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When ideas don’t translate

No matter how many times I tell them, Be it a Murat or a Zeynep or someone named Elif or even a Yiğitcan or two, they refuse to accept it. The Sapir Whorf hypothesis suggests that, to varying degrees, each culture-language allows people to consider, discuss and understand some ideas more and better than others do. In the linguistics of today, the linguistics practiced in departments so named, the hypothesis is dismissed as either untestable or worse, wrong. But the hypothesis holds water, a lot of it. Here is a conversation vaguely related to it.

Afiyet olsun meets internet meme absurdity.
Afiyet olsun meets internet meme absurdity.

Languages have both formulas for communicating ideas and truth values and such, as well as set-phrases for doing much the same. Put another way, in English you can convey how sure you are about something with a little adverb like “certainly” as in: “Certainly a day will come when you will understand the horrors of teachehood.” But you can also say: “As sure as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow, you will one day repent for having touched my Batman action figure.” In the first, the adverb “certainly” allows the listener to infer that the speaker truly believes that such a day will come. In the second example, the same is true, but by use of a comparative sentence similar to /a is as true as b/. These phrases are very englishy, especially the adverbial one. But they are also very indo-European-y, as they are easily translated using nearly identical (often cognate) language structures and words. In English it is the case that the certainty with which a speaker makes some assertion is important and by consequence English has formidable number of adverbial evidentiality markers (adverbs which relate how sure the speaker is about something). The preceding was meant to let the reader know that there some things that are important in English.

I remember reading the article where I learned about the number of adverbial evidentiality markers. But I remember much more viscerally my early days of Turkish learning. I wanted to convert how sure I was of what I was saying, using adverbs, but not only did I not know their Turkish counterparts, but as it turns out, they are few and far between in Turkish. For sure, evidentiality is important to Turkish speakers, but it is both conveyed differently (think endless numbers of postpositions), and also sometimes it is not as important as other things. Continue reading “When ideas don’t translate”

New Year’s Vintner

Don José the vintner showing one of hos bottles. In fact, it is a recycled bottle, he wouldn't spend the money on new bottles when the old ones are perfectly good.
Don José the vintner showing one of his bottles. In fact, it is a recycled bottle -he wouldn’t spend the money on new bottles when the old ones are perfectly good.

On New Year’s Eve 2013 I was in a hostel in Toledo, Spain. Sometime in the day the hostel owner put into my room a Korean father and son. Father has a Ph.D. M.D. and his son is 12. Well, we agreed to get to together to have a New Year’s Eve meal. Sure, I knew that everywhere was gonna be closed because my host had told me so and so had everyone else I spoke with. The Koreans did not believe me. So I agreed to meet them later. When I came back later that day from my I-can’t-remember-what-I-did, we had been joined by a young man from Colorado who, during his off-season, had been living in Madrid. He was, during the season for it, a forest firefighter. He told us that it is fairly boring work most of the time, until you are jumping out of helicopters into the middle of forest fires. But my short story is not about all that or them. It is about the hostel owner’s uncle. José had told me that his parents were going to come to have dinner with him. Well, when we finally got to leaving the two Koreans, the firefighter and I were met with José and his father, his aunt and her husband sitting at one of the tables in the hostel’s dining area drinking wine.

A picture of the group. Note the stern face on José-the-vintner's wife's face.
A picture of the group. Note the stern face on José-the-vintner’s wife’s face.

I approached them simply to say hello, but in that way that some people have, and I suffer from, I got involved in a conversation with the hostel owner’s (José) uncle also called José. This lead to two things. 1, we found out that José-the-uncle makes his own wine and 2, he invited us all for a drink. This did present a number of problems for us, but it was ultimately carried out for 15 minutes or more. The firefighter is a member of AA, the 12 year-old is 12 years old, and to boot, the Koreans (Dr. and son) are, well, Koreans –thus it seems from my experience that they given to cultural shyness. Also they spoke even less Spanish than your average US college student. Well, while there are further details about the conversation, such as the Korean’s falling asleep during the explanation, it is best now that if you speak Spanish, you listen to this man’s little story. It might be pertinent to relate that José-the-uncle is from an area north of Salamanca –if I recall the correct town. He uses the word sollejo to describe the detritus that comes from the production of the grapes. The more accepted word, I found out thanks to the Wikipedia and, is hollejo.

How to make very good, chemical-free wine by José-the-uncle.


P.S. The wine was delicious, I drank half on one there, and a whole one a few days later. José had  José to give me one. It turns out that the hosteller keeps a ready supply in his cellar.

Names are everything.

elm_americanWords tell us something about where our ancestors have been. There appears to be no word for large body of water that has always been in the Indo-European language family, just like there is no basic word for silicon-based logic gate array–some day there will be (FYI, Oceanus, the god, was borrowed from the people our linguistic ancestors overran, just like we did more recently with the names Kokomo, IN; and Massachusetts.)

In the same vein, are people who study shit in depth, name stuff to exhaustion–each minute detail deserves a new name. In essence, scientific conferences are semantic arguments about what to call shit, and how them shits is related (id est, who had sex with whom, figuratively or literally).

Don’t believe me? Explain this:
Naming is so important to humans (nouns are so important) that we give names to everything and anything new we recognize. Darwin’s journeys were about naming, and De rerum naturae by Lucretious was this in the fist century Anno Domini (another name) and Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae was a similar contribution with 1700 years’ worth of scientific advancement.

Our place names are this too. We often don’t mind taking names whose original meanings we do not understand, be it because they come from a different code system, from our own forgotten code system, or plain made up, examples below.

“Gorse” is the name of a bush. It is a spiny bush. You likely do not know the word. Gerste is the same word but in German garb, and it means barley–a particularly spiny grain.

ceres goddess
Ceres the goddess of cereals, note the grains. One of three moon goddesses in the Roman Pantheon.
Ceres, tiny planet/fucking massive asteroid.

“Cereal” to you Americans is a dry breakfast thingy, maybe a moist warm one too. But it comes from the name of a goddess, Ceres–the Roman goddess of the moon and grain growth. We also imported the verb from Latin, so that we also have “to create” which preserves the original meaning, more or less. Crescent is a sickle shape, but it means growing, as in Spanish “creciente.” Ceres is the name to the planet which lies between Mars and Jupiter. Look it up.

Other Old Skool imported words (no tariffs):

“Scotch” means many things. It can mean a sticky plastic strip, a noxious (albeit delicious) drink, or a pugilistic skirt-wearing man (JK :] ). By coincidence only, Scotch ultimately is derived from some Latin word “Scotii” a term applied to the Celts of Ireland. Maybe the belligerent megalomaniacs the Latins heard the locals use a similar sounding word in reference to themselves (the locals), or whatever, and applied it. What would have JC (Julius Caesar) have thought of Irvine Welsh?

“Laquanda” -invented in the 20th century.

We use some words so much that they lose their original meaning, and pick up meaning tied to an ever smaller number of things. Some day, Morris will be associated with something awesome, kinda like Kiegels and Heimlich.

For those of you following along at home, ask yourselves how many place names in the US are 100% Anglo-Saxon as opposed to from some Amerindian language, or some Arabic language, or Spanish, French (basically Latin) or Ancient Greek. Few.

Nick Cage is gonna "take his face... off"
Nick Cage is gonna “take his face… off”

We even name things that already have names we know. In my life, Melzie knowz who she is and so do  Bingy, Bertie, and That-fucking-retard.  Some names get used so much that we  shorten them. Once upon a time we bought compact discs, but soon most of us bought CDs.  When I suffered from bulimia nervosa, I would watch Nicholas Cage movies, but now when I’ve eaten something rotten I just watch Nick Cage movies.   As our cultures ebb and flow, we develop new names for social categories that are meaningful now from old words giving them new meaning. Chicken heads abound in Detroit, this S-bux is infested with Bros and MGBs. Police officer has too many syllables and so I just use “pig” or when I feel like being precise “Gestapo.”   Few of us talk about fops (once dudes), or “yellow-papers” or “talkies.”  Many of my friends would be confused if I asserted that roaches have six legs, and Tommy Chong did no care.

How many words do we have? According to some book I read back in my college days by Bill Bryson, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) has 800K words. Do you know that many words? How did they count these? Polysemy is everywhere. Either these words are for those who know the topography of something better than they know their spouse’s genitals or they are old words you do not use anymore like “quean”, or the large number is due to the multiple meanings a word can have.

Aurochs, the really big kine whence our smaller cattle, and the natural resource by which wealth was measured since time immemorial.
Aurochs, the really big kine whence came our smaller cattle, and the natural resource by which wealth was measured since time immemorial.


  • headmaster
  • head gasket
  • head (formal syntax)
  • head (part of my body)
  • head of a company
  • head of my family
  • head, as in the bulbous red thing at the end of my fireman.
  • head, a pot head “one who partakes of the cheeba, as much as Cheech Marin or more”
  • to head, the verb

You can think of many more. And yet, unless trained you can’t. These words come from Latin “caput” meaning “head”:

Capitulate, decapitate, capture, cabo, cape, capital, capitol, cap, cattle–do you get it?

As humans, we describe the world in terms of us, and so God was made in our image, and things have heads and feet, in many, many languages. As time wears on, oft used words lose their connection from the greater ideas whence they came, and they get their own meanings. What does this mean? It means that we as a species, are travelling to new places, describing new territories, because we have extended our senses further. But we will be dammed, forever, or for a long while to see the world as people. In our world, things have hearts, things are warm and cold, things have intentions, things have color and sound and taste. Our science as much as our poetry are extensions of the systems that keep us alive, that gather stuff to stay more or less the same, i.e. alive.  .

English is Scandinavian or…

A cognitibe scientist friend of mine share this article with me. It is a short read and worth your ten minutes, if you are interested in language.

English is Norwegian, but the US still has shit healthcare.
English is Norwegian, but the US still has shit healthcare.

Generally speaking the article is vague but in it an interesting claim is made. That the Norse dominated the Brits and thus English is actually a Frenchy, Anglo-y  version of Old Norse. Maybe, or the opposite might be true, that Norwegian languages belong to a family closer to English than previously thought.

I would like to see a careful comparison of the syntaxes of Frisian, Dutch, Norwegian and German, an dperhaps their ancient forms too.

The idea however is worth bringing up because you can’t have good science without dissenter and iconoclasts.

A few thoughts on “language”

A color map of the official languages of the countries of the world. Not anywhere close to what is actually spoken. Source:

Speakers of modern Latin know that often our languages are mutually intelligible should everyone speak slowly and un-idiomatically.

-Of course, there’s the catch, for 99% of speakers, language seems to have less to do with “grammar” as it is conceived of by formal linguists and textbook writers and more to do with set structures that vary some that convey shared information and a little of the new.-

Anyway, if you speak Spanish you can understand most Portuguese speakers as long as they speak dreadfully slow and they can do the same and with more ease. French is quite a bit more difficult, but if you get the phonetics down and you see the pattern in the quirks it has in comparison to Italian or Spanish it presents little trouble.

This is true for many sets of languages. I reported in an earlier post that this is the case for some Scandinavian languages. Yet Estonians and Finns have find the other language nearly impenetrable. Yet Turks and Kazakhs have medium difficulty while Kazakhs and Uzbeks have nearly none. Mandarin speakers have no idea what Taiwanese speakers say when they actually speak Taiwanese.

What makes a language a language? Why do some speech communities which are fairly separated by time and space retain mutual comprehensibility like (supposedly) Welsh and Breton while others like Romanian and Spanish or German and English present near insurmountable barriers? The answer is probably related in character to why some species of animals and plants can survive separated by vast distances and change little, while others have little separation, temporal or special and yet have little obviously in common.


Guatemala and surrounding places with Mexicans, etc. Courtesy of Google Maps.

Ethnologue reports that there are 53 spoken languages in Guatemala, a place which is a bit larger than Germany and a bit smaller than England. Yet I want to know what criteria were used to determine the lines between languages. If we used the same criteria, how many languages would New England have, a place less than twice the size of Guatemala? –Especially if we took away the “official” grammar books?

I intend to start finding out in 20 days.

Some links for the curious:

The languages of Guatemala

The Languages of New England

                English Dialects  -A link to links of and about the many linguistics atlases of the home of US-American “Old Money” (white people)

                Native American People/Langauges: Link1 Link2

The Languages of Germany and England

Despotrico about la Langue

My formal knowledge of the principles, observations and discoveries of evolution is weak, to say the least. However I hold onto some ideas that I am certain are true, not just because I remember learning these from romps through the Wikipedia or from the odd biology classes I took in university or from my myriad conversations with biologists I respect very much, but because they are logical. The last sentence was long. The last sentence was shorter. This one’s short.

Text humor aside, it is absurd to think that some trait should arise from nothing, nowhere. It wasn’t that one day there were cells in the ocean, and the next morning there were worms. There were steps in between, that may have been spaced closely together in time, or far apart, but they were there. Whatever it is that we call “language” is, it is no different and no more special than the sum of our cognitive abilities. Just like our limbs are adapted fins, Just like our eyes are adapted nerve cells, language is not a thing all its own.

This is especially true because language does not exist in the absence of multiple animals using it, and it does not appear in those unfortunate few who are never exposed to it. Just as thoughts, spacial mapping, and decision trees are a product of the neural networks that developed in higher-order animals, language is a product of the neural nets that the many brains/animals form when they engage each other. The connection between neurons is electro-chemical, the one among humans today is photo-mechanical, because in the simplest forms, we use photons and moving air to convey brain-states.

The famous pathological cases of language-less-ness Broca’s and Wernike’s are examples of problems in the sound signaling system, not in any human’s ability to understand the world. Those who suffer from aphasia still manage to think, yet they cannot communicate with language. So language involves creating sound signals (unless you speak sign language(s)) and perceiving them. There cannot be some part of the brain which we could easily call “language” because there is no part of the brain which we call “walk” nor “happy” nor “go to the store and buy cheese and flirt with the sexy brunette at the register.”

Let me quickly mention that words are likely not the stuff of thought because A). many things humans do are language-less, B.) often, it is hard if not impossible to express how we feel until someone says the words for us (matching words with non-word neural states) and  C.) of course great things have been figured out sans mots. For example, Otto Loewi solved some issue involving nerve signaling in a dream (Valenstein, 2005). It can be a long and painful procedure to communicate some set of belief with language. Sometimes this is impossible. Often the process involves a lot of “you know”,  sabes?

What is more is that even without future experiments that will change our view of language, there is clear evidence that what I say (and presumably any other half-informed schmuck) is true. For example, many parts of human communication have little to do with words. A few of these seem universal, such as our reaction to sound and music, (for example: Krumhansl et al., 2000). Sauter, Eisner, Ekman and Scott (2010) convincingly show that what I believe must be a large percentage of in-person or audio/visually communicated information has nothing to do with Chomsky’s “language.” The authors state things better than I could, when they sort out what sounds are clearly universal, which are strongly filtered by culture and how certain signals/sounds can be ambiguous or unintelligible to other cultures. “Negative” signals such as fear and disgust are interpreted almost universally, while “positive” emotions less so.

Al mismo tiempo quiero que usted lea mis palabras que aquí escribo y que me diga que es lo que estoy diciendo. Not bloody likely. So, clearly some part of our communicative system is learned from experience because most people cannot understand it.  You know this is true when you consider the slangs, inside jokes, friend codes and other devices that arise naturally among people with a lot of contact with each other. Hell, think about how un-understandable people who speak another dialect are when they do not attempt to accommodate your linguistic needs.

A study like that of Gooskens (2000) provides evidence for this fact. It is generally known among linguists and language enthusiasts that Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are closely related and “mutually-intelligible.” I put this term in quotation marks because we have not carefully defined what actually means, but instead, I rely on some “common understanding.” Gooskens determines that phonetic differences are the greatest impediment to mutual understanding for speakers across these language barriers. This gives credence to several arguments, not least of which is “that a language is a dialect with an army.”

Noam Chomsky, Linguist -image courtesey of

Chomsky, I suspect would argue that this is evidence that he is correct with his universal grammar idea and the Minimalist Program of Generative Syntax. Something like: “See, it is just pronunciation that is getting in the way.” But the fact is that speakers of these three languages have grown up with the same grammar, more or less, and so the only thing keeping them from understanding one another is experience with one another. This can be understood as evidence that a language is a tacit agreement for how we will communicate thoughts that, ironically, are a product of the mutual communication. The phonetic system is one aspect: the one that deals with how to transmit the ideas which themselves may have anything to do with language.  The Germans must therefore excel in schadenfreude since they have a whole sound pattern dedicated to that thought.

Notice that while Spanish and Japanese have similar phonetic systems, I haven’t a clue of what they are saying, even when the grammar is clarified for me.  I also have no clue what people mean when they speak to me in Norwegian, not because Norwegians belong to another species –a possible hypothesis, but because my brain cells do not match theirs, except where laughter and grimaces are concerned.

To speak a language is to have been trained by ceaseless bombardment with those neural patterns, which we test ourselves, with greater accuracy and improving results. Young children speak like morons and sound like stupid foreigners. They suck at learning languages. It takes them fucking years to master the sounds, and some people never gain much control over the ideas that language can convey, nor can they understand much of what is called “their language” due to a serious lack of education, i.e. exposure to the ideas. In fact, even after an adult language learner has mastered his/her new language’s “grammar” and has acquired great flexibility with the phonetics, they still have a lot of trouble communicating their emotions, negotiating, and dealing with everyday life –because there are narrow codes for how to say things, mmkay? With enough exposure they learn, that is,  if they care…

How you show deference in one African language is different for how you do so in an East Asian language. This is learned. Being happy or sad is not.

At this point in my ramblings I hope to have argued, at least in an introductory way, that language is the sum of our cognitive abilities, why it has to do with learned behaviors (social programming of neural networks) and sound patterns (encoding forms) and innate aspects that have to do with emotions and our ability to carry out basic functions which all animals address in one way or another: avoiding crap, getting food, etc. Some things will naturally be similar across languages because brains use approximately the same genetic code to generate the brains  whose neural activity can be transmitted in human communication, a small part of which is accused of being language and studied as such. Other aspects are learned and are unique to the people who share the code and the thoughts they construct together, and so when Chomsky and his cronies decipher Linear A, I will admit to being wrong.

Some citations:

  • Krumhansl, C. L., Toivanen, P., Eerola, T., Toiviainen, P., Järvinen, T., & Louhivuori, J. (2000). Cross-cultural music cognition: Cognitive methodology applied to North Sami yoiks. Cognition76(1), 13-58.
  • Sauter, D. A., Eisner, F., Ekman, P., & Scott, S. K. (2010). Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalizations.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences107(6), 2408-2412.
  • Valenstein, E. S. (2005). The war of the soups and the sparks: the discovery of neurotransmitters and the dispute over how nerves communicate. Columbia University Press.


There is this common assertion among Americans that human communication is 90% body language (or whatever the number commonly but erroneously quoted is). I don’t know where this number came from, but I guess it must have been some news report of some study. It certainly makes sense to me that, in principle,  very much meaning in communication is derived from what lies outside of what is called “formal linguistics.” I also suspect that this saying or assertion enjoys such wide use because it people must have some intuition that it is true.

But there should also exist the assertion that 90% of human communication ain’t language at all –if we take the Chomskian definition of language.  How much of adult talk uses hard-to-transcribe: uhum, yuh, um, uh, mmhm, er, ay, oh, shh <silence>, ey, unhun, oops, ah, etc.? The answer according to discourse studies is a whole fucking lot.

A lot of information about conversations is conveyed with sounds that are not even considered words. We should conduct a scientific study that simply counts how much of any given conversation is non-words and pauses. Another linguistic study would involve recording a conversation with video and audio, then playing it for an audience, while systematically removing certain units, such as these “non-words.”

And yet there is another class of sounds that are even simpler, or more primal cf. Hockett (1968). Screams, laughs, grunts, whistles, howls, puffs are names for a very large assortment of sounds that are used to convey information for which we humans have deep understanding. People use a lot of words trying to communicate the quality of particular productions of these, often resorting to analogy rather than explanation. People also tend not to use these out of context, or even be able to use them when they are actually trying to convey these thoughts and feelings. These are the sorts of sounds that we say humans and animals make, but these are not called language.

An interesting study would be to see if humans can discern the meanings between the variations between productions of these. Yet another worthwhile study would be to see if humans can discern between human production and ones belonging to other animals. This could be at first carried out with other mammals, particularly simians.

One more idea I’d like to mention is the following. Some scientists maintain that animals lack language because their responses to sounds emitted by con-specifics are innate, and not learned.  Take for example insect communication. Well, how trained is our response to laughter, silence, screams of various sorts, grunts, coughs, sighs, etc.?

  • Hockett, C. F., & Ascher, R. (1992). The human revolution. Current Anthropology33(1), 7-45.

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