We should watch our gun language. The New York Times has an article today, “In Gun Debate, Even Language Is Loaded,” documenting the pervasive gun references in our language. I speak six languages, and in thinking about each, I believe the article is correct — we have far more expressions, verbs, and nouns which come from gun culture than other languages do. It would be interesting to compare American English to British English and other World Englishes in this regard, too.
The parents from Newtown made the statement yesterday that they were in the gun debate for the long haul. Legislation can help, but the bigger changes have to come from the bottom up. There has to be a cultural change before this violence begins to subside. Just as we changed our language regarding race and gender, we might begin to change the national obsession with guns by changing our language. The first step to doing that is to increase our awareness of how often we use military and gun terms in our everyday speech.
At the end of the 19th century, a Xam/San man (we call them “Bushmen”) in South Africa looked at a figure in a prehistoric rock painting and said “That’s a shaman!” (This account taken from The Mind in the Cave, by David Lewis-Williams, published by Thames & Hudson in 2002.) Nobody knows for certain what happened 70,000 years ago in the mountains where the modern Bushmen still live, but scholars had been studying the prehistoric rock paintings they found there, and puzzling over what they meant. The Xam/San have been continuously living in this area since before history began, and until the 20th century took full hold, their lives had not changed much. They have always lived off of the meager takings in the Kalahari Desert. The Xam/San man’s reaction to the painting is a clue to what happened 70,000 years ago, when the painting was created.
The period in which the rock paintings were made is identified as the beginning of human abstraction. A symbolic figure like the shaman represented something that one could not touch, an abstract, godlike figure. There is also evidence from around the same period that ritual burials were conducted, and this suggests also that syntax had developed sufficiently to create verbal rituals which were shared by a large group and used to bury their dead, along with various artifacts. Archaeologists have uncovered many of the artifacts, but the language, of course, is lost, except for its traces among the Xam/San.
There are cave paintings showing women sitting in a circle clapping and singing, with a larger circle of men dancing behind them. What were they saying? There would have been text as well as rhythm. (The modern Xam/San man also recognized the dual circle type of ritual because they still performed it at the end of the 19th century.)
Humans 70,000 (or so) years ago were also experimenting with the mind, performing ritual dances like the dance above, which altered their state of consciousness resulting in trances. This suggests a level of self-awareness not experienced by any other animal, and also a control of language which could trigger, enhance, and then explain these experiences. Trances which alter consciousness are still part of religious experience today. Sometimes they have a linguistic result, Speaking in Tongues.
Without phonographs and television, there is no way to analyze the experiences of prehistoric man, man at the beginning of language. We have only tiny glimpses of the truth through the lives of modern men and women like the Bushmen, paired with rock paintings which portray human behavior, and artifacts which suggest the patterns of prehistoric life. All evidence is circumstantial. There will never be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Archaeology and anthropology have developed as rapidly as astronomy over the last century, and circumstantial patterns are emerging more and more clearly. The assumption at this point in their research is that humans emerged in southern Africa, where the Bushmen still live, and dispersed to Asia and then to Europe. Language probably began as part of burial and religious rituals in those early days, and later became the glue which held communities together and made possible their cooperative efforts as they took the long journeys to Asia and Europe.
In their new book, Linguistics (published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2012), Anne E. Baker and Kees Hengeveld catalogue the differences between human and animal language. Neanderthals and the predecessors of homo sapiens communicated, of course, but language rose to a more complex intellectual endeavor at some point. Bees, for example, will perform their “wiggle dance” pointing to the source of the materials to make honey whether or not any other bees are watching, and will perform the same dance every time. They never “just do a little dance.” The bees cannot say what the weather was like, or that they encountered other bees en route. Human language requires cooperation – the interaction between one speaker and another; creativity – the ability to create unique sentences upon demand; spontaneity – the use of language whether or not there is a prompt; and arbitrariness – the use of vocabulary and syntax which is created without any natural reason. We call a bee bee, Greeks call it melissa, and the French call it abeille, for no particular reason. The important factor is mutual comprehensibility – cooperation — and we could agree on any word we chose to accomplish that.
This reflection on the beginnings of human language is not meant to be comprehensive, and certainly not meant to be right. Not even the greatest archaeologist would claim to be “right.” It’s food for thought as we speak our way through our lives.
In my opinion, language smothers our familiarity with the biological patterns which direct our lives just as powerfully as our minds do, but that blog belongs to somebody else.
Years ago, a friend said he thought that young people today were blurring the distinction between real and virtual relationships. I said that was ridiculous, that human beings would always need the sights, smells, and touch of other human beings. A relationship based on language alone would never prove gratifying.
Now I wonder. My students recently had to write an essay on “love and marriage,” using a set of poems and stories, and the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. They were also allowed to use outside sources, personal anecdotes, the results of small polls they devised, etc.
Three essays used news reports about professional celebrity Kim Kardashian’s recent marriage to Kris Humphries as a source, informing me why she got married in the first place, and why they divorced after a couple of months.
There are, of course, several reasons why these are inadequate sources for any academic work. Pygmalion (as opposed to news reports about Kim Kardashian) follows a relationship through many ups and downs, and in different social environments, involving family members, friends, professional concerns, etc. One can develop an opinion as to why things turned out as they did. Poems, too, condense profound issues through intense use of language and symbols, etc.
I pointed out to my classes that the Kim Kardashian they had met in the magazines in the supermarket was no more a real person than Eliza Doolittle. The students have allowed the daily drip drip drip of Kim Kardashian to invade their systems, giving the illusion of reality. They confused literary art with commercial endeavors – selling magazines, that is.
I asked my classes if an online relationship, in which one person has never met the other, could ever be defined as a romantic relationship. This is not as simple a question as one might think. When I was single, about five years ago, I had a long and frequent email correspondence with a married man. He wrote to me of his marital and professional problems, his plans for the future, his deepest thoughts and feelings. At 2:00 am one morning he was writing me a long email when his wife passed silently behind him, barefoot, going to the bathroom; he had not heard her coming. The thought that his wife might see his email to me frightened him out of writing for several weeks. Was our relationship adultery, or betrayal of his marriage? He was quite sure that, whatever it was, his wife would have been upset.
So the line between real and virtual is not so clear sometimes, but academia is one place where a bright line can be drawn. The uncheckable, semi-fantastical world of celebrity publicity and cannot be used as an academic source. If the world of online relationships is included in an essay, it should be approached with care, as we have not yet gotten our moral arms around the online world. We do our students a favor if we draw the line clearly between virtual and real, and may be doing the world a favor if we draw them into a substantive discussion of the new set of morals and behavioral norms which the online world has drawn us into.
Exercise: There are daily examples of online experiences and celebrity publicity which can be discussed. Perhaps students could be enticed into providing a moral parsing for the close but virtual relationship I had with a total stranger online. Was he betraying his marriage vows? If you are brave enough, you might venture into the influential world of online pornography — according to news reports, online pornography has changed the expectations and sexual practices of especially men.
An article in The New York Times today makes the case that not only does bilingualism make us smarter as children, it also wards off mental deterioration in older people.
I might add my own two cents on this subject. There is no time in life when bilingualism is anything less than a great bonus (except when memorizing vocabulary lists, that’s just the price you pay). Traveling, watching television, reading newspapers in another language, speaking with the local hardware store owner or taxi driver or musician in his or her native language is a kick which opens your social life and sprinkles glitter on our everyday activities.
I learned something new today — yes, our genetic makeup influences how we behave, but our behavior also changes or enhances our genetic makeup. It’s a two-way street. That is somehow hopeful.
As reported in the journal Neuron, a UCLA team of researchers “discovered that some 2,000 genes in a region of the male zebra finch’s brain known as “Area X” are significantly linked to singing. More than 1,500 genes in this region, a critical part of the bird’s song circuitry, are being reported for the first time.”
The researchers believe that “the 2,000 genes — which are also shared by humans — are likely important for human speech.” Some disorders, such as autism, are believed to have a genetic component, and this is a step toward understanding how that works.
The cool thing about the research, to me anyway, is that yes, our speech is regulated by genes, but when we speak, the genes are energized and changed — that is, our behavior can change the way our brains work. The researchers write that ”If you’re a professional pianist, for example, you actually expand the territory in your brain that is devoted to playing the piano. When you practice the piano, a suite of genes gets turned on. When you practice hitting a tennis serve or a baseball, a suite of genes gets turned on. Our findings suggest different suites of genes get activated for different behaviors.”
How are “suites of genes” influenced by learning new languages, and speaking them? There is evidence that learning other languages affects many parts of the brain, but so far the mechanisms which cause these beneficial results have not been clearly understood.
Research like this makes me wonder what world our grandchildren will live in.
One area of linguistics, Psycholinguistics, concerns itself with how the mind creates the matter which produces ideas. Ideas are a precursor to the words which express them — a Chinese speaker and an English speaker can view a work of art or a car accident and have the same “idea,” but the words which express it are incomprehensible to everyone but those who know the linguistic conventions of the speaker.
The former American poet laureate, Donald Hall, shed some light on where ideas come from in his interview with Terry Gross on her radio program Fresh Air February 8, 2012. The entire interview can be found at: http://www.npr.org/2012/02/08/146348759/donald-hall-a-poets-view-out-the-window
Hall says he’s now writing prose instead of poetry. That, too, is a function of growing older.
“I felt poetry slipping away,” he says. “I’m not sure why. It was palpable. I’ve always felt that poetry was particularly erotic, more than prose was. … I say that you read poems not with your eyes and not with your ears, but with your mouth. You taste it. This part of poetry, which is essential to me, seems to have diminished gradually until finally I really don’t have it.”
Hall says he also has trouble thinking of new subject matter.
“It used to be that phrases and lines would come into my head, often many of them in a period of five days or a week, and maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about, but the words had a kind of heaviness or deliciousness to them,” he says. “That’s decreased. It’s become less frequent until finally over the last few years, there’s been none of that.”
An interview with Steven Pinker on the nature of language, and the window it provides into the human psyche and mind, is available on The New York times website. It would be an interesting short video to show to classes.
Some of my friends are raising their children bilingual. One couple of lives in Austria — the father is Austrian, the mother is Czech. Another lives in Washington DC — the father is American, the mother is German. The couples speak both languages at home, but they also take their children back to the second-language country for extended summer vacations, and have children’s books, videos, and television programs available.
New research ( http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/11/health/views/11klass.html) shows that bilingual children’s brains develop differently from monolingual children’s. The latest news on bilingual babies is this:
… researchers found that at 6 months, the monolingual infants could discriminate between phonetic sounds, whether they were uttered in the language they were used to hearing or in another language not spoken in their homes. By 10 to 12 months, however, monolingual babies were no longer detecting sounds in the second language, only in the language they usually heard.
In contrast, the bilingual infants followed a different developmental trajectory. At 6 to 9 months, they did not detect differences in phonetic sounds in either language, but when they were older — 10 to 12 months — they were able to discriminate sounds in both.
“What the study demonstrates is that the variability in bilingual babies’ experience keeps them open,” said Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the study. “They do not show the perceptual narrowing as soon as monolingual babies do. It’s another piece of evidence that what you experience shapes the brain.”
Another researcher found, that “Overwhelmingly, children who are bilingual from early on have precocious development of executive function.”
It’s surprising that so little is known about bilingualism when it is so important to every aspect of modern life, but at least they’re learning now.
I must add that I have several acquaintances who spent years as young children speaking a second language and barely remember a thing. It appears that as well as exposing them at an early age, one can’t forget to take them to visit grandma every summer, and to implant all the social supports to the language they are learning.
Oh, and one more thing – the babies learned nothing from television, even if they watched programs in a second language for hours. They need human interaction to imprint any language.
My linguistics professor once posed the question, “What is an idea?” I must admit that I am still unsure. There is a complex process which occurs between thinking something and speaking or writing it. When we speak, we have not taken the time to figure out exactly what we think beforehand. The American Heritage Dictionary defines an idea as “That which exists in the mind, potentially or actually, as a product of mental activity…” Pretty vague, right?
There are ways we can sort out the thinking process, and tools to sharpen it. Meditation is one.
Exercise: Introduce a subject (methods of parental discipline, 9/11, Queen Elizabeth, my favorite meal, or something else) and ask students to meditate on it in class. They should sit quietly, without reading, writing, or looking around, possibly with their eyes closed, and think about the subject for five minutes. (This is a very long time for some people.) Afterwards, ask them to write a paragraph on the subject.
This could be paired with another short exercise where you provide the subject and ask them to freewrite about it, just putting down everything they are thinking.
After having the two experiences, ask the students to discuss the difference. Can they identify the worth of silent reflection?
In my classes the result is always a great variety of responses. Some people find meditation extremely helpful, others find it annoying. Most find it an interesting experience if nothing else.
One of the controversial claims that Noam Chomsky presented in his original research was that language is universal and innate. In David Crystal’s A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics” (4th ed. 1990), this concept is defined this way: ”…universals provide a theory of the human language faculty — those properties of language which are biologically necessary — which is thought to be an important step in the task of understanding human intellectual capacities.”
New research suggests that languages are so idiosyncratic in their development that their nature could not be universal. Here is the link to a synopsis of the full research report published in April 2011 in Nature:
and here is the link to a synopsis of the article, published in the April 14, 2011 issue of Wired: