Saturday, October 18, 2008
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Monday, September 1, 2008
Hey, guys! As we're transitioning from summer to fall and high school to college, thought I might take this opportunity to look back and forward—that is, to recap some things I've been thinking about in August and the direction those thoughts are leading me in for school, maybe. So as I've mentioned, I took Spanish conversation classes at Berlitz this summer. They kind of shuffled me through instructors, but I guess I didn't mind too much because it meant I got to see four or five different perspectives on the Spanish language.
I noticed there were more or less two types of instructors—those who were concerned with the purity of the Spanish they spoke, taught, and demanded of students, and those who were content to speak somewhat Anglicized Spanish after having lived in the States for a while (“tenemos un picnic” and “es muy nice”). To me, this Anglicized Spanish was a wonderful example of language change, and it was easy and interesting to see how and wear English had left its mark. Yet other instructors saw this as wholly negative—a contamination of language rather than a natural change. I almost got into a terrible argument with one instructor who was hell-bent on teaching me “lo mas puro” when she told me that despite variations from country to country, "solo hay un espanol"—there’s only one "Spanish." Well, I would have fought her had I been able to express myself properly in not-English.
But above all, each instructor said to me that I'd know that I'd have achieved some kind of fluency if I dreamed "in Spanish." I've heard that before about learning a language, as I'm sure you guys have. I'm wondering to what extent there's any scientific backing to that claim, especially because there's reason to doubt that we think (or dream, in this case) in any particular language at all! We've talked about Chapter 3 of Pinker's The Language Instinct, in which Pinker tells us that we do not think in words, or even in images. The "language" of our minds, he says, is "mentalese"--an idea pioneered by American cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor. (If you Google "mentalese," there are a few good links... look into it!)
Tangentially, this also came up when my dad and I were talking about translated texts, and lamenting their inadequacy in precisely expressing the idea communicated in the original language. We were reading something that had been written in Spanish but translated into English by the author himself. I said I thought this might be better than having a third party translator do the job, because the author knew best what he wanted to express with each particular word/phrase in Spanish, and could therefore carry it over into English. But does this actually fix our “lost in translation” problem? Or, does it still matter that the idea was originally expressed in Spanish? How does this affect the outcome of the translation? Is the translation true to the way the idea was conceived? What if there is no real way of translating a particular idea or concept wholly and precisely? What if, in the language of translation, there were no good words? One language could be better to express a particular idea than another. This got me wondering about whether we conceive of thoughts in a particular language, and how and why some languages communicate certain concepts better than others.
Anyway, these questions are part of a larger one: Can thoughts exist outside language? Or, what is the relationship between language and cognition?
A second fundamental question for me is the extent to which culture affects language (and perhaps vice versa?), especially if language is a pre-programmed human capacity. In other words, do grammar and culture in fact mesh? I understand how culture could affect language on a lexical level; however apocryphal the story that the Inuit have dozens of words for snow may be, it certainly proves the point. Yet I wonder whether culture impacts language on other levels? For example, what about syntax? Is the fact that verbs come at the very end of a sentence in an SVO language like Latin just pure coincidence? Random? Chance? Or is it affected by an external factor, like the culture, biology, or even geography (Jared Diamond style) of the people and place that develop a language? These are the kinds of questions that I want to be able to answer in college—through the study of linguistics, anthropology, cognitive science, etc., and through spending time abroad observing the relationship between the culture and language of a particular place. I’m ready.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
So it turns out London is a linguist's (or lexicographer's) paradise! I've just returned from a week-long trip there with my family, and learned a whole lot about both Egyptian hieroglyphic script and the first real dictionary of the English language. I thought I'd share, and suggest, perhaps, a field trip!
The first awesome thing about London is that there are a million different people there from every corner of the world, so walking down the street you hear every language imaginable--from German to Arabic to Urdu. I guess that's not much different from New York, except the distribution of languages is different (there's a LOT of Arabic, and a LOT of Hindi or Urdu, as well as a higher concentration of non-Spanish Romance languages).
But unlike New York, London can claim possession of the original Rosetta Stone! I saw it at the British Museum, and made my sister take like a billion pictures of me in front of it. Here's one:
I've also included a picture of one of the signs posted on the exhibit, which explains the basics of how the Egyptian hieroglyphic script works. The reason the Rosetta Stone is so important is that it helped scholars (specifically, British scientist Thomas Young and French scholar Jean-François Champollion) to finally decipher hieroglyphics in 1822. The stele, created in 196 BC, records a decree of Ptolemy V in three different written languages: ancient Greek (interestingly, I believe this was the language used by the Egyptian government at the time), and the two Egyptian language scripts, hieroglyphic and Demotic. (Hope I explained that correctly... you might want to fact check because I'm not sure whether hieroglyphic and Demotic are different scripts or both different scripts and different languages. I do know Demotic comes later in Egyptian history). Anyway, scholars had difficulty deciphering hieroglyphics for many years, as the sign reads:
"...Because hieroglyphic signs look like pictures, they assumed that all hieroglyphs were images recording ideas without language. In fact hieroglyphs recorded the ancient Egyptian language with a mixture of sound and picture signs." The word cat is written by combining the signs standing for the sounds /mi/ + /i/ + /w/ as well as the picture sign for "cat" (as shown, as picture of a cat). Incidentally, the Egyptian word for cat would sound something like "miw." It's easy to tell this word was derived from the "meow" sound made by cats!
While in London, we also made a trip to the 17 Gough Square home of Dr. Samuel Johnson, where he wrote the first real dictionary of the English language over the course of nine years, from 1746 to 1755. Other English dictionaries had been published before, but never an authoritative one on the scale and scope of Johnson's. Johnson most notably included quotations from great works of English literature to illustrate his definitions of particular words. The first edition of Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language contained over 110,000 quotations! This practice was considered innovative, and its influence has endured to the present day; the Oxford English Dictionary today continues to include quotations with many of its definitions.
But I found Johnson's treatment of word definitions even more interesting. Originally, Johnson believed that there were "at most seven different senses of a word." He identified the "natural and primitive signification," the "consequential meaning," the "metaphorical sense," the "poetical sense," the "familiar sense," the "burlesque sense," and "the peculiar sense, in which a word is found in any great author" (I like that one). But eventually he realized how limited his semantic philosophy was, and eventually came to permit as many definitions as he could find. Ultimately, he listed 134 definitions for the verb "to take," which took up roughly 8,000 words (and five whole pages) in his dictionary! As we know, words with multiple meanings can have their definitions listed in dictionaries in one of any number of different orders (the particular order depends on the choice of the publisher)--chronologically, in order frequency, etc. Johnson chose to list his definitions from the most tangible, literal sense of a word to the most literary, figurative, or abstract sense.
Today Johnson's dictionary is still praised for both the literary merit and thoroughness of its definitions. Just don't look for any entries under "X," since Johnson believed no real English words began with the letter! Johnson, a real character whose sense of humor always shone through in his definitions (he defined the word "oats" as "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people"), defined lexicographer in his dictionary as "a harmless drudge." The irony is hilarious; he proved lexicographers to be anything but that!