Do you see what I see?

Nicola Jones writes:

In a Candoshi village in the heart of Peru, anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés puts a small colored chip on a table and asks, “Ini tamaara?” (“How is it?” or “What is it like?”). What Surrallés would like to ask is, “What color is this?” But the Candoshi, a tribe of some 3,000 people living on the upper banks of the Amazon River, don’t have a word for the concept of color. Nor are their answers to the question he does ask familiar to most Westerners. In this instance, a lively discussion erupts between two Candoshi about whether the chip, which Surrallés would call amber or yellow-orange, looks more like ginger or fish spawn.

This moment in July 2014 was just one among many similar experiences Surrallés had during a total of three years living among the Candoshi since 1991. His fieldwork led Surrallés to the startling conclusion that these people simply don’t have color words: reliable descriptors for the basic colors in the world around them. Candoshi children don’t learn the colors of the rainbow because their community doesn’t have words for them.

Though his finding might sound remarkable, Surrallés, who is with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, isn’t the first to propose that this cultural phenomenon exists. Anthropologists in various corners of the world have reported on other small tribes who also don’t seem to have a staple vocabulary for color. Yet these conclusions fly in the face of those found in the most influential book on the topic: The World Color Survey, published in 2009, which has at its very heart the hypothesis that every culture has basic color words for at least part of the rainbow.

The debate sits at the center of an ongoing war in the world of color research. On the one side stand “universalists,” including the authors of The World Color Survey and their colleagues, who believe in a conformity of human perceptual experience: that all people see and name colors in a somewhat consistent way. On the other side are “relativists,” who believe in a spectrum of experience and who are often offended by the very notion that a Westerner’s sense of color might be imposed on the interpretation of other cultures and languages. Many researchers, like Surrallés, say they stand in the middle: While there are some universals in human perception, Surrallés argues, color terms don’t seem to be among them. [Continue reading…]

The rise of farming altered our bite and changed how people talk

Science News reports:

Humankind’s gift of gab is not set in stone, and farming could help to explain why.

Over the last 6,000 years or so, farming societies increasingly have substituted processed dairy and grain products for tougher-to-chew game meat and wild plants common in hunter-gatherer diets. Switching to those diets of softer, processed foods altered people’s jaw structure over time, rendering certain sounds like “f” and “v” easier to utter, and changing languages worldwide, scientists contend.

People who regularly chew tough foods such as game meat experience a jaw shift that removes a slight overbite from childhood. But individuals who grow up eating softer foods retain that overbite into adulthood, say comparative linguist Damián Blasi of the University of Zurich and his colleagues. Computer simulations suggest that adults with an overbite are better able to produce certain sounds that require touching the lower lip to the upper teeth, the researchers report in the March 15 Science.

Linguists classify those speech sounds, found in about half of the world’s languages, as labiodentals. And when Blasi and his team reconstructed language change over time among Indo-European tongues (SN: 11/25/17, p. 16), currently spoken from Iceland to India, the researchers found that the likelihood of using labiodentals in those languages rose substantially over the past 6,000 to 7,000 years. That was especially true when foods such as milled grains and dairy products started appearing. [Continue reading…]

A Danish word the world needs to combat stress: Pyt

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Instead of overreacting to minor slights, it’s healthier to just say, ‘pyt.’
Ezume Images/Shutterstock.com

By Marie Helweg-Larsen, Dickinson College

Danes are some of the happiest people in the world, and they also happen to have a lot of cool words for ways to be happy.

You may have heard about “hygge,” which has been the subject of countless books, articles and commercials. Often mistranslated to mean “cozy,” it really describes the process of creating intimacy.

But another word “pyt” – which sort of sounds like “pid” – was recently voted the most popular word by Danes, beating out “dvæle” (to linger) and “krænkelsesparat” (ready to take offense).

Pyt doesn’t have an exact English translation. It’s more a cultural concept about cultivating healthy thoughts to deal with stress. As a native Dane and a psychologist, I think the concepts that underpin the word are applicable to people everywhere.

[Read more…]

Could ‘ideophones’ unlock the secrets of humans’ first utterances?

David Robson writes:

If you don’t speak Japanese but would like, momentarily, to feel like a linguistic genius, take a look at the following words. Try to guess their meaning from the two available options:

1. nurunuru (a) dry or (b) slimy?
2. pikapika (a) bright or (b) dark?
3. wakuwaku (a) excited or (b) bored?
4. iraira (a) happy or (b) angry?
5. guzuguzu (a) moving quickly or (b) moving slowly?
6. kurukuru (a) spinning around or (b) moving up and down?
7. kosokoso (a) walking quietly or (b) walking loudly?
8. gochagocha (a) tidy or (b) messy?
9. garagara (a) crowded or (b) empty?
10. tsurutsuru (a) smooth or (b) rough?

The answers are: 1(b); 2(a); 3(a); 4(b); 5(b); 6(a); 7(a); 8(b); 9(b) 10(a).

If you think this exercise is futile, you’re in tune with traditional linguistic thinking. One of the founding axioms of linguistic theory, articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 19th century, is that any particular linguistic sign – a sound, a mark on the page, a gesture – is arbitrary, and dictated solely by social convention. Save those rare exceptions such as onomatopoeias, where a word mimics a noise – eg, ‘cuckoo’, ‘achoo’ or ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ – there should be no inherent link between the way a word sounds and the concept it represents; unless we have been socialised to think so, nurunuru shouldn’t feel more ‘slimy’ any more than it feels ‘dry’.

Yet many world languages contain a separate set of words that defies this principle. Known as ideophones, they are considered to be especially vivid and evocative of sensual experiences. Crucially, you do not need to know the language to grasp a hint of their meaning. Studies show that participants lacking any prior knowledge of Japanese, for example, often guess the meanings of the above words better than chance alone would allow. For many people, nurunuru really does feel ‘slimy’; wakuwaku evokes excitement, and kurukuru conjures visions of circular rather than vertical motion. That should simply not be possible, if the sound-meaning relationship was indeed arbitrary. (The experiment is best performed using real audio clips of native speakers.)

How and why do ideophones do this? Despite their prevalence in many languages, ideophones were once considered linguistic oddities of marginal interest. As a consequence, linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists have only recently started to unlock their secrets.

Their results pose a profound challenge to the foundations of Saussurean linguistics. According to this research, language is embodied: a process that involves subtle feedback, for both listener and speaker, between the sound of a word, the vocal apparatus and our own experience of human physicality. Taken together, this dynamic helps to create a connection between certain sounds and their attendant meanings. These associations appear to be universal across all human societies.

This understanding of language as an embodied process can illuminate the marvel of language acquisition during infancy. It might even cast light on the evolutionary origins of language itself – potentially representing a kind of ‘proto-world’, a vestige of our ancestors’ first utterances. [Continue reading…]

The value of well-crafted language

Greg Laden writes:

Twenty five centuries ago, long before the start of the common era, the written record about the spoken language began. The ancient Greeks were not likely the first to study speech and communication, and they certainly were not the first to write stuff down, but among the early writers, they were probably the first to write about how we construct messages and stories with words.

Joe Rom’s Book How to go viral and reach millions. Greg Laden’s BlogToday we are engaged in a great battle between those who respect, even demand, the truth, and those who care more about partisan power than advancing or even using knowledge.

Perhaps this is why we tend to quote the dead more than ever. During the current election season, I’ve heard the late great Senator Paul Wellstone (1944-2002) quoted at nearly every meeting of loyal Democrats. “We all do better when we all do better.” “The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” “I’m short, I’m Jewish and I’m a liberal”

We remember the inspiring words of JFK. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” “A child miseducated is a child lost.” “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” “Ask not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your country.”

To turn to the living for one moment, Gloria Steinem. “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” “Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” “Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.”

What do these memorable, moving, or emotive missives have in common? They all rely on rhetorical practices that have been part of language since, possibly, some ancient early stage of this unique human ability. Alliteration, Allusion, and Analogy are to language what a good set of planes and saws it to a carpenter. Parallelism, balance, and anaphora are used repeatedly. It is not hyberbole to suggest that metaphor underlies all of these statements. Human language, when used well, can shape minds, steer conversations, and cause more change than any military weapon. [Continue reading…]

How the loss of Native American languages affects our understanding of the natural world

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Dance is a unique way of passing on cultural stories to a younger generation.
Aaron Hawkins/Flickr.com, CC BY-ND

By Rosalyn R. LaPier, The University of Montana

Alaska has a “linguistic emergency,” according to the Alaskan Gov. Bill Walker. A report warned earlier this year that all of the state’s 20 Native American languages might cease to exist by the end of this century, if the state did not act.

American policies, particularly in the six decades between the 1870s and 1930s, suppressed Native American languages and culture. It was only after years of activism by indigenous leaders that the Native American Languages Act was passed in 1990, which allowed for the preservation and protection of indigenous languages. Nonetheless, many Native American languages have been on the verge of extinction for the past many years.

Languages carry deep cultural knowledge and insights. So, what does the loss of these languages mean in terms of our understanding of the world.

[Read more…]

Does language spring from the things it describes?

Mark Vernon writes:

In conversation at the Hay Festival in Wales this May, the English poet Simon Armitage made an arresting observation. Discussing the nature of language and why it is so good at capturing the experience of being alive, he said: ‘My feeling is that a lot of the language that we use, and the best language for poetry, comes directly out of the land.’ Armitage was placing himself within the Romantic tradition’s understanding of the origins of language, which argues that words and grammar are not the arbitrary inventions of human brains and minds, but are rather suggested to human beings by nature and the cosmos itself. Language is an excellent way to understand the Universe, because language springs from the things it describes.

The English philosopher Owen Barfield, a member of the Oxford Inklings in the 1930s and ’40s, whose work as a philologist convinced him that the Romantic tradition was broadly right, put it succinctly. Words have soul, he said. They possess a vitality that mirrors the inner life of the world, and this connection is the source of their power. All forms of language implicitly deploy it. Poets are arguably more alert to it because they consciously seek it out.

It’s an insight with radical implications for theories about the origins of language, primarily because the dominant hypotheses in modern science regard words very differently, as soulless signs that act as labels for objects and symbols that facilitate cognitive agility. [Continue reading…]

As many languages die out, new languages also emerge

Peter Bakker writes:

In Italy they speak Italian. In Germany they speak German, and in Denmark, Danish. If this was true for all other countries, there would be 193 languages spoken today.

But in reality, there are many more: 8,475 according to glottolog.org, where linguists map languages from around the world.

In fact few countries speak just one or two languages natively, such as Iceland and Denmark. Besides their mother tongue, most people there also speak English.

And if that was not confusing enough, new languages are being developed all the time. For example, so-called creole languages, which arise when two or more groups of people all with their own languages come in contact with each other, and need to communicate.

In our research group at Aarhus University, Denmark, we compared these newly developed grammars with non-creole languages from around the world.

The results were spectacular. [Continue reading…]

Living in ignorance about our ignorance

Kaidi Wu and David Dunning write:

In 1806, entrepreneur Frederic Tudor sailed to the island of Martinique with a precious cargo. He had harvested ice from frozen Massachusetts rivers and expected to make a tidy profit selling it to tropical customers. There was only one problem: the islanders had never seen ice. They had never experienced a cold drink, never tasted a pint of ice cream. Refrigeration was not a celebrated innovation, but an unknown concept. In their eyes, there was no value in Tudor’s cargo. His sizable investment melted away unappreciated and unsold in the Caribbean heat.

Tudor’s ice tale contains an important point about human affairs. Often, human fate rests not on what people know but what they fail to know. Often, life’s outcomes are determined by hypocognition.

What is hypocognition? If you don’t know, you’ve just experienced it.

Hypocognition, a term introduced to modern behavioral science by anthropologist Robert Levy, means the lack of a linguistic or cognitive representation for an object, category, or idea. The Martinique islanders were hypocognitive because they lacked a cognitive representation of refrigeration. But so are we hypocognitive of the numerous concepts that elude our awareness. We wander about the unknown terrains of life as novices more often than experts, complacent of what we know and oblivious to what we miss.

In financial dealings, almost two thirds of Americans are hypocognitive of compound interest, unaware of how much saving money can benefit them and how quickly debt can crush them. In health, a full third of people suffering from Type II diabetes remain hypocognitive of the illness. They fail to seek needed treatment—despite recognizing blurry vision, dry mouth, frequent urination—because they lack the underlying concept that would unify the disparate warning signals into a single alarm.

Hypocognition is about the absence of things. It is hard to recognize precisely because it is invisible. To recognize hypocognition requires a departure from the reassuring familiarity of our own culture to gain a grasp of the unknown and the missing. After all, it is difficult to see the culture we inhabit from only within. [Continue reading…]

To communicate with apes, we must do it on their terms

Rachel Nuwer writes:

On August 24, 1661, Samuel Pepys, an administrator in England’s navy and famous diarist, took a break from work to go see a “strange creature” that had just arrived on a ship from West Africa. Most likely, it was a chimpanzee—the first Pepys had ever seen. As he wrote in his diary, the “great baboon” was so human-like that he wondered if it were not the offspring of a man and a “she-baboon.”

“I do believe that it already understands much English,” he continued, “and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.”

Humans and apes share nearly 99% of the same DNA, but language is one thing that seems to irreconcilably differentiate our species. Is that by necessity of nature, though, or simply a question of nurture?

“It could be that there’s something biologically different in our genome, something that’s changed since we split from apes, and that’s language,” says Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But another possibility is that they might have the cognitive capacity for language, but they’re not able to physically express it like we do.” [Continue reading…]

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