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.
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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.

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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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We develop the capacity to reason before we can speak

The Verge reports:

One-year-old babies may not be able to speak, but they are able to think logically, according to new research that shows the earliest known foundation of our ability to reason.

Legendary psychologist Jean Piaget believed that we didn’t have logical reasoning abilities until we were seven, but scientists scanned the eyes of 48 babies and found that they’re able to reason through the process of elimination. The research was published today in the journal Science.

The type of reasoning in question, process of elimination, is formally called “disjunctive syllogism.” It goes like this: if only A or B can be true, and A is false, then B must be true. So, if the cup is either red or blue, and it is not red, then it is blue. Process of elimination isn’t necessarily the easiest form of reasoning, says Justin Halberda, a psychologist and child development expert at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in today’s study, but it’s a crucial one for higher thinking. “One of the central pieces that separates human reasoning from all other forms is to negate a premise — you see that if it’s not A, it’s something else,” he says. “That’s quite fancy stuff.” [Continue reading…]

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New paper links ancient drawings and the origins of language

Peter Dizikes, Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

When and where did humans develop language? To find out, look deep inside caves, suggests an MIT professor.

More precisely, some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa.

A key to this idea is that cave art is often located in acoustic “hot spots,” where sound echoes strongly, as some scholars have observed. Those drawings are located in deeper, harder-to-access parts of caves, indicating that acoustics was a principal reason for the placement of drawings within caves. The drawings, in turn, may represent the sounds that early humans generated in those spots.

In the new paper, this convergence of sound and drawing is what the authors call a “cross-modality information transfer,” a convergence of auditory information and visual art that, the authors write, “allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking.” The combination of sounds and images is one of the things that characterizes human language today, along with its symbolic aspect and its ability to generate infinite new sentences.

“Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing,” says Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. “You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual.”

Cave artists were thus not just early-day Monets, drawing impressions of the outdoors at their leisure. Rather, they may have been engaged in a process of communication.

“I think it’s very clear that these artists were talking to one another,” Miyagawa says. “It’s a communal effort.”

The paper, “Cross-modality information transfer: A hypothesis about the relationship among prehistoric cave paintings, symbolic thinking, and the emergence of language,” is being published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The authors are Miyagawa; Cora Lesure, a Ph.D. student in MIT’s Department of Linguistics; and Vitor A. Nobrega, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil. [Continue reading…]

With the very best technology, humanity is digging its own grave

Technology is generally thought of as extending human capabilities by facilitating everyday actions more easily or allowing us to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

From this expansive perspective, technological advance has become synonymous with human progress. Conversely, the less technology populations possess, the more they are viewed as developing or even less evolved.

What these views mask are the multiplicity of ways in which technology feeds human regression.

The regressive mechanism built into technology in most of its manifestations is its propensity to externalize human skills.

If there’s something a person can do but a machine can do with greater economy, then the human skill soon becomes redundant. Having become redundant, it falls into disuse and soon atrophies.

This is not a small problem. It’s the reason that humanity is rapidly filling its ranks with a mass of diseased and disfigured bodies.

Any time I walk down the concourse in a busy airport (a place in which it’s possible and reasonable to start making generalizations about the current condition of the human body), I’m struck and shocked by the fact that, at least in the United States, the majority of people have impaired walking abilities. The causes are obvious: obesity and/or lack of exercise.

The technology that allowed Americans to have the greatest mobility of any population in human history has created people who have less capacity to mobilize themselves than ever.

Pandemic chronic disease largely resulting from physical neglect (which itself mostly results from mass distribution of the most addictive drug ever created: convenience) along with an atmosphere dangerously over-burdened by carbon, are both direct consequences of our lethal dependence on technology.

Picture the world that’s just around the corner in which we will move around in self-driving cars, permanently attached to mobile devices, shopping in stores where we don’t need to talk to anyone or staying at home where virtually anything can now be delivered.

Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, would have you believe that this world of maximized convenience will be some kind of utopia. But have no doubt: this is how humanity is digging its own grave.

The problem of externalizing human skills was anticipated long ago by Socrates when he warned about the impact of the first social medium and most widely replicated piece of technology: the written word.

Socrates warned that writing:

will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering [the purported inventor of writing, Theuth, was advised], but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.

But if Socrates couldn’t dissuade Plato from diligently writing down this warning about the danger of writing, it’s hardly surprising that concerns about the risks involved in the externalization of memory (and other externalized human skills) have never exerted much influence in Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, an organization has come together with the aim of “realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.”

A quixotic ambition?

Maybe, but at least the Center for Humane Technology has been created by industry insiders who have an intimate understanding of the technologies and business practices they are challenging.

When people like Tristan Harris warn that “our society is being hijacked by technology,” don’t mistake this as sniping from some anti-technology curmudgeon.

Harris and his cohorts were until recently active participants in the hijacking. They understand exactly how this operation has been conceived, implemented, and is having its intended effects.