Creuset of Ideas
A collection of various ideas

Archives of "Language"


The Danish Language Needs Your Help

2007-05-31 @ 14:44

Via 3quarksdaily


Seeing words

2007-03-7 @ 14:42

Our culture has a special relationship to the written word; we tend to think of written language as pretty natural. But out the thousands of languages spoken around the world, many, if not most, are not written.

When we stop to think about it, the written word is not that natural. Consider what happens, in our brain, when we read:

  • Our eyes scan the lines, pausing for 250 milliseconds on each group of letters, before moving on the next. During that time, we pick up the first and last letter, and, mixed up, the middle ones. This is fed as nerve impulses to our occipital lobe (back of the head).
  • The information gathered is transmitted from the occipital lobe to the left temporal lobe for processing: transforming the little images into words.

Consider then what happens when we listen: the sound strike either ear, to be translated into nerve impulse that stay in the same region for processing (or simply cross over the other side of the brain, which is a natural path).

This may explain why silent reading is a fairly recent development (last millennium, if I’m not mistaken) and why children learn to read aloud. The lines are transformed into real sound, for easier processing. Seen from outside, this may seem more complicated, but for our brain, it’s easier.


The minimum

2007-03-1 @ 16:22

I was discussing machine translation (MT) with a friend of mine, a fellow linguist, the other day, trying to see how a computer could acquire enough information to be able to do a fairly accurate job. The big thing, of course, is meaning. But, from a MT point of view, this pretty much amounts mapping one language onto another (I’m simplifying, of course). This brought about the big question: what is needed to learn a language?

What does a child need, a priori, to be able to start learning, to pick up its first language? In other words, what innate knowledge or ability is required, as a bare minimum (besides, of course, the ability to process inputs from our senses)?

First of all, I’d say we need the notion of communication, that the sounds mean something. Or does observation tell us that? Do we only need to see (hear) that specific sound patterns are related to interactions?

Pattern recognition is a pretty obvious choice for bare requirement. The ability to extract patterns from the flow of sounds. Even before birth, the foetus can distinguish language from noise, and even recognize the sounds of its mother tongue. Studies have shown that the foetus is equipped to recognize patters, be they (for hearing) in music or language. By three and a half month, babies can separate words in a sentence; the phonological word comes before meaning. The brain sees the physical patterns (sound waves) before tackling conceptual ones (meanings).

Generalization and particularization: the ability to come to a general concept based on observation of particular instances, and conversely, to extract an instance from a general idea. This is pretty much relation to pattern recognition.

Am I missing something? Do we need anything else?



2006-11-28 @ 14:28

“I decided to learn Arabic,” he said. To which his son, who knew him quite well, answered with a smile: “So, what’s her name?”

Many years ago, I met this man of a certain age on the Munich-Salzbourg train, he was explaining how, to learn a language, you have to eat the food, smell the air and, of course, sleep with the locals.

You’ll find lots of language learning books, most focussed on travel. But what about people who want to learn a language to seduce someone? Isn’t there a “[insert language name here] for bed” collection?

Update: there’s one in Japanese for learning English: English phrasebook

Via aristippe


Wednesday Linguistics: Change

2006-09-13 @ 9:49

Languages change. That is no big revelation. It is most obvious in the way words and their meaning change. Some words don’t mean what they used to, don’t describe the same reality they did some years ago. New words pop up all the time, old ones becomes obsolete. I read in a recent article that the last few years, what with the Internet and all, had seen an unprecedented influx of new words and expression. The last big one having been Shakespeare. Well, that is less true than it sounds – it would be more accurate to say that a greater number new words have been recorded than in any previous period. One has to remember that language is primarily spoken, not written (in fact, most of the world’s language are not written). Some of what Bill was the first one to write down had probably been around for a while. Same thing now; although it is true that today’s new realities allows a greater creation of new words, some of what is being now recorded comes from dialects or idiolects that have been around for some time.

But that’s not the only way that languages change. Of course not. The sounds of the language are also affected. This is easy to see in languages that have been written for many centuries; words that were first written phonetically are now pronounced in a different manner than what their letters suggest. Words are also shortened, abbreviated, like taxi cab for a taximeter cabriolet. Regarding this aspect of language evolution, we are often presented with the principle of least effort: it’s easier to drop part of words, or to pronounce things this or that way.

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Wednesday Linguistics: Memory

2006-08-9 @ 11:06

Language and memory are like conjoined twins: they are so intertwined, the interaction between the two are so complex that they are hard to separate. There’s obviously no possibility of language, on an individual basis, without memory. On the other hand, some of our memories are processed through language; depending on the person, there are memories that lose details because they become tied in to words.

We could even argue that, in a way, our first memories are words. We remember, for instance, the word “mama” from where we were one. But it’s not a memory as such, but something that is ever and always reactivated.

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Wednesday Linguistics: Beyond Communication

2006-08-2 @ 13:38

(Well, it’s been a while. Can’t say I was that busy, but things been happening that make me forget to post.)

Invented Usage, in a recent post, challenge the traditional maxim according to which the purpose of language is to communicate:

i’d like to submit (usage liberal that i am) that language has more purposes than just communication. i even believe it goes beyond wallace’s observation that the diction/style/accent we use communicates something about us. language is used to confuse, to distract, to entertain, to kill time, to remember, to make art, to perform ceremonies, all of which could be considered communicative under my usually broad definition… but beyond even that, the ways people judge each other based on language use are PART OF LANGUAGE ITSELF. its purpose is also to divide, include, grade and judge. these functions determine who gets listened to, and in extreme cases, who gets listened to is a matter of life and death.

I can’t really subscribe to the idea that to divide, include, grade and judge are purposes of language. Of course, we use language (ours and other’s) to do this, but that doesn’t mean these are purposes of language. This is like saying that since I can judge the handiness of someone through their use of a hammer, and by its wear, one of the purposes of hammers is to judge handiness. Also, just because I can use a hammer as counterweight, doorstop or smurf pedestal, doesn’t mean these are purposes of hammers.

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Wednesday Linguistics: Borrow and steal

2006-07-12 @ 11:32

Well, I missed last week’s WL (to many things going on). So here goes, another special request.
Languages are wonderfully adaptive and creative. You might say they are as creative as all the most creative speakers pooled together. When something new (an idea, a thing, etc.) pops up, the language (by that I mean it’s speakers) can do one of three things: adopt the foreign word that goes with it, use an existing word (or words) or create a new one.

It’s normal for languages to borrow words (and sometimes morphemes) and expressions from one another. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. And the wider the language spreads, the more contact it has with other languages and cultures, the more it’s likely to borrow.

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Wednesday Linguistics: Quebec (by special request)

2006-06-28 @ 10:25

In a comment on last week’s instalment, Mr Pregunto asked me what was my opinion “on the value of the local dialects of French, here in Quebec”. Well, here goes.

From a purely utilitarian point of view, I actually find it quite advantageous to speak a dialect that is further from the “standard” than most European ones. That meant I learnt another variety at school, and hear it in movies, tv shows, etc. The result of which is that I can understand many French dialects (although by no means all), whereas most French speakers from outside Quebec would understand me if I didn’t tone down mine.

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Wednesday Linguistics: Foolishness

2006-06-21 @ 11:01

When I was young and foolish (those by-gone days), I started devising weird linguistics theories (that was before I started university). Those tended to be of the strong Whorf-Sapir kind. I remember two of those, both having to do with the grammar of specific languages.

The first concerned grammatical gender, the number used by some IE languages. German has three: feminine, masculine and neuter; French has two: feminine and masculine and English only one, called neuter (lit. “not the others”) for lack of a better term. This I decided to compare, for some strange reason, with the offerings of each culture in the field of philosophy.

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