Category Language

Say What?

From The Economist

To find new subjects of study, some linguists simply open their front doors

Where in the world is the largest number of different languages spoken? Most linguists would probably plump for New Guinea, an island that has 830 recognised tongues scattered around its isolated, jungle-covered valleys. But a place on the other side of the world runs it close. The five boroughs of New York City are reckoned to be home to speakers of around 800 languages, many of them close to extinction.

New York is also home, of course, to a lot of academic linguists, and three of them have got together to create an organisation called the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), which is ferreting out speakers of unusual tongues from the city’s huddled immigrant masses. The ELA, which was set up last year by Daniel Kaufman, Juliette Blevins and Bob Holman, has worked in detail on 12 languages since its inception. It has codified their grammars, their pronunciations and their word-formation patterns, as well as their songs and legends. Among the specimens in its collection are Garifuna, which is spoken by descendants of African slaves who made their homes on St Vincent after a shipwreck unexpectedly liberated them; Mamuju, from Sulawesi in Indonesia; Mahongwe, a language from Gabon; Shughni, from the Pamirian region of Tajikistan; and an unusual variant of a Mexican language called Totonac.

Each volunteer speaker of a language of interest is first tested with what is known as a Swadesh list. This is a set of 207 high-frequency, slow-to-change words such as parts of the body, colours and basic verbs like eat, drink, sleep and kill. The Swadesh list is intended to ascertain an individual’s fluency before he is taken on. Once he has been accepted, Dr Kaufman and his colleagues start chipping away at the language’s phonology (the sounds of which it is composed) and its syntax (how its meaning is changed by the order of words and phrases). This sort of analysis is the bread and butter of linguistics.

Every so often, though, the researchers come across a bit of jam. The Mahongwe word manono, for example, means “I like” when spoken soft and flat, and “I don’t like” when the first syllable is a tad sharper in tone. Similarly, mbaza could be either “chest” or “council house”. In both cases, the two words are nearly indistinguishable to an English speaker, but yield starkly different patterns when run through a spectrograph. Manono is a particular linguistic oddity, since it uses only tone to differentiate an affirmative from a negative—a phenomenon the ELA has since discovered applies to all verbs in Mahongwe.

Such niceties are interesting to experts. But the ELA is attempting to understand more than just the nuts and bolts of languages. It is collecting stories and other verbal material specific to the cultures of the participants. One volunteer, for example, wants to write a storybook for children in her language (Shughni), and also a recipe book. That means creating a written form of the language, which the researchers do using what is known as the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Many of Dr Kaufman’s better finds, he says, have come from “hanging out at street corners with a clipboard on Roosevelt Avenue”—a street (pictured above) in the borough of Queens that he describes as the “epicentre of the epicentre” of linguistic New York. How long it will remain so is moot. The world’s languages, which number about 6,900, are reckoned to be dying out at the rate of one a fortnight. The reason is precisely the sort of cultural mixing that New York epitomises. The value of learning any particular language is increased by the number of people who already speak it. Conversely, the value of a minority language is diminished as people abandon it. To those languages that hath, in other words, shall be given. From those that hath not, shall the last speakers soon be taken away.

Word Association: Study Maps Complex Thought

Via MedicalXpress, text from Princeton University

In an effort to understand what happens in the brain when a person reads or considers such abstract ideas as love or justice, Princeton researchers have for the first time matched images of brain activity with categories of words related to the concepts a person is thinking about. The results could lead to a better understanding of how people consider meaning and context when reading or thinking.

The researchers report in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify areas of the brain activated when study participants thought about physical objects such as a carrot, a horse or a house. The researchers then generated a list of topics related to those objects and used the fMRI images to determine the brain activity that words within each topic shared. For instance, thoughts about “eye” and “foot” produced similar neural stirrings as other words related to body parts.

Once the researchers knew the brain activity a topic sparked, they were able to use fMRI images alone to predict the subjects and words a person likely thought about during the scan. This capability to put people’s brain activity into words provides an initial step toward further exploring themes the human brain touches upon during complex thought.

“The basic idea is that whatever subject matter is on someone’s mind — not just topics or concepts, but also, emotions, plans or socially oriented thoughts — is ultimately reflected in the pattern of activity across all areas of his or her brain,” said the team’s senior researcher, Matthew Botvinick, an associate professor in Princeton’s Department of Psychology and in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.

“The long-term goal is to translate that brain-activity pattern into the words that likely describe the original mental ‘subject matter,'” Botvinick said. “One can imagine doing this with any mental content that can be verbalized, not only about objects, but also about people, actions and abstract concepts and relationships. This study is a first step toward that more general goal.

“If we give way to unbridled speculation, one can imagine years from now being able to ‘translate’ brain activity into written output for people who are unable to communicate otherwise, which is an exciting thing to consider. In the short term, our technique could be used to learn more about the way that concepts are represented at the neural level — how ideas relate to one another and how they are engaged or activated.”

The research, which was published Aug. 23, was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Depicting a person’s thoughts through text is a “promising and innovative method” that the Princeton project introduces to the larger goal of correlating brain activity with mental content, said Marcel Just, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. The Princeton researchers worked from brain scans Just had previously collected in his lab, but he had no active role in the project.

“The general goal for the future is to understand the neural coding of any thought and any combination of concepts,” Just said. “The significance of this work is that it points to a method for interpreting brain activation patterns that correspond to complex thoughts.”

Tracking the brain’s ‘semantic threads’

Largely designed and conducted in Botvinick’s lab by lead author and Princeton postdoctoral researcher Francisco Pereira, the study takes a currently popular approach to neuroscience research in a new direction, Botvinick said. He, Pereira and coauthor Greg Detre, who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in 2010, based their work on various research endeavors during the past decade that used brain-activity patterns captured by fMRI to reconstruct pictures that participants viewed during the scan.

“This ‘generative’ approach — actually synthesizing something, an artifact, from the brain-imaging data — is what inspired us in our study, but we generated words rather than pictures,” Botvinick said.

“The thought is that there are many things that can be expressed with language that are more difficult to capture in a picture. Our study dealt with concrete objects, things that are easy to put into a picture, but even then there was an interesting difference between generating a picture of a chair and generating a list of words that a person associates with ‘chair.'”

Those word associations, lead author Pereira explained, can be thought of as “semantic threads” that can lead people to think of objects and concepts far from the original subject matter yet strangely related.

“Someone will start thinking of a chair and their mind wanders to the chair of a corporation then to Chairman Mao — you’d be surprised,” Pereira said. “The brain tends to drift, with multiple processes taking place at the same time. If a person thinks about a table, then a lot of related words will come to mind, too. And we thought that if we want to understand what is in a person’s mind when they think about anything concrete, we can follow those words.”

Pereira and his co-authors worked from fMRI images of brain activity that a team led by Just and fellow Carnegie Mellon researcher Tom Mitchell, a professor of computer science, published in the journal Science in 2008. For those scans, nine people were presented with the word and picture of five concrete objects from 12 categories. The drawing and word for the 60 total objects were displayed in random order until each had been shown six times. Each time an image and word appeared, participants were asked to visualize the object and its properties for three seconds as the fMRI scanner recorded their brain activity.

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Georges Bataille Literature and Evil

Dérive, SF

Evolution of Language

Via Wired, by Brandon Keim

It’s widely thought that human language evolved in universally similar ways, following trajectories common across place and culture, and possibly reflecting common linguistic structures in our brains. But a massive, millennium-spanning analysis of humanity’s major language families suggests otherwise.

Instead, language seems to have evolved along varied, complicated paths, guided less by neurological settings than cultural circumstance. If our minds do shape the evolution of language, it’s likely at levels deeper and more nuanced than many researchers anticipated.

“It’s terribly important to understand human cognition, and how the human mind is put together,” said Michael Dunn, an evolutionary linguist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute and co-author of the new study, published April 14 in Nature. The findings “do not support simple ideas of the mind as a computer, with a language processor plugged in. They support much-more complex ideas of how language arises.”

How languages have emerged and changed through human history is a subject of ongoing fascination. Language is, after all, the greatest of all social tools: It’s what lets people share and cooperate, divide labor, make plans, preserve knowledge, tell stories. In short, it lets humans be sophisticated social creatures.

One school of thought, pioneered by linguist Noam Chomsky, holds that language is a product of dedicated mechanisms in the human brain. These can be imagined as a series of switches, each corresponding to particular forms of grammar and syntax and structure.

Image: Comparison of trends in Austronesian and Indo-European languages (Nature).

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Linguists to Re-Think Reason for Short Words

Via PhysOrg, by Lin Edwards

Linguists have thought for many years the length of words is related to the frequency of use, with short words used more often than long ones. Now researchers in the US have shown the length is more closely related to the amount of information the words carry than their frequency of use.

A link between the length of words and how frequently they are used was first proposed in 1935 by George Kingsley Zipf, a Harvard University linguist and philologist. Zipf’s idea was that people would tend to shorten words they used often, to save time in writing and speaking. The relationship seems intuitive and it seems to apply to many languages with short words such as “the”, “a”, “to”, “and”, “so” (and equivalents in other languages) being frequently used.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led by Steven Piantadosi, tested the Zipf relationship by analysing word use in 11 European languages. They analyzed digitized texts for correlations between words by counting how often all pairs of words occurred in sequence. This information was then used to estimate the probability of words occurring after given previous words or sequences of words. They made the assumption that the more predictable a word is, the less information it conveys, and estimated the information content from information theory, which says the information content is proportional to the negative logarithm of the probability of a word occurring.

Piantadosi said if the word length is directly related to information content this would make the transmission of information through language more efficient and also make speech and written texts easier to understand. This is because shorter words, carrying less information, would be scattered through the speech, essentially “smoothing out” the information density and delivering the important information at a steady rate.

The studies suggest that the short words are in fact the least informative and most predictable words rather than the most often used, and that word length is more closely related to the information the words contain.

The paper is soon to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Steven Piantadosi belongs to the PhD program with MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

© 2010

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The X Factor

From the NY Times

Lettre du Voyant

I say it is necessary to be a voyant, make oneself a voyant. The Poet makes himself a voyant by a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses. All the forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences. He is responsible for humanity, for animals even. He will have to make his inventions smelt, touched, and heard. A language must be found. Moreover, every word [utterance] being an idea, the time of a Universal Language will come!

Arthur Rimbaud

A Cruel Country

From the New Yorker

ABSTRACT: JOURNAL excerpts by Roland Barthes about mourning his mother, Henriette, who died at eighty-four, in October, 1977.

October 27th Every morning, around six-thirty, in the darkness outside, the metallic racket of the garbage cans. She would say with relief: the night is finally over (she suffered during the night, alone, a cruel business).

October 31st I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it—or without being sure of not doing so—although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.

November 5th Sad afternoon. Shopping. Purchase (frivolity) of a tea cake at the bakery. Taking care of the customer ahead of me, the girl behind the counter says Voilà. The expression I used when I brought maman something, when I was taking care of her. Once, toward the end, half-conscious, she repeated, faintly, Voilà “I’m here,” a word we used with each other all our lives). The word spoken by the girl at the bakery brought tears to my eyes. I kept on crying quite a while back in the silent apartment.

November 9th —Less and less to write, to say, except this (which I can tell no one).

November 11th Solitude = having no one at home to whom you can say, I’ll be back at a specific time, or whom you can call to say (or to whom you can just say), Voilà, I’m home now.

April 3rd Despair: the word is too theatrical, a part of the language. A stone.

June 15th Everything began all over again immediately: arrival of manuscripts, requests, people’s stories, each person mercilessly pushing ahead his own little demand (for love, for gratitude): no sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance.

From Mourning Diary

The Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense

By Crispian Jago