Use It or Lose It.

We all know that babies are voracious learners and easily acquire language and that it gets harder to learn as you grow older, but this Guardian article by Nathalia Gjersoe puts it memorably (and doubtless oversimplifies the science) in the course of debunking the myth that the average person only uses 10% of their brain:

But resources are limited and the brain is incredibly hungry. It takes a huge amount of energy just to keep it electrically ticking over. There is an excellent TEDEd animation here that explains this nicely. The human adult brain makes up only 2% of the body’s mass yet uses 20% of energy intake. Babies’ brains use 60%! Evolution would necessarily cull any redundant parts of such an expensive organ.

From studying the development of the brain in babies, scientists know that pruning back connections can be just as important as forming them. Shortly after a baby is born there is an exuberant proliferation of connectivity between the neurons followed by rampant pruning of pathways that are underused. During peak pruning periods, it has been estimated that as many as 100,000 connections may be eliminated per second. This is the second principle of neural connectivity: use it or lose it!

As an example, all babies are able to discriminate any language phoneme (the basic sounds that make up a language) until 6 months of age. After this they become increasingly tuned in to just those phonemes used by their local language. This enables babies to more swiftly learn their native tongue. Japanese does not distinguish between |l| and |r| so adult English-learners struggle to even hear the difference between these two phonemes.

Any unused parts of the brain quickly die off to free up resources needed to strengthen those connections that are most often used. This tunes the brain to be exquisitely well adapted to specifically the environment it finds itself in. In this light, the idea that 90% of the brain is lying dormant, waiting for some product, program or drug to access it, seems ludicrous.

Thanks for the link, Bathrobe!

Addendum: A useful companion piece is this New Scientist review by Alun Anderson of The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct by Vyvyan Evans, which sounds like a good book:

The commonplace view of “language as instinct” is the myth Evans wants to destroy and he attempts the operation with great verve. The myth comes from the way children effortlessly learn languages just by listening to adults around them, without being aware explicitly of the governing grammatical rules.

This “miracle” of spontaneous learning led Chomsky to argue that grammar is stored in a module of the mind, a “language acquisition device”, waiting to be activated, stage-by-stage, when an infant encounters the jumble of language. The rules behind language are built into our genes. […]

They may have been chasing a mirage. Evans marshals impressive empirical evidence to take apart different facets of the “language instinct myth”. A key criticism is that the more languages are studied, the more their diversity becomes apparent and an underlying universal grammar less probable.

And the hat tip for that link goes to John Emerson.

Comments

  1. Evolution would necessarily cull any redundant parts of such an expensive organ.

    Poppycock. Biological evolution has nothing to do with necessity, and is not a variety of Taylorism. The claim is at best a (possibly redundant) item in the evolution of ideas about evolution.

  2. Not poppycock. The argument is that an organismal function that is metabolically expensive but serves no useful purpose — useful in the sense of aiding survival — will be winnowed out over the course over time. This doesn’t imply any notion of design or intent, merely that changes that are beneficial to the organism will win out over those that are not.

  3. The truth must be somewhere between. A function that serves no purpose doesn’t get winnowed. The brain function (a combination of eye-hand coordination and balance) that allows humans to ride bicycles didn’t get removed from the organism during the million years or so before it became survival-advantageous to be able to ride a bicycle. Metabolically expensive structures can be and are removed, as in the case of the many organisms living underground with vestigial or absent eyes.

    A Far Side dinosaur giving a speech to an audience of other dinosaurs: “Gentlemen, the situation is grave. The climate is changing, the mammals are rising, and we all have brains the size of a walnut.”

  4. But eye-hand coordination and balance were presumably useful functions long before bicycles came along. And as neurological functions, they require brainpower (literally).

  5. Stefan Holm says:

    To specify: as for the individual evolution through natural selection don’t give a damn. It’s all about the species. That is, nature favours:

    1) Individuals interested in producing offspring (libido).
    2) Males competing with other males in order to select the (hopefully) fittest genes.
    3) Females irresistibly attracted to victorious males.
    4) Individuals looking after the offspring so that it in turn reaches fertile age. That is:
    5) Males with good skills in hunting and gathering (or more modern economic activities).
    6) Females with a strong sense for protecting the offspring against all thinkable dangers.

    Individuals other than the above mentioned get naturally sorted out through generations.

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    Something about the biology [substitute another word if you like] of human children (not suffering from unusual injuries or disorders) enables them to acquire language in a way that has not (convincingly) been shown to be the case with any other species of animal. I’m never quite sure why arguments over whether or not to describe that quite distinctive capacity as a “language module” is helpful. The capacity for language acquisition could be fairly called “innate,” yet may wither (due to inter alia the pruning effect described above) if a particular child is not exposed to the right sort of stimuli at the right developmental stage. Yet the right sort of stimuli are received, with successful results, by the overwhelming majority of children in all known human societies, so creating the necessary environment for the innate capacity to be actualized is not a difficult project. So does that make that capacity (or the resulting competence once it is actualized) an “instinct” or not? I dunno. I really don’t. What sort of clarity is intended to be achieved by answering that question one way or the other? Who is scoring points against whom in an obscure quasi-theological dispute that is really about something else?

  7. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Metabolically expensive structures can be and are removed, as in the case of the many organisms living underground with vestigial or absent eyes.

    is it rather that living underground was possible or even advantageous for individuals with defective vision, favouring them over normal individuals in this setting and letting them pass on the defective genes to their offspring until they were the only ones left in the species?

  8. Who is scoring points against whom in an obscure quasi-theological dispute that is really about something else?

    Ditto. Hard to say how an observation of wild diversity of grammars in lesser-studied human languages might help us figure out the innate mechanisms of language acquisitions, which increasingly shapes up as a problem of biology / genetic research as opposed to a grand philosophical idea. When scientific method encroaches, the pre-existing philosophy always steps back some. But sensing that the Grand Thinkers of the Past may not have understood all aspects right shouldn’t be an excuse to claiming that it was all wrong, and that there isn’t anything to study, or to think about, anymore.

    Perceptions of sounds is only a facet of language acquisition; it’s more like a synesthetic audio-visual-motor perception, where babies actively watch lips of the speakers as they listen, and activate their own muscles to make sounds, all in concert. The attention to the mouths of the native speakers actually wanes as early as 6 months, but this perceptive ability doesn’t go away & is actively deployed when older babies are after non-native speech. So not using the visual speech-analysis pathway later on apparently doesn’t result in its loss. On the other hand the motor aspects of the pathways barely develop by 6 months.

    The disuse of the visual component of speech recognition shouldn’t be construed as “loss”. Rather, the attention of the infants is simply refocused to the social clues of speech, they are now watching the speakers’ eyes. It’s almost always true for learning, even in adult age – early on, we do the best with redundant stimuli, when multiple pathways hammer down the same message to us; later on, we are able to concentrate on the most important, and to get away without the learner’s redundancy. Most of the “losses of perceptive ability of the infants” discussed in the Pons et al. paper LH cited above seem to belong to this category – as the babies learn more and more skills, they refocus their resources on the novel tasks, thinning out the redundancies of the earlier-stage learning to make the previously-acquired skills more lean and efficient, and to concentrate the brain resources on acquiring the next level of skills.

  9. Stefan Holm says:

    Who is scoring points against whom in an obscure quasi-theological dispute that is really about something else?

    Good brew, Brewer! It is something else, and I spy relicts of colonialism behind the never ending search for languages ‘without verbs or nouns’, with ‘a hundred words for snow’, with ‘no counting words beyond three’, with ‘no words for colours’ etc.

    I’m afraid of either a thought of western superiority or the opposite, a criticism against (western) civilization, technology, culture, life-style and so on. I can see Jean Jacques Rosseau and Margaret Mead in the shadows: back to nature, back to stone age (when 2 out of 3 children died before the age of 5 – until we invented agriculture, that terrible ‘monoculture’), fulfill your obligations towards Mother Nature or you will be punished – just NIMBY.

    Against this I claim that string theory can be discussed in both Inuktitut and Paraná. All men are born equal!

  10. “Biological evolution has nothing to do with necessity,”

    I must have misunderstood – this sounds like a denial of natural selection.

    “Good brew, Brewer! It is something else, and I spy relicts of colonialism behind the never ending search for languages ‘without verbs or nouns’, with ‘a hundred words for snow’, with ‘no counting words beyond three’, with ‘no words for colours’ etc. ”

    I don’t see what colonialism has to do with it, and in fact the more obvious explanation is a loathing of Chomskyanism. The authors hack at UG and generativists and the view of linguistics they have foisted on cognitivists, page after page.

  11. I spy relicts of colonialism

    Nonsense. Of course there’s colonialism and relics of colonialism all over the place, but not here. Jim has it: it’s about Chomskyan bullshit and how to convince people to stop believing and spouting it.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Using anywhere near 100 % of the brain at once would be an epileptic seizure of epic proportions.

    To specify: as for the individual evolution through natural selection don’t give a damn. It’s all about the species.

    No, no, no, no, no! *wince* There is no such thing as a species! Your genes have no idea who else belongs to your species and who might not!

    That is, nature favours:

    Sometimes, depending on a long list of circumstances.

    Sometimes it favours the opposite of some or all of your list. Just look around yourself.

    is it rather that living underground was possible or even advantageous for individuals with defective vision, favouring them over normal individuals in this setting and letting them pass on the defective genes to their offspring until they were the only ones left in the species?

    That can’t be common.

    In at least one species of blind cavefish, eyes begin to form and are then destroyed. It turns out that it’s an advantage to have a larger jaw with a larger area for finding prey by touch in that cave, and the genetic mechanism that does this also makes the midline region between the eyes broader: eye loss as a side effect of selection for something functionally unrelated.

    babies actively watch lips of the speakers as they listen

    Seriously?

    Not all languages are as easily lip-readable as English; and people who don’t make eye contact still learn to speak.

    when 2 out of 3 children died before the age of 5 – until we invented agriculture

    Agriculture made things worse in that respect because it increased population density and malnutrition and made hygiene harder.

  13. I spy relicts of colonialism behind the never ending search for languages ‘without verbs or nouns’, with ‘a hundred words for snow’, with ‘no counting words beyond three’, with ‘no words for colours’ etc.

    So now we can all go back to well-earned self-satisfaction with our own highly civilised culture?

    The grand summation of poststructuralist thought: It’s all been a big mistake. So where exactly do you want to wind back to?

  14. No, no, no, no, no! *wince* There is no such thing as a species! Your genes have no idea who else belongs to your species and who might not!
    Oh, but somehow cats and dogs figure out who to hit it off with. Also, kin selection is a pretty solidly established concept.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    cats and dogs figure out who to hit it off with

    They’re pretty far apart. Frogs, for example, are less discerning in that respect. 🙂

    “Species” can’t be defined any better than “language”. According to one of the currently popular species concepts, there are 101 endemic bird species in Mexico; according to another one of the currently popular ones, there are 249, and the regions of greatest endemism are in quite different parts of the country.

    Also, kin selection is a pretty solidly established concept.

    Oh yes, but only for kin groups much smaller than species under any definition.

  16. “Agriculture made things worse in that respect because it increased population density and malnutrition and made hygiene harder.”

    Yes. Life expectancy actually decreased with agriculture. Only with medical advances in the last century or so have life expectancies increased. I suspect that the diversity of diet of hunter gatherers also contributed to their health.

  17. “Oh, but somehow cats and dogs figure out who to hit it off with.”

    I read a study some years ago designed to determine if people intuitively made racial distinctions. In the study, they found that they did not. But, they did consistently “code” for age and sex – which just happens to also be factors in determining who is a candidate for reproduction.

    Had they tested for it, I am almost sure that the subjects would have made natural, intuitive distinctions between humans and non-human animals. (Maybe country boys and sheep would be the exception 😉

  18. marie-lucie says:

    agriculture and diseases

    Apparently many of the contagious diseases which used to kill lots of children before vaccination originated as diseases of domestic animals.

  19. Stefan Holm says:

    Bathrobe: So where exactly do you want to wind back to?

    For heavens sake, I don’t want to wind back! I recently read that during the twenty years to come the Chinese plan to move the incredible amount of 600 million people from the countryside into (new built) cities. That’s the way I like it – onward! Farewell to poverty and misery. Come Tokamak and nuclear fusion. Come prosperity and welfare for all humans.

    My conviction is that this is really possible. According to demographers the population growth will stop at around 11 billion people. Already in the year 2000 we reached our ‘peak child’, i.e. no more children are born on this planet than those of us who die. But those born prior to 2000 will still be around for a while and thus increase the population from 7 to 11 billion (three billions more in Africa and one billion more in Asia – in Europe and the Americas we are decreasing). All according to this excellent presentation by my fellow countryman Hans Rosling (which I however fear can’t be watched outside Sweden due to copyright issues – the capitalist variety of ‘freedom of speech’):
    http://urplay.se/Produkter/180445-Hans-Rosling-Framtidens-statistik

    All of you who has pointed out that it wasn’t agriculture but more so industrialism that made the numbers of us grow are of course right. Sorry for that. And highly estimated Hat: I’m fully aware that Noam Chomsky (like all of us by woman born) could have gotten it all wrong. Couldn’t you on the other hand somewhere imagine that he actually was at something fundamental?

  20. string theory can be discussed in both Inuktitut and Paraná

    In principle, yes; in practice, not so much, because there isn’t enough of the right kind of vocabulary available. I can’t locate it right now, but Lameen blogged about rendering a fairly dense passage of academic English into French (straightforward, the only problems were with French idioms), Modern Standard Arabic (shaky), and Algerian colloquial Arabic (can’t even start).

  21. > And highly estimated Hat: I’m fully aware that Noam Chomsky (like all of us by woman born) could have gotten it all wrong. Couldn’t you on the other hand somewhere imagine that he actually was at something fundamental?

    Sure. The same is true of many false theories (and not-even-false ones): we can easily imagine that they could have had something right. But they didn’t, so it would be nice if we could move on . . .

  22. string theory can be discussed in both Inuktitut and Paraná

    In principle, yes; in practice, not so much, because there isn’t enough of the right kind of vocabulary available.

    I’m not sure string theory can be discussed in any natural language. If you want to talk the theory itself and not about it, you need a specialized symbolic language.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    in Inuktitut or Parané … there isn’t enough of the right kind of vocabulary available.

    How have modern European languages solved the problem? at first, by interested people learning languages with more vocabulary in order to discuss science and other forms of “higher learning”, and later by using metaphors from their own language (like “string”), and by coining words, often using bits and pieces of the (still now) more prestigious languages Greek and Latin. Since this has been going on for centuries, people have got used to using or learning the new terms in small doses, and many of these terms have been fully absorbed into the languages (like “triangle” or “thermometer”), but cultures without the same kind of tradition would have to either create or import a huge number of words all at once.

  24. Stefan Holm says:

    String theory, or modern physics in general, can’t be described in any spoken language – only in the language of mathematics. The relation between the circumference and the diagonal of a circle is described by the symbol π, ‘pi’. It is a transcendental number. That means, that it unlike e.g. 0.3333333… can’t be expressed by a fraction (1/3). Transcendental is also the mathematical constant e (2,718281828…). It’s the base of the natural logarithms and turns up everywhere in mathematical analysis. When it comes to the ‘imaginary unit’ i, the square root of -1 (minus one) we can’t give it even an approximate digital representation.

    But put these three unimaginable numbers together and add the very basic ones of ‘0’ and ‘1’. You will end up with the exact and most beautiful of all mathematical equations, the Euler’s identity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euler%27s_identity

    Intuitively this must represent something very fundamental in universe. But what? It’s beyond my imagination and believe me, I’ve spent hours and hours staring at and thinking of Euler’s identity. The only conclusion I’ve made from this, and from quantum mechanics, is that the real world is something else than the one we perceive with our senses. Make it also a ‘negative’ evidence for the idea of a universal grammar: what our brains can’t grasp we can’t express linguistically. Thank God for mathematics!

  25. I remember coming across an article on the creation of new technical vocabulary in Swahili, which criticized some calques for having overbroad meanings:

    The following examples seem to distort the original concept in English and give a meaning that is only partially correct. …kisoukomo translates roughly to ‘unlimited’, ‘unconstrained’ or ‘unbridled’. This is simply not exactly the meaning of an infinitive verb.

    My reaction was to wonder, how does that differ from Late Latin infinitivus?

  26. David Marjanović says:

    According to demographers the population growth will stop at around 11 billion people. Already in the year 2000 we reached our ‘peak child’, i.e. no more children are born on this planet than those of us who die.

    Don’t these two sentences contradict each other? And as you feared, I can’t watch the video from outside Sweden; from what I’ve read, a peak at 9 billion around the 3rd quarter of this century is more likely.

    My reaction was to wonder, how does that differ from Late Latin infinitivus?

    Exactly.

  27. Stefan Holm says:

    It was sloppy, David, not to add that people born during the 50 or so years before 2000 will have a longer life expectancy than earlier generations. That’s why we will end up at 9 or 11 billions (I’m not an expert). According to the lecture by Hans Rosling, which you unfortunately can’t see outside Sweden, it is only in rural areas of Africa that couples today have more than two children on an average. But even academically educated people in Great Britain and Sweden (according to polls) think that couples in Bangladesh have six children or so each. They also think that only some 50% of the world’s population can read and write. The real number is somewhere between 80 and 85. So what my generation dreamed of back in the sixties seems to becoming true. Finally The times they are a’changing as we sang then.

  28. OK, I should explain my comment a bit more fully. I think we can agree that colonialism/imperialism is deeply interwoven into just about every aspect of modern society.

    Take the life sciences. The colonial era was the background to a huge contest around the world, led by Europeans and Americans, to find new species for science and fit them into a framework devised by one Carl von Linné. The theory of evolution was developed by a man who took part in scientific expeditions around the world at the height of European colonialism. There are many more examples but I think these two are illustrative.

    In our time, scientists are still looking for extremophiles that live near hydrothermal vents, in lakes beneath the ice in Antarctica, in rocks below the sea floor, in short, in all kinds of places that you wouldn’t have expected it under our earlier knowledge of biology.

    Now take linguistics. Modern historical linguistics began when a colonialist in India noticed a similarity between Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. American structuralism was strongly influenced by knowledge gained in field studies of Amerindian languages. The list doesn’t end there but these are enough to illustrate the point.

    It was against this background that I read Stefan’s comment:

    I spy relicts of colonialism behind the never ending search for languages ‘without verbs or nouns’, with ‘a hundred words for snow’, with ‘no counting words beyond three’, with ‘no words for colours’ etc.

    This was so totally off the wall that I could scarcely believe my eyes. While modern biologists, working in a field that is inextricably interwoven with colonialism, seem to find it worthwhile to search for life forms in environments that we wouldn’t have dreamed possible, linguists who “search for languages ‘without verbs or nouns’, with ‘a hundred words for snow’, with ‘no counting words beyond three’, with ‘no words for colours’ etc.” are guilty of ‘colonialism’. There also seems to be an implicit judgement that searching for languages with features that we (or at least ‘universal grammarians’) never thought possible is somehow trivial and distasteful.

    This is why I asked where you want to turn back to. I’m not going to defend imperialism or colonialism, but if you want to reject the fruits of colonialism, then you are going to have to reject just about everything in modern life.

    I realise that there are political and other issues involved in investigating other people’s culture and language, but the attempt to deny inputs into deepening our knowledge of language by finding the linguistic equivalent of ‘extremophiles’ just seemed too extraordinary to pass without challenge.

  29. And incidentally, if you’d been around these parts a bit longer, you’d realise that no one is searching for languages “with ‘a hundred words for snow’”. This is an old chestnut that linguists are trying to debunk, not prove.

  30. Actually, Hat’s response was better 🙂

    it’s about Chomskyan bullshit and how to convince people to stop believing and spouting it

    As usual, in order to understand what someone is saying, you have to know what they are arguing against.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    it is only in rural areas of Africa that couples today have more than two children on an average

    Also places like Saudi Arabia and Oman, where women simply don’t get a say in this matter; granted, that doesn’t amount to a lot of people by global measures.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    linguists who “search for languages ‘without verbs or nouns’, with ‘a hundred words for snow’, with ‘no counting words beyond three’, with ‘no words for colours’ etc.”

    This is a caricature of linguistic work. I am not aware that any linguists are actively searching for such languages. What happens is that (outside of the Chomskyan coterie) linguists sometimes discover such oddities, marvel at them and try to understand them.

    The number of words for some aspects of nature or culture depends entirely on the way of life of a people: I think that in some parts of Africa there are dozens of words relative to camels.

    As for “languages without nouns and verbs”, at first sight this seems to be an impossibility – what could we say without them? But it means not that the languages in question lack crucial vocabulary but that the words that European languages would translate as nouns and verbs are less specialized from a grammatical point of view, so a noun does not need a word corresonding to “to be” to be a sentence predicate. But English is well-known for being able to switching word categories, from noun to verb and vice-versa: judging for sleep, run, drink and an apparently increasing number of others, English could be said not to differentiate between nouns and verbs. Depending on one’s point of view, this could be interpreted as “correuption” in comparison to older languages which very rich morpholology such as Sanskrit, or an indication of increasing flexibility and compactness in the direction of Chinese structure.

  33. Any kind of collection of data or samples in developing countries can be regarded as a form of colonialism.

    Because linguists doing fieldwork in Africa are actually COLLECTING languages…

    And historically, collection of trophies for display at home was the most valuable prize for the victor.

    Ask ancient Romans.

  34. Any kind of collection of data or samples in developing countries can be regarded as a form of colonialism.

    This is an overly narrow perspective.

    (1) It’s not done just by traditional ‘colonialists’ (Europeans and Americans). Japanese, Indians, etc. — anyone who does any kind of scientific fieldwork in other languages is ‘collecting’ them.

    (2) It doesn’t have to be in other countries. American, Australian, New Zealand, Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Brazilian, Indian etc. fieldwork within their own borders is also ‘colonialist’.

    Naturally this takes us into difficult political territory. If these people’s languages are to be collected, they should at least receive some economic or other benefit for it. In the same way that Discovery Channel crews should pay for access to birds, animals, or natural features that they film on the territory of developing nations. The theft of intellectual property of other kinds (music, traditional art) is more difficult to deal with but should also be recompensed. And the genome mapping project is a whole new can of worms.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t know where to start about SFR’s comment.

    “Collected” languages or dialects are not leaving the minds of their speakers. Languages that have become extinct because speakers did not pass them on to chidren did so for other unfortunate reasons, not because linguists “collected” them. In fact many languages have disappeared with little trace because no one was around to “collect” them. More and more speakers of indigenous languages (or their sons and daughters) on several continents are choosing to get trained as linguists (this does not always mean Chomskyan syntax!) so they can play an informed, active active role in preserving those languages.

    Would you prefer that languages, art forms, etc should have remained in “colonialists'” consciousness (the general public, including majority governments) only as instances of “primitiveness”, etc, to be stamped out, while no one ever went there to find out what the truth was?

  36. David Marjanović says:

    More and more speakers of indigenous languages (or their sons and daughters) on several continents are choosing to get trained as linguists (this does not always mean Chomskyan syntax!) so they can play an informed, active active role in preserving those languages.

    Arguably the first example.

  37. “What happens is that (outside of the Chomskyan coterie) linguists sometimes discover such oddities, marvel at them and try to understand them.”

    Apparently, Chomsky is also a double agent. He is a board member of The Endangered Language Fund, an organization dedicated to “the goal of supporting endangered language preservation and documentation projects.”

  38. If these people’s languages are to be collected, they should at least receive some economic or other benefit for it.

    This is not like resource extraction: bits, unlike atoms, can be copied losslessly. Speakers of a language don’t possess monopoly rights over it.

  39. But that is, alas, a common attitude among oppressed peoples and their supporters. It’s stupid and indefensible from any intellectual viewpoint, but it obviously makes emotional sense to them. I’m just glad I’m not trying to do fieldwork in such a situation.

  40. debunking the myth that the average person only uses 10% of their brain

    The first time I saw that “fact” was in an advert for a course on “dianetics” by L. Ron Hubberd.

    I wonder what percentage of the brain L.Ron used to write Battlefield Earth.

  41. @Stefan Holm

    Euler’s identity is a special case of exp(ix) = cos(x) + i sin(x) when x = pi. The equation shows the relationship between exponential functions and trigonometric functions and is of great service in mathematical analysis and its application to physics.

    “the real world is something else than the one we perceive with our senses”

    I think the working agreement between scientists and mathematicians is that the real world is the one we can measure with our senses and our instruments. Mathematics is an expression of our imaginations which is often helpful in describing the real world but is not limited to that. Mathematicians can prove things, scientists are never completely sure.

  42. Battlefield Earth

    Probably 0%. See his (authentic) short novel Typewriter in the Sky.

  43. marie-lucie says:

    GW: Apparently, Chomsky is also a double agent. He is a board member of The Endangered Language Fund, an organization dedicated to “the goal of supporting endangered language preservation and documentation projects.”

    It is only a few years ago that putting a major effort into endangered languages became recognized as a worthy goal for the linguistics profession, for instance by the LSA (Linguistic Society of America, the main professional association in the US). Other organizations, such as the ELF, started quite ikndependently of it. As for Chomsky, it isn’t as if he was ever a leader in that particular aspect of the field. He probably was told that as the only internationally known linguist he could hardly be seen to ignore the problem.

  44. “He probably was told that as the only internationally known linguist he could hardly be seen to ignore the problem.”

    Yeah, that is why I suggested that he is a double agent posing as a friend to burnish his credentials or some other untoward motivation.

  45. SFReader: comparing linguistic fieldwork to the collecting of trophies, and comparing this to Ancient Roman practices, is frankly bizarre. First of all, the Romans themselves were utterly indifferent to languages other than their own and Greek. Historical Linguistics would be on a much sounder footing today, I am certain, if they had left us some grammars, dictionaries and text samples of the many languages once spoken within the borders of the Roman Empire. Yet the fact that they failed to do so has never been used, to my knowledge, as an argument in favor of a view that Roman Imperialism was somehow benign.

    Second of all, resistance to linguistic fieldwork among many minority language communities (as mentioned by several hatters above) does not strike me at all as a reaction against colonialism. I’m afraid it is more a symptom of culture death: my impression is that the language, because it is falling out of use, is increasingly felt to be a private “in-group” possession, one outsiders should know nothing of.

    In the United States and Canada, among Native groups, this is coupled with a hysterical racism associated with modern-day “native identity” which denies that outsiders can understand anything about a native language and culture. I speak from experience here: a professor of “Native Studies” (whose obsession with race was so similar to a white racist’s whom I once met that I am convinced that the two would have gotten along perfectly had their skin color been the same) once flatly told me that as a non-native I could not, by definition, understand anything about Aboriginal languages. Which this “professor” knew nothing whatsoever about, of course.

    As I wrote here recently I have been re-reading Bloomfield and Sapir, and am struck by the fact that they seem never to have encountered such attitudes. Which is a major strike against any theory explaining said attitudes as a reaction against colonialism, as Natives in North America in their day were living in a considerably more blatantly colonial world than Natives today.

    Third, there is a remarkable lack of fit between the nationality of scholars who have pioneered the study of various Native languages and the nation-state the speakers of those languages live in. There are several Native languages in Canada today, for instance, which have been most thoroughly described by non-Canadian scholars, often employed by non-Canadian Universities. This is nothing new: the study of Sanskrit was first pioneered in Europe in the German-speaking world, despite the fact that the total number of colonial possessions in India belonging to a German-speaking country was zero.

    Fourth, one of the core findings of linguistics (that neither different languages nor different dialects of a single language can be objectively shown to mirror, in their structure, the place in the social hierarchy which their speakers occupy) is anathema to just about any believer of imperialism or colonialism. It should come as no surprise that Swadesh was blacklisted as a “subversive” in the United States and had to spend the rest of his career in Mexico, or that Bloomfield denounced racism in print generations ahead of the Civil Rights movement. To call such linguists “imperialists” or “closely associated with imperialism” isn’t just insulting: it is totally inaccurate.

  46. Very well said, Etienne. Thanks.

  47. marie-lucie says:

    Actually, Etienne, I think that the ones who most strenuously object to outsiders learning the languages are not the old, still fluent speakers who grew up speaking them (and are often glad of the interest) but the younger generations who had little or no opportunity to learn them. It is no surprise that such people resent outsiders becoming more closely acquainted with their grandparents’ languages than they are, and this is translated into a rationalization that outsiders can’t possibly understand them themselves, and should not be allowed to try.

    There is a recent book on the linguistic work of British missionaries on the Canadian West Coast a hundred and more years ago, named And he knew our language.* The ability of missionaries to learn local languages was a major contributor to their acceptance by the communities and to the success of their work (which involved much more than religion). Those who could not learn satisfactorily had to leave in frustration.

    *Marcus Tomalin, John Benjamins 2011.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    Historical Linguistics would be on a much sounder footing today, I am certain, if they had left us some grammars, dictionaries and text samples of the many languages once spoken within the borders of the Roman Empire.

    It would already help a lot if the Etruscan dictionary would show up that Emperor Claudius is said to have written.

  49. they seem never to have encountered such attitudes

    Unsurprising. The more lightly oppressed are far more restive than the deeply oppressed, an effect known as “the revolution of rising expectations”.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    Indeed, but given the tribulations at the time, this work might not have been copied, since few people were interested in the topic beside Claudius, who was long considered a harmless fool. Most texts from the time which have survived did so because multiple copies were made and ended up scattered around the empire, or they were extensively quoted by later authors.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    JC: (Bloomfield, etc) they seem never to have encountered such attitudes
    – Unsurprising. The more lightly oppressed are far more restive than the deeply oppressed, an effect known as “the revolution of rising expectations”.

    I don’t think that was the reason. Bloomfield worked at a time where the people he worked with were living in communities where the local language was spoken by everyone, even if some of the younger ones were bilingual. Only bilingual or semi-lingual people might be upset that someone else might want to know their “secret”, now “sacred” language. Monolinguals or those barely so are happy that someone is trying to speak with them in their only means of communication instead of appearing to force them to use a language they don’t know, or not well enough to be able to express everything they would want to say.

  52. marie-lucie says:

    Oops: Monolinguals or those barely so

    I mean “almost monolinguals”.

  53. Obviously, I am not suscribing to the attitude I mentioned. But such attitude does exist and it is felt by many people whose languages are being collected (or saved from extinction by being documented if you like).

    I think there is nothing we could do with it, we just need to be aware and try to be as sensitive as possible.

    Bathrobe,

    Intellectual property concept continues to evolve. As I know, there were objections to collection of genes from some plants in the Amazon which were useful to farmaceutical industry. The critics felt that the industry was robbing Indians of their property.

    Personally, I have a feeling that the publishers who charge 100 dollars for a dictionary of soon to be going extinct language are doing the same or worse

  54. —Etruscan dictionary would show up that Emperor Claudius is said to have written.

    Yes! Obviously it takes a very sophisticated Roman to derive a triumph from such ephemeral trophy

  55. David Marjanović says:

    Personally, I have a feeling that the publishers who charge 100 dollars for a dictionary of soon to be going extinct language are doing the same or worse.

    Uh, publishers don’t commission manuscripts. Scientists write their manuscripts first and then try to get them published somehow.

    And yes, for-profit academic publishing is a scam. That is not news.

  56. marie-lucie says:

    David, The 100 dollars is what they sell the finished product for. Publishers calculate the cost of a book not only according to the production costs but according to how many people are likely to buy it. Most large scholarly books are likely to be bought by university libraries, some of which have standing orders with some publishers but which nowadays are having their budgets cut. I don’t think it is a coincidence that very well produced but very expensive books are published in Germany and Holland. By “expensive” I don’t mean 100 dollars for a dictionary (depending on the size of course), I mean at least two or three times that!

  57. Stefan Holm says:

    Sorry, if anybody felt that I was moralizing over colonialism. My views correspond to that of the Communist Manifesto. It’s basically divided into four parts:

    The first quarter is an actual song in praise of capitalism and the industrial revolution (and colonialism, at least in the meaning of the ‘discovery’ of America, finding the sea route to East Asia and expanding world trade). These were progresses thitherto unseen in the history of mankind.
    The second is a conclusion that capitalism is doomed to come to road’s end (because of the contradiction between on one hand the growing common, global character of our economic activities and on the other hand the growing concentration of economic power on fewer hands).
    The third is the ‘prediction’ that the economy must be put under democratic control and that the working classes worldwide are the people to make this happen.
    The fourth is a criticism directed mainly against those kind-hearted but ignorant ones who want to turn the wheels of history backwards into an imagined, pre-capitalist, ecological utopia.

    It was this last part I had in mind when I ‘spied colonialism’. Linguists, anthropologists, archeologists etc. are hopefully professional scientists. But I can on a daily basis see their work presented to the public in media. There is almost always a background noise of searching for ‘paradise lost’ when it comes to indigenous people or languages (implied: save them from civilization, stone age was such a happy and innocent time). Our modern secular environmentalist minded intelligentsia for sure has borrowed more from the Fall in the Garden of Eden than they are aware of.

  58. David Marjanović says:

    But I can on a daily basis see their work presented to the public in media.

    Presented by science journalists, not by the scientists themselves.

    Having to cover a huge field, science journalists routinely write about things they don’t understand. All kinds of unintentional distortion result.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    And even if the journalist is more or less correct, sometimes the headline writer completely misunderstands the point.

  60. ““Collected” languages or dialects are not leaving the minds of their speakers. Languages that have become extinct because speakers did not pass them on to chidren did so for other unfortunate reasons, not because linguists “collected” them.”

    NO SHIT.

    “Obviously, I am not suscribing to the attitude I mentioned. But such attitude does exist and it is felt by many people whose languages are being collected (or saved from extinction by being documented if you like). ”

    SFR, that is generational. My generation of Native American university students quite often did feel that way, in a very political kind of way, and yet very often did not speak or learn or pass on the languages they were standing guard over like a dog in the manger. Their children don’t feel the same way because very often the only reason those languages can be recovered at all for revival is that the dreaded white linguists came and “stole” those languages, and they acknowledge that.

    They also often have a blessedly less purist approach to language revival and restoration:
    http://www.tulaliplushootseed.com/video_25-Halloween%20verbs%20Cartoon%20with%20Words%20-%20Open-Close.htm
    http://www.tulaliplushootseed.com/video_December_3_2012_Phrases.htm
    An L1 speaker, for comparison (hit the Next button in the lower right hand corner)

  61. Here’s that L1 speaker. Sorry, hit “post” too soon.
    http://www.tulaliplushootseed.com/story_bear_and_ant.htm

  62. David Marjanović says:

    And even if the journalist is more or less correct, sometimes the headline writer completely misunderstands the point.

    Oh yes. Thanks for mentioning this.

    Figure captions are sometimes affected as well. Austria’s highest-brow newspaper once had a short article on the finding that certain proteins in platypus venom are similar to some in snake venoms, and also mentioned platypus fossils in some way. There was a picture of a platypus, and the legend said: “The ancestors of these animals were snakes. This is proved by fossils […]”

    *epic facepalm*

  63. David’s “arguably the first example” link above is to Parker McKenzie (1897-1999), the first Kiowa to receive linguistic training (on the job). He was also responsible for the practical Kiowa orthography, which has some features of interest, being a compromise between English orthography and the very un-English Kiowa phonology.

    Kiowa has a four-way distinction in stops: voiced, voiceless aspirated, voiceless unaspirated, and glottalized/ejective. The first two grades are written b, d, g and p, t, k, as in English. To write the other two, English letters and digraphs otherwise unused are repurposed: f, j, c and v, th, q respectively. Note that f, v are used for labials, j for a coronal, and c, q for velars, which provides mnemonic value for bilinguals. The affricate [ts] and its ejective variant are ch and x respectively. All other consonants, namely s, z, l, y, w, h, m, n, are as in English. Finally, there are six vowels: a, e, i, o, u have their IPA values, but /ɔ/ is au as in English.

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