Tag Archives: Language

What is the most important human adaptation?

Human infants require more care than they should, if we form our expectations based on closely related species (apes, and more generally, Old World simian primates). It has been said that humans are born three months early. This is not accurate. It was thought that our body size predicted a 12 month gestation, and some suggested that Neanderthals would have had such, but this research conclusion has been set aside based on new analysis. But it is still true that developmentally, human children do not reach a stage of development that allows some degree of self care for a very long time compared to apes. The actual sequence of development is not directly comparable: It is not the case that after a certain amount of time humans reach a specific stage reached earlier in the lifecycle by Chimpanzees, as the differences are more complicated than that. For the present purposes, we can characterize the human condition for early development like this: Human babies are more helpless in more ways and for longer than comparable ape babies.
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Putting Exodus into Words: The sed Bible Translation Project

So, a while ago, Ben Zvanwas talking about doing something with the Bible, which would involve processing the text through some filters and recompiling it. This sort of thing has always interested me: Not recompiling the bible, but rather, textual analysis in general using the basic material stripped of intended meaning by classifying and ordering arbitrarily. What, for example, is the vocabulary of the Rosetta stone, or the Kensington Rune Stone (a probable fake Viking misssive on display in west-central Minnesota). Does the rune stone sample the lexicon of a particular time period or another, or one group of vikings or another? (I hasten to add, that study has been done, but was inconclusive).
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I don’t mind that you don’t really understand the term “passive aggressive.”

Or … What I had for breakfast.

I just got the Caribou Coffee trivia question wrong. I got it so wrong that the Barista stared at me in disbelief for a moment, then blurted out the correct answer with audible snark and disappointment. If I told you what the question was (and that is not going to happen) you would be embarrassed for me as well. This was especially bad because I usually answer the question by adding some additional fact, or spice things up by answering the question in Classical Greek or Latin, or at least provide one or two scholarly references. But this time it was a dumb-ass question with a dumb-ass answer and I simply got it wrong. Good thing I wasn’t trying to impress anyone.
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A run in my stocking is not a worn out salmon: Response to Mark Liberman

I’m very please that my discussion of the “we can’t ever know what a word is” Internet meme has elicited a response from Mark Liberman at Language Log. (here) Mark was very systematic in his comments, so I will be very systematic in my responses.

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Minifalsehood: We can’t tell what a word is!?!?

I am looking at the question: How many words are there in a language? I’d like to know for languages in general, comparatively, and for pedagogical reasons, in some well known western language which may as well be English.

What I found quite incidentally is a hornets nest of curmudgeonistic pedanticmaniacal jibberishosity. (There. Whatever the count was, it is now N+3)

(For more Falsehoods, click here. Also, listen to “Everything You Know is Sort of Wrong,” on Skeptically Speaking Talk Radio. )
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The “Swine Flu” does not have a name?

Effect Measure has an interesting take-down of a post on The Global Language Monitor (GLM), which brings up an interesting point or two.

The GLM is a very strange site which has, as Revere points out, declared itself to be an important go-to place to find out about language trends across the world. I have not decided what I think about this site except when I browse around it it I feel my guard going up, and up and up. In a recent post, the GLM lists cases of inappropriate political correctness. The GLM says “Once again, we are seeing that the attempt to remove all bias from language is itself creating biases of their own” and they point out as the number one example of this … Swine Flu:

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Memetics of Meaning, Memory and Me: The minefield of the annoying or endearing mannerism

Did you ever notice how some verbal expressions have an extra meaning for you, just you, because of history? In reflecting on this, it is impossible to not consider such lofty topics as memes, cultural transmission, and … well, meaning. A particular expression might invoke a memory of an event, or of a person who often uses that expression. That can be a pleasant experience, or an unpleasant one. If you know what I mean.

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Knowing More Languages = Good

American politicians, some parents, and a few others have previously expressed the concern that learning more than one language muddles the mind. This is, of course, absurd, and it is hard to believe why anyone really thought this. In fact, it could be said that having more than one language under your belt makes it easier to learn yet another language, a demand Americans often place on foreigners or immigrants to the US which is less often placed on the Americans (see this discussion).

Now, to support the idea that having more languages is good for the mind is being demonstrated at the Language Acquisition Lab at Cornell. According to Barbara Lust, “Cognitive advantages follow from becoming bilingual… These cognitive advantages can contribute to a child’s future academic success.”

There is a press report providing some of the lab’s results here.

Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival 33


Welcome to the Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival #33, ‘specializing’ in the four fields of anthropology. The previous edition of 4SH can be found at Testimony of the Spade, and the next edition will be hosted by Our Cultural World. The main page for Four Stone Hearth has additional information on the carnival, and you can submit entries via Blog Carnival.

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The Human Langauge Gene in Song Birds

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchA recent paper in PLoS Biology examines the role of the so called “language gene” in neural development related to vocalization. It was previously found that FOXP2 gene is up-regulated in a certain area of the brain that is important for neural plasticity related to vocalization. The present study reduces the levels of expression of FOXP2 gene using “FOXP2 Knockdown” individuals (individuals with a somewhat broken FOXP2 gene) in this area prior to an important stage in brain development that is related to vocalization. The effect on learning vocalization, is negative.This experiment was done in birds (zebra finches). Continue reading The Human Langauge Gene in Song Birds

Evolution Of Language, The Symbolic Species (Terry Deacon)

Evolution of Language: Deacon vs. Pinker

In considering the evolution of human language, I think it is helpful to contrast these two books, and the ideas presented in them:

Terrence Deacon’s “<The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain


Stephen Pinker’s “The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (P.S.)

Neither book is exceptionally new, and in fact, Pinker has cranked out a number of books since The Language Instinct. However, I think The Language Instinct is the best of Pinker’s volumes for this discussion. In it, he lays out the basic evolutionary psychology argument in a way that is most directly contrasted with the ideas in Deacon’s. Also, The Language Instinct has a great chapter called (if memory serves) “The Language Mavens” which is worth reading whether or not you agree with or even like the rest of Pinker’s book.

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