Events this week (4/26 – 4/30)

This week is jam-packed with linguistic goodness! A quick synopsis:

Wednesday, 4/28

Thursday, 4/29

  • 4pm, 1512 SIPA: NYU’s David Poeppel on “The relation(s) between linguistics and neurobiology”. More information here.

Friday, 4/30

  • 1pm, 403 Kent: Oscar Lee Symposium of Undergraduate East Asian studies, featuring speakers from Columbia Linguistics Society! More information here.
  • 3:15pm, Lerner Hall C555: William Labov is coming! “Formation of Consensus in the Speech Community”. More information here.

4/30: Oscar Lee Symposium

Also on Friday the 30th:

OSCAR LEE SYMPOSIUM OF UNDERGRADUATE EAST ASIAN STUDIES: A half-day conference featuring undergraduate research and discussion on East Asia

Friday, April 30
1-4 PM
KENT 403


1:15 PM – (Mis)Communication: Media and Audience in Japan and China

  • Mia Lewis, “”Painting Worlds with Word: Ateji in CLAMP’s Manga”
  • Sayuri Shimoda, “Thought Control in the Meiji and Taisho Periods: A Methodology to Examine the Effect of the 1883 Decree and 1909 Press Law”
  • Daniel O. Kanak, “Changes in Chinese Consumer Behavior: Repercussions of Sino-Japanese Political Conflict and Negative Country Image (CI) and Japanese Business Response”

2:10 PM – Language and Identity in Central Asia

  • Christine Kwon, “Reading the Signs: Language Policy and Change in Post-PRC Tibet”
  • Arfiya Eri, “The Fourteenth Ethnicity or Disappearing Ethnicity? Bilingual Education and Uyghur Identity in 21st Century Xinjiang”
  • Grace Zhou, “Essentialist Legacies and Shifting Identities: Language in Central Asian Nation-Building”

3:05 PM – Community Narratives in Contemporary China

  • Chris Morales, “Neighborhood Change and the Social Construction of Community Identity in Weigongcun, Beijing”
  • Tania O’Conor, “Finding a Voice on the Web: A Case Study of a Naxi Online Community”
The Symposium is made possible by generous contributions from the Arts Initiative (Gatsby Charitable Foundation), Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, Columbia College Student Council, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture (Hiroshi Nitta Fund), Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Study Center, Center for Korean Research, Student Government Association of Barnard.
We are co-sponsored by AAA, APAAM, CJS, CSC, SGB, SoC, and VSA.

Hanging from the language tree

A recent issue of the Columbia Magazine has an article on Columbia professor Herb Terrace and his work on communication and cognition in chimpanzees. Terrace is best known for his role in the Nim Chimpsky experiments, which sought to settle the question of whether chimps could acquire human language.

From the article:

Terrace, a young Columbia psychologist who already had established himself as an expert in animal cognition, believed apes could learn to communicate, even think aloud, through sign language. All they needed, he thought, was a nurturing human- family environment.

At the time, the ape language wars were raging in academia. In one corner were the Chomskians, those who agreed with MIT linguist Noam Chomsky that only humans have innate syntactical ability. In the other were Skinnerians like Terrace who sided with Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner, who believed that language is learned, and therefore could be taught to nonhuman primates.

Originally excited by the way that Nim Chimpsky (cheekily named after a certain venerable linguist) seemed to be able to produce real, novel sequences, Terrace came to realize that his evidence did not support that conclusion. In 1979, he published a paper in Science, publicly acknowledging that the Chomskians were right. “Apes can learn many isolated symbols (as can dogs, horses, and other nonhuman species),” Terrace wrote, “but they show no unequivocal evidence of mastering the conversational, semantic, or syntactic organization of language.”

Terrace continues to lecture and do research on cognition in primates. Although he does not believe that primates are capable of mastering the complexities of human language, he has a theory about how language acquisition might work. In keeping with the theory that language learning is highly tempered by environmental conditions, it has a lot to do with early intimate socialization:

Those who don’t get it, as was the case for thousands of Eastern European children orphaned during World War II, struggle to speak. The longer children are deprived of human interaction, the harder it is for them to talk. Terrace asks the question: if a baby were left on a deserted island with food and shelter, would it eventually on its own utter a word? The evidence suggests he wouldn’t.

This is the same problem autistic children face. Infants acquire language by watching their parents mouth sounds. Babies begin uttering monosyllabic words by the time they are about a year old. By 18 months, a child can point to an object, and name it: something he learns by following the eyes of his parent. Humans have a white sclera surrounding a dark iris, unlike all other animals, making it easy for babies to see where adults are looking. One of the early symptoms of autism is the inability of a baby to see where someone is pointing; instead, they often look at the gesturing hand.

It is clear that the acquisition of language has a profound effect on the way our minds function, and Terrace’s current research focuses on how animals can process information without the faculty so central to our own cognition.

Bridging ten millenia

Slate ran an article a few days ago on an interesting linguistic problem: how do we communicate with distant future generations?

The problem is simple enough: every country in the world that has the resources and the expertise to harness the power of the atom (whether to produce energy or to build bombs) is churning out radioactive waste. The stuff is toxic and not terribly useful, and ultimately, it all has to be sequestered somewhere. For now, we can tuck it away in secure places like Yucca Mountain and forget about it. No one is going to wander into the site, through the barbed wire and heavy signage, a century from now and inadvertently expose themselves to radiation.

But what if the encounter takes place not 100 years from now, but 1000 or 10,000? Assuming that any written symbols would still be intelligible at all, what could you possibly write that would unambiguously indicate danger?

The Department of Energy hired 13 linguists, scientists, and anthropologists to devise a conceptual plan for a 10,000-year marker system. The report  that came out of this project (Expert Judgment on Markers To Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion Into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) presents a plan that the author calls “as elaborate as it is futile”.

From the article:

The report’s proposed solution is a layered message—one that conveys not only that the site is dangerous but that there’s a legitimate (nonsuperstitious) reason to think so. It should also emphasize that there’s no buried treasure, just toxic trash. Here’s how the authors phrase the essential talking points: “[T]his place is not a place of honor … no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.” Finally, the marker system should communicate that the danger—an emanation of energy—is unleashed only if you disturb the place physically, so it’s best left uninhabited.

As for the problem of actually getting these essentials across, the report proposes a system of redundancy—a fancy way of saying throw everything at the wall and hope that something sticks. Giant, jagged earthwork berms should surround the area. Dozens of granite message walls or kiosks, each 25 feet high, might present graphic images of human faces contorted with horror, terror, or pain (the inspiration here is Edvard Munch’s Scream) as well as text in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Navajo explaining what’s buried. This variety of languages, as Charles Piller remarked in a 2006 Los Angeles Times story, turns the monoliths into quasi-Rosetta stones. Three rooms—one off-site but nearby, one centrally located, and one underground—would serve as information centers with more detailed explanations of nuclear waste and its hazards, maps showing the location of similar sites around the world, and star charts to help intruders calculate the year the site was sealed. According to 1994 estimates, the whole shebang would cost about $68 million, but that’s just a ballpark figure based on very incomplete data.

There is also talk of creating “artificial myths” around the sites to discourage future explorers:

In the early 1980s, the semiotician and linguist Thomas Sebeok wrote a paper for the U.S. Office of Nuclear Waste Management titled “Communication Measures To Bridge Ten Millennia,” which proposes a folkloric relay system to pass along information: “The legend-and-ritual, as now envisaged, would be tantamount to laying a ‘false trail,’ meaning that the uninitiated will be steered away from the hazardous site for reasons other than the scientific knowledge of the possibility of radiation and its implications; essentially, the reason would be accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently.” Sebeok further suggested a Dan Brown-like “atomic priesthood” of physicists, anthropologists, semioticians and the like who would preserve the “truth.”

Clearly, this approach has its problems, but so do all the other ones. So what should we do? The author closes by advocating a different plan: leave the sites blank and unmarked, and hope that the future takes care of itself.

The article is here.

Language families, human families

Razib Khan over at ScienceBlogs has an excellent post today on the relationship between population genetics and the spread of languages around the globe. He gives a wide background of the anthropological, linguistic and biological research behind what we know about the evolution of the world’s languages. Razib quotes a 1997 paper by L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, peoples, and languages:

Most patterns found in the analysis of human living populations are likely to be consequences of demographic expansions, determined by technological developments affecting food availability, transportation, or military power. During such expansions, both genes and languages are spread to potentially vast areas. In principle, this tends to create a correlation between the respective evolutionary trees. The correlation is usually positive and often remarkably high. It can be decreased or hidden by phenomena of language replacement and also of gene replacement, usually partial, due to gene flow.*

The post also reviews a recent paper by Ger Reesink, Ruth Singer, and Michael Dunn: “Explaining the Linguistic Diversity of Sahul Using Population Models”.

The authors studied the languages of Sahul,  the continent that during the last Ice Age covered the area of modern Australia and New Guinea. Using “a Bayesian phylogenetic clustering method, originally developed for investigating genetic recombination”, the authors examine ” the underlying structure of the diversity of these languages, reflecting ancient dispersals, millennia of contact, and probable phylogenetic groups.”

The post is here, and the papers, cited below, can be downloaded by following the links in their titles.

  1. L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1997) Genes, peoples, and languages. Proc. Natl . Acad. Sci . USA
    Vol. 94, pp. 7719 –7724.
  2. Reesink G, Singer R, Dunn M. (2009) Explaining the Linguistic Diversity of Sahul Using Population Models. PLoS Biol 7(11): e1000241. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000241
*Errata: The first blockquote in this post was originally attributed to the Reesink paper – that was incorrect. The quote was taken from the Cavalli-Sforza paper. That has been corrected in this edited post.


_46672256_sub-afp226.jpgThis article from the BBC showcases a gadget that seems almost too good to be true: a pair of glasses that translates overheard speech and projects subtitles directly on to the viewer’s retina.

NEC said the Tele Scouter was intended to be a business tool that could aid sales staff who would have information about a client’s buying history beamed into their eye during a conversation.

But, it said, it could also be put to a more exotic use as a translation aid. In this scenario the microphone on the headset picks up the voices of both people in a conversation, pipes it through translation software and voice-to-text systems and then sends the translation back to the headset.

The article page also has an interview with translation technology Don DePalma, who comments that “they have a bit of the sense of the Borg from Star Trek”.


On a more down-to-earth note, the Wold Atlas of Language Structure is a very cool website:

WALS is a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languages gathered from descriptive materials (such as reference grammars) by a team of more than 40 authors (many of them the leading authorities on the subject).

WALS consists of 141 maps with accompanying texts on diverse features (such as vowel inventory size, noun-genitive order, passive constructions, and “hand”/”arm” polysemy), each of which is the responsibility of a single author (or team of authors). Each map shows between 120 and 1370 languages, each language being represented by a symbol, and different symbols showing different values of the feature. Altogether 2,650 languages are shown on the maps, and more than 58,000 datapoints give information on features in particular languages.

WALS thus makes information on the structural diversity of the world’s languages available to a large audience, including interested nonlinguists as well as linguists who would not normally read grammars of exotic languages or specialized works by comparative linguists. Although endangered languages are not particularly emphasized, they are automatically foregrounded because of the large sample of languages represented on each map, where each language (independently of its number of speakers) is shown by a single symbol.


Finally, Ed Yong over at ScienceBlogs has a great new post about the FOXP2 gene and its role in the origins of language. Writing about the discovery of FOXP2 and its implications for the field, Ed says:

“It had long been suspected that language has some basis in genetics, but this was the first time that a specific gene had been implicated in a speech and language disorder. Overeager journalists quickly dubbed FOXP2 “the language gene” or the “grammar gene”. Noting that complex language is a characteristically human trait, some even speculated that FOXP2 might account for our unique position in the animal kingdom. Scientists were less gushing but equally excited – the discovery sparked a frenzy of research aiming to uncover the gene’s role.”

The real story, as you might expect, is significantly more complicated. Read more at Ed Yong’s blog.

Claude Piron on Esperanto

Claude Piron, psychotherapist, professor, prolific author, and former UN and WHO translator, shares some of his experiences in international communication and discusses the international language Esperanto.

Thanks to Brian Barker for the link.

Want to learn Esperanto? Find out more here, here, and here.