Category Archives: Science

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Call for papers: The University of Edinburgh’s LEL Postgraduate Conference, 28th – 30th May 2014

Every year postgraduate linguists at the University of Edinburgh get together and run a conference. The deadline for submissions is fast approaching (15th April, 2014), but it’s only 500 words, so I’m sure you’ll be able to cobble something together. For more information, visit the website: http://resource.ppls.ed.ac.uk/lelpgc/ .

Here’s the call for papers (lifted from the website):

The University of Edinburgh Linguistics and English Language Postgraduate Conference in is an annual event where postgraduates present ongoing work and discuss their research with their peers and the LEL faculty. This year’s conference will be held on 28th-30th May 2014. We will be celebrating the 20th year of the conference, and we would like to invite all students of Linguistics, English Language and related disciplines to join us for this special occasion.

The conference offers a great opportunity to refine thoughts, share concerns and receive constructive criticism in a supportive and convivial environment. Additionally, it’s a great way to gain experience in conference presentation and find out about some of the exciting things going on in LEL!

We are now accepting submissions for oral presentations and posters. The standard length of a talk will be 20 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of questions. Any papers relevant to Linguistics and English Language are welcome and submissions by both University of Edinburgh and external students are highly encouraged. Tea and coffee will be provided on all three days, and there will also be a conference dinner in the evening of the 28th May (details to follow).

To apply, please submit an abstract (maximum 500 words in .doc, .docx, .tex or .rtf format; bibliographies do not count toward the word limit) by email to lel-pgc@ed.ac.uk, no later than 23:55 on 15th April 2014. Please indicate whether you would prefer to be considered for a talk or a poster.

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Retiring Procrustean Linguistics

Many of you are probably already aware of the Edge 2014 question: what scientific ideas are ready for retirement? The question was derived from the Kuhnian-esque, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, quote by theoretical physicist Max Planck:

A new scientific theory does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Some of the big themes that jumped out at me were bashing the scientific method, bemoaning our enthusiasm for big data and showing us how we don’t understand and routinely misapply statistics. Other relevant candidates that popped up for retirement were culturelearninghuman natureinnateness, and brain plasticity. Lastly, on the language front, we had Benjamin Bergen and Nick Enfield weighing in against universal grammar and linguistic competency, whilst John McWhorter rallied against strong linguistic relativity and Dan Sperber challenged our conventional understanding of meaning.

And just so you’re aware: I’m not necessarily in agreement with all of the perspectives I’ve linked to above, but I do think a lot of them are interesting and definitely worth a read (if only to clarify your own position on the matters). On this note, you should probably go over and read Norbert Hornstein’s post about the flaws of Bergen’s argument, which basically boil down to a conflation between I-languages and E-languages (and where we should expect to observe universal properties).

If I had to offer my own candidate for retirement, then it would be what Anne Buchanan over at the excellent blog, The Mermaid’s Tale, termed Procrustean Science:

In classical Greek mythology, Procrustes was a criminal who produced an iron bed and made his victims fit the bed…by cutting off any parts of their bodies that didn’t fit. The metaphorical use of the word means “enforcing uniformity or conformity without regard to natural variation or individuality.” It is in this spirit that Woese characterized much of modern biology as procrustean, because rather than adapt its explanations to the facts, the facts are forced to lie in a bed of theory that is taken for granted–and thus, the facts must fit!

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First International Association for Cognitive Semiotics Conference

Call for abstracts:

September 25-27, 2014, Lund, Sweden

The First International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS) Conference (IACS-2014) will be held in September 25-27, at Lund University, Sweden. Founded in Aarhus, Denmark, on May 29, 2013, The International Association for Cognitive Semiotics aims at the further establishment of Cognitive Semiotics as the trans-disciplinary study of meaning, combining concepts, theories and methods from the humanities and the social and natural sciences. Central topics are the evolution, development of, and interaction between different semiotic resources such as language, gestures and pictorial representations.

Plenary speakers

Theme of the conference: Establishing Cognitive Semiotics

Over the past two decades or so, a number of researchers from semiotics, linguistics, cognitive science and related fields, from several European and North American research centres, have experienced the needs to combine theoretical knowledge and methodological expertise in order to be able to tackle challenging questions concerning the nature of meaning, the role of consciousness, the unique cognitive features of mankind, the interaction of nature and nurture in development, and the interplay of biological and cultural evolution in phylogeny. The product of these collaborations has been the emergence of the field of Cognitive Semiotics, with its own journal (http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/cogsem) and academic association. The conference aims both to celebrate this, and to look forward into possibilities for further development.

We invite the submission of 400 word abstracts (excluding title and references) for one of the three categories:

1. Oral presentations (20 min presentation + 5 minute discussion)

2. Posters (at a dedicated poster session)

3. Theme sessions (3 to 6 thematically linked oral presentations.)
Such proposals are to include: (a) Title of proposed session, (b) name(s) of convener(s), (c) max 400 word motivation of the session, (d) abstracts for 3 to 6 individual papers, (e) name of discussant - if such is involved. All this information should be sent TOGETHER to the conference organizers at iacs-2014@semiotik.lu.se

The individual abstracts should be preceded by an abstract for the theme session as a whole. In case the theme session is not accepted, individual abstracts will be reviewed as submissions for oral presentations.)

The abstracts can be related, though need not be restricted, to the following topics:

• Biological and cultural evolution of human cognitive specificity
• Cognitive linguistics and phenomenology
• Communication across cultural barriers
• Cross-species comparative semiotics
• Evolutionary perspectives on altruism
• Experimental semiotics
• Iconicity in language and other semiotic resources
• Intersubjectivity and mimesis in evolution and development
• Multimodality
• Narrativity across different media
• Semantic typology and linguistic relativity
• Semiosis (sense-making) in social interaction
• Semiotic and cognitive development in children
• Sign use and cognition
• Signs, affordances, and other meanings
• Speech and gesture
• The comparative semiotics of iconicity and indexicality
• The evolution of language

Individual abstracts should be submitted at the site of the conference. Note: you need to register first, by clicking on Registration Page to the left, and then follow the instructions.

Important dates

• Deadline for submission of theme sessions: 31 Dec 2013 (by email)
• Deadline for abstract submission (oral presentations, posters): 1 Feb 2014  (by website)
• Notification of acceptance (theme sessions): 15 Feb 2014
• Notification of acceptance (oral presentations, posters): 1 April 2014
• Last date for early registration: 1 July 2014

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Lakoff lecture that debuts his current neural theory and has a detail concerning “meander”

Here’s a video of a lecture Lakoff recently gave at the Central European University. It’s cued to the beginning, but the segement that particularly interests me starts at about 11:03:

The specific point that interests me concerns the verb “to meander.” Here’s what Lakoff says; he’s talking about work done by Teenie Matlock:

What she pointed out, experimentally, was that if you take the difference between the road runs through the valley and the road meanders through the valley it takes longer to understand meander. Because you’re tracing it in your mind, you’re tracing the path, eventhough the road is just sitting there, right? You’re understanding it in terms of motion.

Why does that interest me? “Kubla Khan”, what else?

ll. 3-7, look at the verbs:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns meaureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:

ll. 25-26

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

There, in line 25, we have meandering, one of the verbs Lakoff mentioned. I’m not sure of the significance except that THAT part of the poem is set in a conceptual space that is structured by time while the earlier lines, which also mention the rive, is set in a conceptual space that is structured by space.

Finally, I do have a quibble with this FORM IS MOTION business. It is this, when researching Beethoven’s Anvil I looked at some of the literature on navigation and found that, contrary to my intuitions, that navigation by landmarks is a secondary method, not primary. The primary method is dead-reckoning. In dead-reckoning distance traversed is a function of elapsed time and speed. If you walk for three hours (on one heading) at the rate of four miles per hour you will have traversed 12 miles.

What’s interesting is that speed conflates/combines time AND space. And it seems to be primitive here. Whatever the nervous system is doing, it’s NOT noting distance and then dividing by time to come up with speed. Why not? Because you can’t do that until the traverse is complete. Rather, it’s got an ongoing estimate of speed and that’s what it uses.

I’ve not read their latest stuff on this, on the one hand, nor have I really tried to think this through, on the other hand. So maybe they’ve got it all worked out. But at the moment I’m thinking they don’t.

Also, THIS has to be differentiated from judging form relative to eye movements used to trace form, which Lakoff and Turner alluded to in More Than Cool Reason. These are two different mechanisms, eye tracing and navigation. They may both involve time and space, but they’re neurally and functionally different. How does THAT difference show up in language? Continue reading

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The History of Modern Linguistic Theory: Seuren on Chomsky

For those interested in the history of modern linguistic theory, Noam Chomsky is a major figure, though one whose influence is rapidly waning. I recommend the recent series of blog posts by Pieter Seuren. I quoted from his first post in Chomsky’s Linguistics, a Passing Fancy?, but you can go directly to Seuren’s first post: Chomsky in Retrospect – 1. What’s particularly interesting to me at this moment is that Chomsky had been associated with machine translation:
While at Harvard during the early 1950s, and later at the MIT department of machine translation, he engaged—as an amateur—in some intensive mathematical work regarding the formal properties of natural language grammars, whereby the notion that a natural language should be seen as a recursively definable infinite set of sentences took a central position. One notable and impressive result of this work was the so-called Chomsky hierarchy of algorithmic grammars, original work indeed, as far as we know, but which has now, unfortunately, lost all relevance..
I of course have known about the Chomsky hierarchy for decades, but hadn’t realized that Chomsky was that close to people actually working in computational linguistics. For Chomsky computation obviously was a purely abstract activity. Real computation, computation that starts somewhere, goes through a succession of states, and then produces a result, that is NEVER an abstract activity. It may be arcane, complex, and almost impossible to follow, but it is always a PHYSICAL process taking place in time and consuming resources (memory space and energy).
That sense of the physical is completely missing in the Chomsky tradition, and in its offshoots – I’m thinking particularly of the Lakoff line of work on embodied cognition. There is embodiment and there is embodiment. It is one thing to assert that the meanings of words and phrases are to be found in human perception and action, which is what Lakoff asserts, and quite something else to figure out how to get a physical device – whether a bunch of cranks and gears, a huge vacuum-tube  based electrical contraption, a modern silicon-based digital computer, or an animal brain – to undertake computation.
But that’s a distraction from the main object of this note, which is to list the further posts in Seuren’s Chomsky retrospect.

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Description Redux, Again: On the Methodological Centrality of Diagrams

Broadly considered, description is how phenomena are brought into intellectual discourse. Such discourse is thereby bounded by the scope of the descriptive powers at its disposal. What descriptive techniques are at the disposal of the literary critic?

The question is a real one, and has real answers, but I ask it rhetorically. Whatever those techniques are, diagrams do not figure prominently in them. One can read pages and pages and pages of first class literary criticism and never encounter a diagram.

The argument of this essay is that we’ve gone as far as we can go down those various paths. If we are to create a new literary criticism for this new millennium, then we must have some new conceptual tools, and some of those must be visual. The diagrams I imagine, not to mention the diagrams I have been doing for the last four decades, are tools to think with. They are not mere aids to thought, they are the substance of thought itself. Not all thought, of course, but some thought.

These diagrams are descriptive tools. Some describe texts and textual phenomena, while others describe the mental machinery underlying texts. The distinction is critical, and will occupy much of this essay.

* * * * *

Diagrams of various kinds are central to objectification, which we can consider a particular mode of description. The aim of objectification is to make a sharp distinction – as sharp as possible – between the things we are talking about, aka the objects under discussion, and our means of talking about them.

As my principal concern is with naturalist literary criticism, I have to consider the difficulties of talking about language. On the one hand, we do it all the time. Recall that in Jakobson’s well-known characterization of the speech situation metalingually is one of the functions of language. But such usage is casual and does not aim at understanding of language itself.

Nor, for that matter, does literary analysis aim at understanding language itself. Yes, it aims at the understanding of language, as literature is in part constructed of language. That is the most ‘visible’ aspect of the literary work, it’s ‘skin’ so to speak. But works of literary art are also constructed of feelings, perceptions, ideas, emotions, desires, dreams, and so forth, none completely assimilable by language. We must be as clear as possible in our descriptions so that we may be in a position better to keep track of what we’re talking about.

I begin by outlining the ambiguous states the concept of the “text” has within literary criticism, though I don’t come anywhere near the idea that all the world is a text, which is slipped in under the far reaches of the ambiguity I look at. From there I offer a few words about scientific description, ending with the characterization of the shape of the DNA molecule. From there I go to literary description, the text proper, and the description of conceptual structures, mental machinery behind the text.

The Ambiguity of “Text”

What do literary critics mean when we refer to “the text”? there are times, of course, when we mean the physical thing, whether written or spoken, e.g. when analyzing the a poem’s rhyme scheme. But generally we mean to indicate something more diffuse, something anchored in that physical text, those marks on paper or waves in the air, but going beyond them. Just what that “something more” is, that’s not so clear.

Thus, as used in literary critical discourse, the concept of the text is ambiguous as between the physical signifiers and the signifieds, the concepts linked to those signifiers via linguistic convention. When we talk about the text, we generally mean to include the ordinary process of reading exclusive of any secondary exegesis or explication.

Within computational linguistics, however, there is a sharp distinction between the physical sign, whether written or oral, and the literary critic’s text, as I’ve defined it above. Optical character recognition (OCR) takes a written text as input and produces a machine-readable text as output. OCR software works very well for typed and typeset text; errors will be made, but they are relatively few. OCR software works poorly for text written in cursive script. Whatever the source text, OCR software makes no attempt to “understand” the text, but text understanding – in some sense of the word – is of enormous interest and practical value. It is also very difficult to do, and I’m talking about text understanding merely at the literal level. Feed the computer a news story about, say, the recent typhoon in the Philippines and ask it simple questions: What city was hit hardest? How many people have died so far? That’s simple basic stuff, for a human. Not so simple for a computer, though still basic.

When I get to talking about ways of describing literary texts I will be interested in techniques that are sensitive to the distinction between the physical texts, the signifiers, and the process of understanding the meaning of those signifiers at the most basic level, the level without which more sophisticated understanding – if such is called for – is not possible. Continue reading

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Narrative and Abstraction: Some Problems with Cognitive Metaphor

I’ve had problems with cognitive metaphor theory (CMT) since Lakoff and Johnson published Metaphors We Live By (1981) – well, not since then, because I didn’t read the book until a couple of years after original publication. It’s not that I didn’t believe that language and cognition where thick with metaphor, much of it flying below the radar screen of explicit awareness. I had no trouble with that, nor with the idea that metaphor is an important mechanism for abstract thinking.

But it’s not the only mechanism.

During the 1970s I had studied with David Hays in the Linguistics Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo. He had developed a somewhat different account of abstract thought in which abstract ideas are derived from narrative – which I’ll explain below. I was reminded of this yesterday when Per Aage Brandt made the following remark in response to my critique of Lakoff and Turner on “To a Solitary Disciple”:

Instead, the text sketches out a little narrative. The lines run upwards, the ornament tries to stop them, they converge and now guard, contain and protect the flower/moon. This little story can then become a larger story of cult and divinity in the interpretation by a sort of allegorical projection. All narratives can project allegorically in a similar way.

Precisely so, a little narrative. Narratives too support abstraction.

My basic problem with cognitive metaphor theory, then, is that it claims too much. There’s more than one mechanism for constructing abstract concepts. David Hays and I outlined four in The Evolution of Cognition (1990): metaphor, metalingual definition and rationalization, theorization, and model building. There’s no reason to believe that those are the only existing or the only possible mechanisms for constructing abstract concepts.

In the rest of this note I want to sketch out Hays’s old notion of abstraction, point out how it somewhat resembles CMT and then I dig up some old notes that express further reservations about CMT.

Narrative and Metalingual Definition

The fact that various episodes can exhibit highly similar patterns of events and participants is the basis of Hays’s (1973) original approach to abstraction. He called it metalingual definition, after Roman Jakobson’s notion of language’s metalingual function. While Hays’ notion is different from CMT of Lakoff and Johnson, I do not see it as an alternative except in the sense that perhaps some of the cases they handle with conceptual metaphor might better be explicated by Hay’s metalingual account. But that is a secondary matter. Both mechanisms are needed, and, as I’ve indicated above, a few others as well. Continue reading

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On the entangled banks of representations (pt.1)

ResearchBlogging.orgLately, I took time out to read through a few papers I’d put on the backburner until after my first year review was completed. Now that’s out of the way, I found myself looking through Berwick et al.‘s review on Evolution, brain, and the nature of language. Much of the paper manages to pull off the impressive job of making it sound as if the field has arrived on a consensus in areas that are still hotly debated. Still, what I’m interested in for this post is something that is often considered to be far less controversial than it is, namely the notion of mental representations. As an example, Berwick et al. posit that mind/brain-based computations construct mental syntactic and conceptual-intentional representations (internalization), with internal linguistic representations then being mapped onto their ordered output form (externalization). From these premises, the authors then arrive at the reasonable enough assumption that language is an instrument of thought first, with communication taking a secondary role:

In marked contrast, linear sequential order does not seem to enter into the computations that construct mental conceptual-intentional representations, what we call ‘internalization’… If correct, this calls for a revision of the traditional Aristotelian notion: language is meaning with sound, not sound with meaning. One key implication is that communication, an element of externalization, is an ancillary aspect of language, not its key function, as maintained by what is perhaps a majority of scholars… Rather, language serves primarily as an internal ‘instrument of thought’.

If we take for granted their conclusions, and this is something I’m far from convinced by, there is still the question of whether or not we even need representations in the first place. If you were to read the majority of cognitive science, then the answer is a fairly straight forward one: yes, of course we need mental representations, even if there’s no solid definition as to what they are and the form they take in our brain. In fact, the notion of representations has become a major theoretical tenet of modern cognitive science, as evident in the way much of field no longer treats it as a point of contention. The reason for this unquestioning acceptance has its roots in the notion that mental representations enriched an impoverished stimulus: that is, if an organism is facing incomplete data, then it follows that they need mental representations to fill in the gaps.

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Could the Higgsmellow unify all of social science?

Language, economic behaviour, a fancy video and some marshmallows

Most of you are probably now familiar with the following video about Keith Chen’s work on The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior:

Given this blog’s link with Chen’s study (see Sean’s RT posts here and here), and that Sean and I recently had our own paper published on the topic of these correlational studies, I thought I’d share some of my own thoughts in regards to this video. First up, the video provides some excellent animation, and it does a reasonable job at distilling the core argument of Chen’s paper. However, I do have some concerns, namely the conclusion presented in the video that “even seemingly insignificant features of our language can have a massive impact on our health, our national prosperity and the very way we live and die“.

This is stated far too strongly. After all, the study is only correlational in nature, and there are no experiments supporting this claim. Also, the video makes no mention of the various critiques that have popped up around the web by professional linguists, such as this excellent post by Osten Dahl. Of course, we could hand wave away these critiques, and argue it’s just a fun video. But I worry these popular renditions often lend significant media weight to dubious and unsubstantiated claims, with the potential to influence social policy. Still, we can’t completely blame the video. There’s somewhat of an academic smokescreen at work in the way Chen writes up the paper — it reads as if he had a particular hypothesis, and then tested this using an available dataset. I’m not 100% sure this is the whole story. I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear the initial finding was discoveredrather than actively sought out in a strict hypothesis-testing sense. This is all conjecture on my part, and I could be completely wrong here, but it does seem like Chen was fishing for correlations: you throw out your line into a large sea of data, find a particularly strong association, and then proceed to attach an hypothesis to it. Such practices are exactly the type of problem Sean and I were warning against in our paper. And as Geoff Pullum pointed out: Chen’s causal intuition could easily have been reversed and presented in an equally compelling fashion. It just happened to be the case that the correlation fell in one particular direction.

Besides the numerous theoretical and methodological critiques of the paper, the simple fact of the matter is that Chen’s work is being presented as if it’s demonstrated a causal relation. Let’s be clear about this: he hasn’t even got close to making that point. All he’s found is a strong correlation. So far, the best we can say is that we’re at the hypothesis-generating stage, with the general hypothesis being that differences in grammatical marking of the future influence future-oriented behaviours. Now, if we are to test this hypothesis, then experimental work is going to be needed. I doubt this will be too difficult to do given the large literature into delayed gratification. One useful approach might be found in the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment:

Here, you could control for a whole host of factors, whilst seeing if delayed gratification varied according to the language of particular groups. Surely Chen would expect there to be differences between those populations with strong-FTR languages and those with weak-FTR languages? Also, I wouldn’t be too surprised if we discovered that marshmallow consumption is linked to a propensity to save as well as road traffic accidents, acacia trees and campfires. In short: Marshmallows are the social science equivalent of the Higgs Boson. They’ll unify everything.

Could the Higgsmellow unify all of social science?

Could the Higgsmallow unify all of social science?

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What’s a Language? Evidence from the Brain

Yesterday I put up a post (A Note on Memes and Historical Linguistics) in which I argued that, when historical linguists chart relationships between things they call “languages”, what they’re actually charting is mostly relationships among phonological systems. Though they talk about languages, as we ordinarily use the term, that’s not what they actually look at. In particular, they ignore horizontal transfer of words and concepts between languages.

Consider the English language, which is classified as a Germanic language. As such, it is different from French, which is a Romance language, though of course both Romance and Germanic languages are Indo-European. However, in the 11th Century CE the Norman French invaded Britain and they stuck around, profoundly influencing language and culture in Britain, especially the part that’s come to be known as England. Because of their focus on phonology, historical linguists don’t register this event and its consequences. The considerable French influence on English simply doesn’t count because it affected the vocabulary, but not the phonology.

Well, the historical linguists aren’t the only ones who have a peculiar view of their subject matter. That kind of peculiar vision is widespread.

Let’s take a look at a passage from Sydney Lamb’s Pathways of the Brain (John Benjamins 1999). He begins by talking about Roman Jakobson, one of the great linguists of the previous century:

Born in Russia, he lived in Czechoslovakia and Sweden before coming to the United States, where he became a professor of Slavic Linguistics at Harvard. Using the term language in a way it is commonly used (but which gets in the way of a proper understanding of the situation), we could say that he spoke six languages quite fluently: Russian, Czech, German, English, Swedish, and French, and he had varying amounts of skill in a number of others. But each of them except Russian was spoken with a thick accent. It was said of him that, “He speaks six languages, all of them in Russian”. This phenomenon, quite common except in that most multilinguals don’t control as many ‘languages’, actually provides excellent evidence in support of the conclusion that from a cognitive point of view, the ‘language’ is not a unit at all.

Think about that. “Language” is a noun, nouns are said to represent persons, places, or things – as I recall from some classroom long ago and far away. Language isn’t a person or a place, so it must be a thing. And the generic thing, if it makes any sense at all to talk of such, is a self-contained ‘substance’ (to borrow a word from philosophy), demarcated from the rest of the world. It is, well, it’s a thing, like a ball, you can grab it in your metaphorical hand and turn it around as you inspect it. Continue reading