Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The universal language

Sometimes I have thoughts that blindside me.

The last time that happened was three days ago, while I was working in my office and our elderly coonhound, Lena, was snoozing on the floor.  Well, as sometimes happens to dogs, she started barking and twitching in her sleep, and followed it up with sinister-sounding growls -- all the more amusing because while awake, Lena is about as threatening as your average plush toy.

So my thought, naturally, is to wonder what she was dreaming about.  Which got me thinking about my own dreams, and recalling some recent ones.  I remembered some images, but mostly what came to mind were narratives -- first I did this, then the slimy tentacled monster did that.

That's when the blindside happened.  Because Lena, clearly dreaming, was doing all that without language.

How would thinking occur without language?  For almost all humans, our thought processes are intimately tied to words.  In fact, the experience of having an experience or thought that isn't describable using words is so unusual that we have a word for it -- ineffable.

Mostly, though, our experience is completely, um, effable.  So much so that trying to imagine how a dog (or any other animal) experiences the world without language is, for me at least, nearly impossible.

What's interesting is how powerful this drive toward language is.  There have been studies of pairs of "feral children" who grew up together but with virtually no interaction with adults, and in several cases those children invented spoken languages with which to communicate -- each complete with its own syntax, morphology, and phonetic structure.

A fascinating new study that came out last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, detailing research by Manuel Bohn, Gregor Kachel, and Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, showed that you don't even need the extreme conditions of feral children to induce the invention of a new mode of symbolic communication.  The researchers set up Skype conversations between monolingual English-speaking children in the United States and monolingual German-speaking children in Germany, but simulated a computer malfunction where the sound didn't work.  They then instructed the children to communicate as best they could anyhow, and gave them some words/concepts to try to get across.

They started out with some easy ones.  "Eating" resulted in the child miming eating from a plate, unsurprisingly.  But they moved to harder ones -- like "white."  How do you communicate the absence of color?  One girl came up with an idea -- she was wearing a polka-dotted t-shirt, and pointed to a white dot, and got the idea across.

But here's the interesting part.  When the other child later in the game had to get the concept of "white" across to his partner, he didn't have access to anything white to point to.  He simply pointed to the same spot on his shirt that the girl had pointed to earlier -- and she got it immediately.

Language is defined as arbitrary symbolic communicationArbitrary because with the exception of a few cases like onomatopoeic words (bang, pow, ping, etc.) there is no logical connection between the sound of a word and its referent.  Well, here we have a beautiful case of the origin of an arbitrary symbol -- in this case, a gesture -- that gained meaning only because the recipient of the gesture understood the context.

I'd like to know if such a gesture-language could gain another characteristic of true language -- transmissibility.  "It would be very interesting to see how the newly invented communication systems change over time, for example when they are passed on to new 'generations' of users," said study lead author Manuel Bohn, in an interview with Science Daily.  "There is evidence that language becomes more systematic when passed on."

Because this, after all, is when languages start developing some of the peculiarities (also seemingly arbitrary) that led Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf to develop the hypothesis that now bears their names -- that the language we speak alters our brains and changes how we understand abstract concepts.  In K. David Harrison's brilliant book The Last Speakers, he tells us about a conversation with some members of a nomadic tribe in Siberia who always described positions of objects relative to the four cardinal directions -- so my coffee cup wouldn't be on my right, it would be south of me.  When Harrison tried to explain to his Siberian friends how we describe positions, at first he was greeted with outright bafflement.

Then, they all erupted in laughter.  How arrogant, they told him, that you see everything as relative to your own body position -- as if when you turn around, suddenly the entire universe shifts to compensate for your movement!

Another interesting example of this was the subject of a 2017 study by linguists Emanuel Bylund and Panos Athanasopoulos, and focused not on our experience of space but of time.  And they found something downright fascinating.  Some languages (like English) are "future-in-front," meaning we think of the future as lying ahead of us and the past behind us, turning time into something very much like a spatial dimension.  Other languages retain the spatial aspect, but reverse the direction -- such as the Peruvian language of Aymara.  For them, the past is in front, because you can remember it, just as you can see what's in front of you.  The future is behind you -- therefore invisible.

Mandarin takes the spatial axis and turns it on its head -- the future is down, the past is up (so the literal translation of the Mandarin expression of "next week" is "down week").  Asked to order photographs of someone in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age, they will place them vertically, with the youngest on top.  English and Swedish speakers tend to think of time as a line running from left (past) to right (future); Spanish and Greek speakers tended to picture time as a spatial volume, as if it were something filling a container (so emptier = past, fuller = future).

All of which underlines how fundamental to our thinking language is.  And further baffles me when I try to imagine how other animals think.  Because whatever Lena was imagining in her dream, she was clearly understanding and interacting with it -- even if she didn't know to attach the word "squirrel" to the concept.


This week's book recommendation is a fascinating journey into a topic we've visited often here at Skeptophilia -- the question of how science advances.

In The Second Kind of Impossible, Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt describes his thirty-year-long quest to prove the existence of a radically new form of matter, something he terms quasicrystals, materials that are ordered but non-periodic.  Faced for years with scoffing from other scientists, who pronounced the whole concept impossible, Steinhardt persisted, ultimately demonstrating that an aluminum-manganese alloy he and fellow physicists Luca Bindi created had all the characteristics of a quasicrystal -- a discovery that earned them the 2018 Aspen Institute Prize for Collaboration and Scientific Research.

Steinhardt's book, however, doesn't bog down in technical details.  It reads like a detective story -- a scientist's search for evidence to support his explanation for a piece of how the world works.  It's a fascinating tale of persistence, creativity, and ingenuity -- one that ultimately led to a reshaping of our understanding of matter itself.

[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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