Language and Culture

January 20, 2013

Australian PhD student Sara Ciesielski (Graduate School of Humanities & Social Sciences, University of Melbourne) recently had the honour of presenting a “two minute thesis” for PhD Comics, on her project “Language Development and Socialization in Sherpa”:

Novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, in her short story “The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question” (in Lord Peter Views the Body, 1928), writes about the gender-laden French language: “Now, in France, every male child is brought up to use masculine adjectives about himself. He says: Que je suis beau! But a little girl has it rammed home to her that she is female; she must say: Que je suis belle! … When I am at a station and I hear an excited young woman say to her companion, ‘Me prends-tu pour un imbécile’ – the masculine article arouses curiosity.

Referring to the same issue is Luce Irigaray’s famous book with an untranslatable title: Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un. The French language also incorporates status differences in the distinction between the pronouns tu and vous. However, other languages, such as Thai, have a far more complex pronoun structure.


Non-verbal Thai communication also requires care

Pioneer linguist Edward Sapir pointed out examples of languages where males and females used quite distinct sublanguages. Japanese is one such language, thus leading to more extreme cases of the issue pointed out by Dorothy Sayers.

Even in British English, studies show that “mauve,” “beige,” “pink,” “maroon,” “lovely,” “nice,” and “cute” are used more often by females than males. However, in 2010, Internet legend XKCD conducted a survey of colour term usage, half-expecting to see this clichéd pattern:

In fact, results were more like this:

More complex patterns of language usage mark professions, ethnic communities, and other subcultures. Writer Annie Dillard once said: “The mind – the culture – has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel.” The decorations vary from group to group. And occasionally, the shovel is used as a weapon.

– Tony

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Emotion and Intelligence

January 14, 2013

A recent blog post in Science 2.0 refers to the 2004 book The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans by the late Stanley I. Greenspan and by Stuart Shanker. Drawing particularly on personal studies of child development, Greenspan and Shanker claim that “our highest level mental capacities, such as reflective thinking, only develop fully when infants and children are engaged in certain types of nurturing learning interactions.

They go onto to argue that the various stages of child development involve an intertwined growth of emotional and cognitive skills, and that these cannot be separated.

This raises the question as to whether (strong) Artificial Intelligence is possible. Can an unemotional thinking entity, like Data in Star Trek, actually exist? Such issues are explored further in a 2002 book edited by Robert Trappl, Paolo Petta, and Sabine Payr.


Unemotional thinkers in fiction, like Star Trek’s Data, actually do display various emotions – if not, the reader/viewer would lose interest

Greenspan and Shanker’s theories also have implications for child-rearing. If they are correct, emotionally rich interactions with caregivers are essential for the development of intelligence. For example, they argue (in contrast to Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker), that language does not develop “spontaneously,” but is critically dependent on those interactions. Greenspan and Shanker write: “A child’s first words, her early word combinations, and her first steps towards mastering grammar are not just guided by emotional content, but, indeed, are imbued with it.


Emotionally rich interaction (photo: Robert Whitehead, 2006)

– Tony