I never heard a Japanese use the word jinrikisha.) My observations about the sailors were based upon police reports in the Japan “Mail.” I killed the word gwaikokujin; as you said, it is an ugly word. I revised, indeed, the whole paper.
Recognizing the ugliness of words, however, you must also recognize their physiognomical beauty. I see you and the Editor of the “Atlantic” are at one, however, in condemning my use of Japanese words. Now, I can’t entirely agree with either of you. As to the practical side of the question, I do. But as to the artistic, the romantic side, I don’t. For me words have colour, form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations; they have moods, humours, eccentricities;—they have tints, tones, personalities. That they are unintelligible makes no difference at all. Whether you are able to speak to a stranger or not, you can’t help being impressed by his appearance sometimes—by his dress—by his air—by his exotic look. He is also unintelligible, but not a whit less interesting. Nay! he is interesting BECAUSE he is unintelligible. I won’t cite other writers who have felt the same way about African, Chinese, Arabian, Hebrew, Tartar, Indian, and Basque words—I mean novelists and sketch writers.
To such it has been justly observed: “The readers do not feel as you do about words. They can’t be supposed to know that you think the letter A is blush-crimson, and the letter E pale sky-blue. They can’t be supposed to know that you think KH wears a beard and a turban; that initial X is a mature Greek with wrinkles;—or that ‘—no—’ has an innocent, lovable, and childlike aspect.” All this is true from the critic’s standpoint.
But from ours, the standpoint of—  The dreamer of dreams  To whom what is and what seems  Is often one and the same— To us the idea is thus:
"Because people cannot see the colour of words, the tints of words, the secret ghostly motions of words:
"Because they cannot hear the whispering of words, the rustling of the procession of letters, the dream-flutes and dream-drums which are thinly and weirdly played by words:
"Because they cannot perceive the pouting of words, the frowning and fuming of words, the weeping, the raging and racketing and rioting of words:
"Because they are insensible to the phosphorescing of words, the fragrance of words, the noisomeness of words, the tenderness or hardness, the dryness or juiciness of words—the interchange of values in the gold, the silver, the brass and the copper of words:
"Is that any reason why we should not try to make them hear, to make them see, to make them feel? Surely one who has never heard Wagner, cannot appreciate Wagner without study! Why should the people not be forcibly introduced to foreign words, as they were introduced to tea and coffee and tobacco?"
Unto which, the friendly reply is—”Because they won’t buy your book, and you won’t make any money.”
And I say: “Surely I have never yet made, and never expect to make any money. Neither do I expect to write ever for the multitude. I write for beloved friends who can see colour in words, can smell the perfume of syllables in blossom, can be shocked with the fine elfish electricity of words. And in the eternal order of things, words will eventually have their rights recognized by the people.”
All this is heresy. But a bad reason, you will grant, is better than—etc.
Faithfully,
Lafcadio Hearn

The Beauty of Words

In 1890, after living and working in the U.S. for 20 years, Greek-born Lafcadio Hearn moved to Japan and immediately fell in love with a culture and language about which he would then write until his death fourteen years later. In 1893, he sent the following wonderful letter to his friend and occasional editor, Basil Hall Chamberlain, and eloquently defended the use of unintelligible but physiognomically beautiful Japanese words in his English-language work.

June 5, 1893

Dear Chamberlain,—

Thanks for strictures and suggestions. I changed the text as you desired, except in the case of the word Kuruma. That has been fully explained in preceding articles. (By the way, I never heard a Japanese use the word jinrikisha.) My observations about the sailors were based upon police reports in the Japan “Mail.” I killed the word gwaikokujin; as you said, it is an ugly word. I revised, indeed, the whole paper.

Recognizing the ugliness of words, however, you must also recognize their physiognomical beauty. I see you and the Editor of the “Atlantic” are at one, however, in condemning my use of Japanese words. Now, I can’t entirely agree with either of you. As to the practical side of the question, I do. But as to the artistic, the romantic side, I don’t. For me words have colour, form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations; they have moods, humours, eccentricities;—they have tints, tones, personalities. That they are unintelligible makes no difference at all. Whether you are able to speak to a stranger or not, you can’t help being impressed by his appearance sometimes—by his dress—by his air—by his exotic look. He is also unintelligible, but not a whit less interesting. Nay! he is interesting BECAUSE he is unintelligible. I won’t cite other writers who have felt the same way about African, Chinese, Arabian, Hebrew, Tartar, Indian, and Basque words—I mean novelists and sketch writers.

To such it has been justly observed: “The readers do not feel as you do about words. They can’t be supposed to know that you think the letter A is blush-crimson, and the letter E pale sky-blue. They can’t be supposed to know that you think KH wears a beard and a turban; that initial X is a mature Greek with wrinkles;—or that ‘—no—’ has an innocent, lovable, and childlike aspect.” All this is true from the critic’s standpoint.

But from ours, the standpoint of—
The dreamer of dreams
To whom what is and what seems
Is often one and the same—
To us the idea is thus:

"Because people cannot see the colour of words, the tints of words, the secret ghostly motions of words:

"Because they cannot hear the whispering of words, the rustling of the procession of letters, the dream-flutes and dream-drums which are thinly and weirdly played by words:

"Because they cannot perceive the pouting of words, the frowning and fuming of words, the weeping, the raging and racketing and rioting of words:

"Because they are insensible to the phosphorescing of words, the fragrance of words, the noisomeness of words, the tenderness or hardness, the dryness or juiciness of words—the interchange of values in the gold, the silver, the brass and the copper of words:

"Is that any reason why we should not try to make them hear, to make them see, to make them feel? Surely one who has never heard Wagner, cannot appreciate Wagner without study! Why should the people not be forcibly introduced to foreign words, as they were introduced to tea and coffee and tobacco?"

Unto which, the friendly reply is—”Because they won’t buy your book, and you won’t make any money.”

And I say: “Surely I have never yet made, and never expect to make any money. Neither do I expect to write ever for the multitude. I write for beloved friends who can see colour in words, can smell the perfume of syllables in blossom, can be shocked with the fine elfish electricity of words. And in the eternal order of things, words will eventually have their rights recognized by the people.”

All this is heresy. But a bad reason, you will grant, is better than—etc.

Faithfully,

Lafcadio Hearn

Link: The Lithuanian Language: Past and Present

A fascinating article on why Lithuanian is likely the most conservative living descendant of the Proto-Indo-European languages.

"Lithuanian is a very old language." This is a bit of mythology which is constantly repeated whenever the subject of the Lithuanian language arises. It seems, however, that very few people ever take the time to ask exactly what this means. Every language has a history extending back to the date of its earliest historical records and one assumes that there existed speakers of this language even before the historical records. There is no human population anywhere in the world that does not have some language and it seems likely that the ability to speak a language is a fundamental property of all mankind. Certainly Lithuanian is a very old language, but so is every language spoken today. The origin of language in general is shrouded in mystery, but all nations have a language.

Let us try here, however, to understand a little bit about what we humans do know about language development, although it behooves us to be quite modest about achievements in this regard. Every advance in science tells us that we know less than we thought we did.

By the words historical linguistics we mean the science which concerns itself with the ways languages change, how the sounds and forms of one stage of a language became different at a later stage of the same language, how the meanings of words change during the course of time. The earliest recorded history in the form of monuments in the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian languages goes back only around 5,000 years. When we talk of historical records we always have some form of written language in mind. The recorded evidence of some language families is better than that for others. One of the language families with the most complete historical records is the Romance language family, and I will use this family for my illustration.

The Romance languages are, of course, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Moldavian, Catalan, Provencal, Sardinian, Rheto-Romance (Romansh, Engadinish, Ladin, Friulan). (See Elcock, 1975, 15). These languages all had their origin in Latin and this Latin gradually changed or evolved into the contemporary Romance languages. Thus to say that French or Spanish or whatever are ‘old languages’ would be meaningless. They are contemporary representatives of Latin which only exists today as a separate language as a result of the efforts of scholars. Thus French faire 'to do, to make' or Spanish hacer are just the modern forms of Latin facere.

It is no longer possible for the uneducated Frenchman or Spaniard to understand Latin, just as it is no longer possible for the average American to understand Chaucer. The reason for this is that the languages have changed in the course of time.

A common, but somewhat simplified way of looking at this is the family tree scheme.

The relationship of Latin to the Romance languages is parallel to the relationship of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language (frequently known also as just Indo-European) to the various daughter languages. For example, Italic is a daughter language with respect to Indo-European, but is the source for Latin which in turn is the source for French, Spanish, Italian, etc. One can compare this to the generations of a family, although in this case the analogy isn’t quite exact since there is only one parent. Perhaps it can be compared to a biological chart where we see the evolution of various types of animal or plant families.

Thus Proto-Indo-European is the source for a Proto-Baltic which in turn is divided into Proto-East Baltic and Proto-West Baltic. West Baltic is represented by the extinct Old Prussian (divided into eleven tribes). East Baltic is divided up into four groups: Lithuanian, Latvian and the now extinct languages of Semigallian and Selonian. One other extinct Baltic language, Curonian, stands somewhere between East and West Baltic. Or perhaps it was an East Baltic language greatly influenced by West Baltic. The relationships can be visualized like this, perhaps.

The above schematization shows only several of the branches of the Indo-European language family and likewise it is vastly oversimplified. It should serve, however, to give a general notion of what is meant by the family tree of Indo-European languages. Thus, the notion of age with regard to a language is hard to understand. What one can say is that the Baltic languages seem to have undergone fewer changes than their sister Indo-European languages. The problem here is, of course, that there are no speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language left, so we cannot be absolutely certain as to how it was pronounced nor can we be absolutely certain of its grammatical structure. The reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European language is a fascinating game, a game on which I have spent most of my adult life. Still it befits the specialists in the field to be very modest about the achievements of Indo-European linguistics. Although the Indo-Europeanists can make informed guesses based on inductive reasoning, they can never really know in any absolute way the nature of the Indo-European sound or grammatical system.

So how do Indo-Europeanists try to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language? They take the oldest attested form of all the various Indo-European languages and try to imagine how an ancestor to all of these attested languages would appear.

One of the oldest attested forms of the Italic language branch is Latin, the oldest attested form of Greek is Mycenean Creek, the oldest attested form of Indo-lranian is Vedic Sanskrit, the oldest attested form of Slavic is Old Church Slavic.

Old Church Slavic, also known as Old Bulgarian, is an extinct South Slavic language which was used by the Slavic missionaries Cyril and Methodius to propagate the Christian faith. Later forms of this language called simply Church Slavic were and are used in the Orthodox church for religious purposes.

The oldest attested form of Baltic is Old Prussian, but there are so many problems with the interpretation of Old Prussian texts that most comparativists use Lithuanian for the Baltic branch. (The language is sometimes called merely Prussian = Lithuanian prūsas, but I prefer the term Old Prussian to avoid confusion with German dialects of the area which are usually called Prussian dialects.)

The oldest attested form of the Germanic language is Gothic, known to us chiefly through the Bible translation made by the West Gothic (Visigothic) bishop Wulfila (311-382 or 3). The remaining leaves of this translation (187 out of an original 336) are now in the library of the University of Uppsala, Sweden. It is unlikely that any contemporary speaker of English could understand an ancient Goth, but a few words show the common changes which English and Gothic have undergone as opposed to their Lithuanian counterparts: Gothic fimf, English five have an initial f- as opposed to Lithuanian penki which has an initial p-; Gothic twai, English twohave an initial t- as opposed to Lithuanian du or dvi with an initial d-.

Other ancient Indo-European languages such as Hittite, Old Irish, etc. are also used, but usually to a somewhat lesser degree for various reasons.

The Rosetta Project

The Rosetta Disk is the physical companion of the Rosetta Digital Language Archive, and a prototype of one facet of The Long Now Foundation’s 10,000-Year Library. The Rosetta Disk is intended to be a durable archive of human languages, as well as an aesthetic object that suggests a journey of the imagination across culture and history. We have attempted to create a unique physical artifact which evokes the great diversity of human experience as well as the incredible variety of symbolic systems we have constructed to understand and communicate that experience.

The Disk surface shown here, meant to be a guide to the contents, is etched with a central image of the earth and a message written in eight major world languages: “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.” The text begins at eye-readable scale and spirals down to nano-scale. This tapered ring of languages is intended to maximize the number of people that will be able to read something immediately upon picking up the Disk, as well as implying the directions for using it—‘get a magnifier and there is more.’

On the reverse side of the disk from the globe graphic are over 13,000 microetched pages of language documentation. Since each page is a physical rather than digital image, there is no platform or format dependency. Reading the Disk requires only optical magnification. Each page is .019 inches, or half a millimeter, across. This is about equal in width to 5 human hairs, and can be read with a 650X microscope (individual pages are clearly visible with 100X magnification).

The 13,000 pages in the collection contain documentation on over 1500 languages gathered from archives around the world. For each language we have several categories of data—descriptions of the speech community, maps of their location(s), and information on writing systems and literacy. We also collect grammatical information including descriptions of the sounds of the language, how words and larger linguistic structures like sentences are formed, a basic vocabulary list (known as a “Swadesh List”), and whenever possible, texts. Many of our texts are transcribed oral narratives. Others are translations such as the beginning chapters of the Book of Genesis or the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

The Rosetta Disk is held in a four inch spherical container that both protects the disk as well as provides additional functionality. The container is split into two hemispheres with the three inch Rosetta Disk sitting in an indent on the flat meeting surface of the two hemispheres. The upper hemisphere is made of optical glass and doubles as a 6X viewer, giving visual access deeper into the tapered text rings. The bottom hemisphere is high-grade stainless steel. We have machined a hollow cylinder into the bottom hemisphere that holds a stainless steel ribbon for disk caretakers to etch their names, locations, and dates - hopefully creating a unique pedigree for each Rosetta object as it travels through time and human hands. A small stylus tool is included for future caretakers to add additional information.

At the very least, the Rosetta Disk provides an informative overview of human linguistic diversity in the 21st century. However, it may do much more. The translations on the disk, for example, are a close analog to the Rosetta Stone, whose parallel texts (in this case unintentionally) enabled the decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphics. It isn’t a great stretch to imagine that the language information on this Disk could provide the key to the (re)discovery of valuable society sustaining knowledge far into the future.

The Rosetta Disk is being designed and developed through the collaboration of artists, designers, linguists and archivists including Kurt Bollacker, Stewart Brand, Paul Donald, Jim Mason, Kevin Kelly, and Alexander Rose and Laura Welcher. Primary funding for the first Rosetta Disk and the project that grew out of it came from the generous support of Charles Butcher and the Lazy Eight Foundation.

Link: Semantic Stopsigns

And the child asked:

Q:  Where did this rock come from?
A:  I chipped it off the big boulder, at the center of the village.
Q:  Where did the boulder come from?
A:  It probably rolled off the huge mountain that towers over our village.
Q:  Where did the mountain come from?
A:  The same place as all stone: it is the bones of Ymir, the primordial giant.
Q:  Where did the primordial giant, Ymir, come from?
A:  From the great abyss, Ginnungagap.
Q:  Where did the great abyss, Ginnungagap, come from?
A:  Never ask that question.

Consider the seeming paradox of the First Cause.  Science has traced events back to the Big Bang, but why did the Big Bang happen?  It’s all well and good to say that the zero of time begins at the Big Bang—that there is nothing before the Big Bang in the ordinary flow of minutes and hours.  But saying this presumes our physical law, which itself appears highly structured; it calls out for explanation.  Where did the physical laws come from?  You could say that we’re all a computer simulation, but then the computer simulation is running on some other world’s laws of physics—where did those laws of physics come from?

At this point, some people say, “God!”

What could possibly make anyone, even a highly religious person, think this even helped answer the paradox of the First Cause?  Why wouldn’t you automatically ask, “Where did God come from?”  Saying “God is uncaused” or “God created Himself” leaves us in exactly the same position as “Time began with the Big Bang.”  We just ask why the whole metasystem exists in the first place, or why some events but not others are allowed to be uncaused.

My purpose here is not to discuss the seeming paradox of the First Cause, but to ask why anyone would think “God!”could resolve the paradox.  Saying “God!” is a way of belonging to a tribe, which gives people a motive to say it as often as possible—some people even say it for questions like “Why did this hurricane strike New Orleans?”  Even so, you’d hope people would notice that on the particular puzzle of the First Cause, saying “God!” doesn’t help.  It doesn’t make the paradox seem any less paradoxical even if true.  How could anyone not notice this?

Jonathan Wallace suggested that “God!” functions as a semantic stopsign—that it isn’t a propositional assertion, so much as a cognitive traffic signal: do not think past this point.  Saying “God!” doesn’t so much resolve the paradox, as put up a cognitive traffic signal to halt the obvious continuation of the question-and-answer chain.

Of course you’d never do that, being a good and proper atheist, right?  But “God!” isn’t the only semantic stopsign, just the obvious first example.

The transhuman technologies—molecular nanotechnology, advanced biotech, genetech, Artificial Intelligence, et cetera—pose tough policy questions.  What kind of role, if any, should a government take in supervising a parent’s choice of genes for their child?  Could parents deliberately choose genes for schizophrenia?  If enhancing a child’s intelligence is expensive, should governments help ensure access, to prevent the emergence of a cognitive elite?  You can propose various institutions to answer these policy questions—for example, that private charities should provide financial aid for intelligence enhancement—but the obvious next question is, “Will this institution be effective?”  If we rely on product liability lawsuits to prevent corporations from building harmful nanotech, will that really work?

I know someone whose answer to every one of these questions is “Liberal democracy!”  That’s it.  That’s his answer.  If you ask the obvious question of “How well have liberal democracies performed, historically, on problems this tricky?” or “What if liberal democracy does something stupid?” then you’re an autocrat, or libertopian, or otherwise a very very bad person.  No one is allowed to question democracy.

I once called this kind of thinking “the divine right of democracy”.  But it is more precise to say that “Democracy!” functioned for him as a semantic stopsign.  If anyone had said to him “Turn it over to the Coca-Cola corporation!”, he would have asked the obvious next questions:  “Why?  What will the Coca-Cola corporation do about it?  Why should we trust them?  Have they done well in the past on equally tricky problems?”

Or suppose that someone says “Mexican-Americans are plotting to remove all the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere.”  You’d probably ask, “Why would they do that?  Don’t Mexican-Americans have to breathe too?  Do Mexican-Americans even function as a unified conspiracy?”  If you don’t ask these obvious next questions when someone says, “Corporations are plotting to remove Earth’s oxygen,” then “Corporations!” functions for you as a semantic stopsign.

Be careful here not to create a new generic counterargument against things you don’t like—”Oh, it’s just a stopsign!”  No word is a stopsign of itself; the question is whether a word has that effect on a particular person.  Having strong emotions about something doesn’t qualify it as a stopsign.  I’m not exactly fond of terrorists or fearful of private property; that doesn’t mean “Terrorists!” or “Capitalism!” are cognitive traffic signals unto me.  (The word “intelligence” did once have that effect on me, though no longer.)  What distinguishes a semantic stopsign is failure to consider the obvious next question.

In “Language as a Window into Human Nature” by RSA, Steven Pinker discusses the many roles of language in human relationships, from sex to revolution. 

Link: A Novice's Guide to Foreign Idioms

Some years back I was invited to speak at a black-tie event for the French-American Chamber of Commerce at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Because the audience would be primarily French nationals, I was advised to avoid using American idioms in my address. This is a fine kettle of fish, I thought as I sat down to purge my vocabulary of American idioms. What I was left with at the end of the day was “Good evening,” “Thank you” and a rented tuxedo.

I’d have sold the farm back then for a peek into Jag Bhalla’s 2009 book, I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World. Had I done so, I could have substituted French idioms for the English ones that make up way too much of my working vocabulary.

Imagine the audience’s delight had I told them how I felt my butt was fringed with noodles (very lucky) to be there. These noodles, by the way, would be different from those hanging on my ears—a Russian expression meaning, “I’m not pulling your leg.” I’m not pulling your leg.

The French nationals gathered at the Plaza clearly had their butter, money for the butter and the woman who made it (had it all). But, some of them also had a glass up their noses (one too many). No doubt I would have had their posteriors banging on the ground (laughing hysterically) if only I’d read Bhalla’s guidebook.

I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears does more than catalog humorous world idioms. It presents an often-confounding glimpse at the inner soul of foreign cultures. “Language most shows a man,” the British playwright Ben Jonson once wrote. “Speak that I might see thee.” But what do I see when I hear that a Colombian who is hopelessly in love has been swallowed like a postman’s sock, or that drowning the fish in France is to lose by deliberate confusion? I have no idea how to use the phrase, but I can’t wait to try it, even if I drown the fish in the attempt.

(Source: sunrec)


The Crayola-fication of the World
How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains.
In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.
Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being –midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.
One of the first fences in this color continuum came from an unlikely place – crayons. In 1917, the first crayons were imported into Japan, and they brought with them a way of dividing a seamless visual spread into neat, discrete chunks. There were different crayons for green (midori) and blue (ao), and children started to adopt these names. But the real change came during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II, when new educational material started to circulate. In 1951, teaching guidelines for first grade teachers distinguished blue from green, and the word midori was shoehorned to fit this new purpose.
In modern Japanese, midori is the word for green, as distinct from blue. This divorce of blue and green was not without its scars. There are clues that remain in the language, that bear witness to this awkward separation. For example, in many languages the word for vegetable is synonymous with green (sabzi in Urdu literally means green-ness, and in English we say ‘eat your greens’). But in Japanese, vegetables are ao-mono, literally blue things. Green apples? They’re blue too. As are the first leaves of spring, if you go by their Japanese name. In English, the term green is sometimes used to describe a novice, someone inexperienced. In Japanese, they’re ao-kusai, literally they ‘smell of blue’. It’s as if the borders that separate colors follow a slightly different route in Japan.
And it’s not just Japanese. There are plenty of other languages that blur the lines between what we call blue and green. Many languages don’t distinguish between the two colors at all. In Vietnamese the Thai language, khiaw means green except if it refers to the sky or the sea, in which case it’s blue.  The Korean word purueda could refer to either blue or green, and the same goes for the Chinese word qīng. It’s not just East Asian languages either, this is something you see across language families. In fact, Radiolab had a fascinating recent episode on color where they talked about how there was no blue in the original Hebrew Bible, nor in all of Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey!
I find this fascinating, because it highlights a powerful idea about how we might see the world. After all, what really is a color? Just like the crayons, we’re taking something that has no natural boundaries – the frequencies of visible light – and dividing into convenient packages that we give a name.

The Crayola-fication of the World

How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains.

In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.

Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being –midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.

One of the first fences in this color continuum came from an unlikely place – crayons. In 1917, the first crayons were imported into Japan, and they brought with them a way of dividing a seamless visual spread into neat, discrete chunks. There were different crayons for green (midori) and blue (ao), and children started to adopt these names. But the real change came during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II, when new educational material started to circulate. In 1951, teaching guidelines for first grade teachers distinguished blue from green, and the word midori was shoehorned to fit this new purpose.

In modern Japanese, midori is the word for green, as distinct from blue. This divorce of blue and green was not without its scars. There are clues that remain in the language, that bear witness to this awkward separation. For example, in many languages the word for vegetable is synonymous with green (sabzi in Urdu literally means green-ness, and in English we say ‘eat your greens’). But in Japanese, vegetables are ao-mono, literally blue things. Green apples? They’re blue too. As are the first leaves of spring, if you go by their Japanese name. In English, the term green is sometimes used to describe a novice, someone inexperienced. In Japanese, they’re ao-kusai, literally they ‘smell of blue’. It’s as if the borders that separate colors follow a slightly different route in Japan.

And it’s not just Japanese. There are plenty of other languages that blur the lines between what we call blue and green. Many languages don’t distinguish between the two colors at all. In Vietnamese the Thai language, khiaw means green except if it refers to the sky or the sea, in which case it’s blue.  The Korean word purueda could refer to either blue or green, and the same goes for the Chinese word qīng. It’s not just East Asian languages either, this is something you see across language families. In fact, Radiolab had a fascinating recent episode on color where they talked about how there was no blue in the original Hebrew Bible, nor in all of Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey!

I find this fascinating, because it highlights a powerful idea about how we might see the world. After all, what really is a color? Just like the crayons, we’re taking something that has no natural boundaries – the frequencies of visible light – and dividing into convenient packages that we give a name.

Link: In Defense of Difference

This past January, at the St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska, friends and relatives gathered to bid their last farewell to Marie Smith Jones, a beloved matriarch of her community. At 89 years old, she was the last fluent speaker of the Eyak language. In May 2007 a cavalry of the Janjaweed — the notorious Sudanese militia responsible for the ongoing genocide of the indigenous people of Darfur — made its way across the border into neighboring Chad. They were hunting for 1.5 tons of confiscated ivory, worth nearly $1.5 million, locked in a storeroom in Zakouma National Park. Around the same time, a wave of mysterious frog disappearances that had been confounding herpetologists worldwide spread to the US Pacific Northwest. It was soon discovered that Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a deadly fungus native to southern Africa, had found its way via such routes as the overseas trade in frog’s legs to Central America, South America, Australia, and now the United States. One year later, food riots broke out across the island nation of Haiti, leaving at least five people dead; as food prices soared, similar violence erupted in Mexico, Bangladesh, Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Ethiopia.

All these seemingly disconnected events are the symptoms, you could say, of a global epidemic of sameness. It has no precise parameters, but wherever its shadow falls, it leaves the landscape monochromatic, monocultural, and homogeneous. Even before we’ve been able to take stock of the enormous diversity that today exists — from undescribed microbes to undocumented tongues — this epidemic carries away an entire human language every two weeks, destroys a domesticated food-crop variety every six hours, and kills off an entire species every few minutes. The fallout isn’t merely an assault to our aesthetic or even ethical values: As cultures and languages vanish, along with them go vast and ancient storehouses of accumulated knowledge. And as species disappear, along with them go not just valuable genetic resources, but critical links in complex ecological webs.

Experts have long recognized the perils of biological and cultural extinctions. But they’ve only just begun to see them as different facets of the same phenomenon, and to tease out the myriad ways in which social and natural systems interact. Catalyzed in part by the urgency that climate change has brought to all matters environmental, two progressive movements, incubating already for decades, have recently emerged into fuller view. Joining natural and social scientists from a wide range of disciplines and policy arenas, these initiatives are today working to connect the dots between ethnosphere and biosphere in a way that is rapidly leaving behind old unilateral approaches to conservation. Efforts to stanch extinctions of linguistic, cultural, and biological life have yielded a “biocultural” perspective that integrates the three. Efforts to understand the value of diversity in a complex systems framework have matured into a science of “resilience.” On parallel paths, though with different emphases, different lexicons, and only slightly overlapping clouds of experts, these emergent paradigms have created space for a fresh struggle with the tough questions: What kinds of diversity must we consider, and how do we measure them on local, regional, and global scales? Can diversity be buffered against the streamlining pressures of economic growth? How much diversity is enough? From a recent biocultural diversity symposium in New York City to the first ever global discussion of resilience in Stockholm, these burgeoning movements are joining biologist with anthropologist, scientist with storyteller, in building a new framework to describe how, why, and what to sustain.

(Source: sunrec, via sunrec)

Link: Why Orwell Hated the Cliche

For what would have been George Orwell’s 99th birthday, here are reflections on his relationship to writing and language from Lawrence Wright:

Orwell’s proposition is that modern English, especially written English, is so corrupted by bad habits that it has become impossible to think clearly. The main enemy, he believed, was insincerity, which hides behind the long words and empty phrases that stand between what is said and what is really meant.

A scrupulous writer, Orwell notes, will ask himself: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What fresh image will make it clearer? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? The alternative is simply “throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you — concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.”…

…Orwell optimistically sets forward six simple rules to improve the state of the English language: guidelines that anyone, not just professional writers, can follow.

But I’m not going to tell you what they are. You’ll have to re-read [Politics and the English Language (PDF)] yourself. I’m only going to speak about Rule No. 1, which is never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.

For me, that’s the hardest rule and no doubt the reason that it’s No. 1. Cliches, like cockroaches in the cupboard, quickly infest a careless mind. I constantly struggle with the prefabricated phrases that substitute for simple, clear prose…

…”Political language,” Orwell reminds us, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits.”

(Source: futurejournalismproject)