Some Links #17: The Return of Whorf

The famous Klingon linguist, Whorf, has returned with his theories on linguistic relativity (I know, terrible joke).

The Largest Whorfian Study Ever. The Lousy Linguist looks at the paper Ways to go: Methodological considerations in Whorfian studies on motion events. As you can probably guess, the paper deals with the methodological issues surrounding linguistic relativity. It’s all interesting stuff, bringing to light important questions about how the brain handles language. I’m fairly lay when it comes to this topic, so for more background on the current events, see similar posts over at Language Log: Never Mind the Conclusions, What’s the Evidence? and SLA Blog: Linguistic Relativity, Whorf, Linguistic Relativity.

But Science Doesn’t Work That Way: Miller & Chomsky (1963). Many of you who read this blog will be familiar with the position taken by Melody’s post over at Child’s Play: against a strong nativist position in language acquisition. It’s the first part in a series of posts so I’ll reserve judgement on her conclusions until she’s finished. But much of her post is drawn from a brilliant paper by Scholz and Pullum (2005): Irrational Nativist Exuberance. Key paragraph:

Do we really want to say that phonemes are ‘innate’?

I haven’t yet addressed how we know — with all but certainty — that the model Miller and Chomsky used had to be a poor approximation of human learning capabilities.  It has to do with phonemes.

Experiments have shown that people are remarkably sensitive to the transitional probabilities between phonemes in their native languages, both when speaking and when listening to speech.  If Miller and Chomsky’s assessment of probabilistic learning is correct, then the problem of “parameter estimation” should apply not only to learning the probabilities between words, but also to learning the probabilities between phonemes.  Given that people do learn to predict phonemes, Miller and Chomsky’s logic would force us to conclude that not only must ‘grammar’ be innate, but the particular distribution of phonemes in English (and every other language) must be innate as well.

We only get to this absurdist conclusion because Miller & Chomsky’s argument mistakes philosophical logic for science (which is, of course, exactly what intelligent design does).  So what’s the difference between philosophical logic and science? Here’s the answer, in Einstein’s words, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

PLoS Blogs. Yet another blogging network. This time it’s with the Public Library of Science. The most notable move, for me at least, is Neuroanthropology. That move hasn’t seemed to impact upon their ability to produce good articles, the latest of which being in regards to Uner Tan Syndrome (I’m sure there was a documentary about this on BBC…).

Hap Map 3: more people ~ more genetic variation. Razib has a cool read on the new HapMap dataset. The current paper (Integrating common and rare genetic variation in diverse human populations) looked for variants across the genome in 11 populations, consisting of 1184 samples. It’s been especially useful with less common variants. As with previous versions, you can also explore the data. Here’s the conclusion from the paper:

With improvements in sequencing technology, low-frequency variation is becoming increasingly accessible. This greater resolution will no doubt expand our ability to identify genes and variants associated with disease and other human traits. This study integrates CNPs and lower-frequency SNPs with common SNPs in a more diverse set of human populations than was previously available. The results underscore the need to characterize population-genetic parameters in each population, and for each stratum of allele frequency, as it is not possible to extrapolate from past experience with common alleles. As expected, lower-frequency variation is less shared across populations, even closely related ones, highlighting the importance of sampling widely to achieve a comprehensive understanding of human variation.

Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers. Someone gave this in to the charity store I work at: it’s a brilliant book by Jan Gullberg on (surprise, surprise) the history of mathematics. The first chapter was on mathematics and language, so I had to pick it up, and not just for that chapter alone, as there are plenty of gaps in my mathematical knowledge I’m sure this will clear up.

Some Links #16: Why I want to Falcon Punch (some) BBC Science Writers

I’m not normally one for violent resolutions to sloppy science, but in taking inspiration from one such perpetrator I’m promoting a Falcon Punch policy. Above is a graphical example of a successful Falcon Punch: the goal being to hurl your target onwards and upwards into a flaming ball of scientific shame.

Space is the final frontier for evolution, study claims. I had planned on writing a more substantial article on how yet another science writer, in this case one Howard Falcon-Lang, is claiming that Darwin has once again been felled by a new study. Greg Laden, however, beat me to the punch with a damning critique:

Continue reading “Some Links #16: Why I want to Falcon Punch (some) BBC Science Writers”

Some Links #15: Empires of the Word & anti-Babel

Empires of the Word & anti-Babel. It’s a few days old now but I’ve only just had time to read it. Anyway, check out Razib’s review of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the world. Lots of information for budding historical linguists and those intrigued by language spread and extinction. Particularly relevant is the following paragraph:

As I indicated above Empires of the Word is rather thin on robust generalizations. But one point which the author mentions repeatedly is that the rise and fall of languages of great expanse and utility is the norm, not the exception. In particular, Nicholas Ostler takes time out to emphasize that languages which spread via trade often do not have long term staying power. Portuguese, Aramaic, Punic and Sogdian would fall into this category (the later success of Portuguese was a matter of rice and empire in Brazil). It seems that mercantile communities are too ephemeral, that successive historical shocks inevitably result in their decline when there isn’t a peasant demographic reservoir or imperial power which imposes it by fiat. Even those languages which eventually spread beyond traders and gain cultural and political cachet may fall from grace. Greek is the best case of this. It was the dominant language of the Roman East, and spoken as far as modern Pakistan, and studied in Dark Age Ireland. By the early modern period it was a strange and foreign language in the West, and with the rise of Islam in the east it lost its cultural glamor, and even those Christians in Arab lands who were Melkite, Greek Orthodox who adhered to the theological position of Constantinople, became Arab in speech and identity (in greater Syria the Greek Orthodox have been instrumental in the formulation of Arab nationalism).

Opening a bibliography database for human evolution. Again, it’s been a few days since this was posted, but I’d advise anyone interested in human evolution visit John Hawks recently announced database. The bibliography section also has an RSS feed which provides a chronological list (newest first).

In which I apply for a job as a homeopath… Dave over at Anomalous Disaster has a great little post on him applying for a position at NHS Tayside for a homeopathic specialist. This is from the very same health board who recently brought us the sacking of 500 staff. So Dave decided to apply, which, at a cushy £68,000 salary, is definitely a job worth pursuing — after all, it can’t be that hard to dispense magic beans and provide a pseudo-scientific air of authority. Here is part of his letter of application:

The original research that I have published means that I am familiar with the body of published work on homeopathy, and the many meta-analyses and systematic reviews conducted on it. The fact that these conclude that homeopathy is no more effective than a similarly administered placebo will not bother me whilst I am taking advantage of some of the excellent salmon fishing to be found in the Tayside region. Indeed, given the fact the position only calls for the successful applicant to attend two sessions per week, I should imagine I would have plenty of time to indulge in a bit of fishing.

Click here to apply.

Selfish Sounds: Darwinism in linguistics. A brief(ish) article on the work of historical linguist, Nikolaus Ritt, and how words and sounds compete for the purpose of being replicated. Specifically, it looks at how the sound shapes of English words have gradually evolved:

Good examples of such phenomena are sets of changes which are obviously directed but unfold over time spans that are impossible to even survey by individual speakers. They have come to be known as ‘drifts’. A case of such a drift seems to have affected the sound shapes of English words (or better: lexical morphemes, i.e. the smallest linguistic units that carry meaning). Over time their shapes seem to have gradually evolved in a direction where they came to fit better into the rhythmical patterning that characterises English speech. “For instance, vowels in long words tended to be shortened over time, while vowels in short words tended to be lengthened. Thus, the rhythmic units they established became more uniform”, Nikolaus Ritt explains.

[…] From the evolutionary perspective this kind of development is best understood if one regards rhythm as an environmental constant in the linguistic world in which words and the sounds they are made up of have to survive and replicate. Because of the constant environmental pressure which rhythm exerts on them, the sound shapes of English words have gradually changed to become better adapted to the rhythmically structured utterances through which they get expressed and transmitted.

New Blog: Culture Evolves!

… Well, new to me at least. It’s run by Fiona Jordan of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, and her latest post is an interview with one of my favourite researchers, Simon Greenhill (I didn’t know he designed a sudoku solving program). Also, after having done a little digging into her publications, I found the following forthcoming paper: The effect of population size and density on rates of linguistic evolution. Here is the abstract:

Evolutionary theory from population genetics predicts that demography may play an important role in determining the rate at which cultural and linguistic traits change over time. However, relatively few studies have explored this relationship for language at an appropriate scale and in a quantitative way, nor controlled for the problem of non-independence induced by the historical relationships between languages. Here we use phylogenetic trees of 351 Austronesian languages to test whether the rate of change in core vocabulary is affected by population size and population density. We detected a strong phylogenetic signal in both population size and density, indicating the need for historical control. We find a significant inverse relationship between lexical replacement and population size, no relationship with population density, and we confirm that splitting events influence lexical evolution. These results support the idea that a process analogous to genetic drift may be an important factor in lexical evolution. Furthermore, the strong phylogenetic signal in these demographic factors suggests that despite repeated population splits the social conditions that influence speech community size and density are maintained and inherited from one generation to the next.

I’m not going to say anything on a paper I haven’t yet read, other than it looks pretty cool and that more people should be considering the influence of demographic factors in linguistics.

More on Gene-culture coevolution

Ed Yong has a cool article on Genes and culture: OXTR gene influences social behaviour differently in Americans and Koreans. It has some interesting parallels, and contrasting conclusions, with my post last week. Key paragraphs:

Heejung Kim from the University of California has discovered a great example of this effect by studying a gene called OXTR (or the ‘oxytocin receptor’, in full). The gene creates a docking station for a hormone called oxytocin, which is involved in all sorts of emotions and social behaviours, from trust to sexual arousal to empathy.

Kim looked at a specific version of the OXTR gene, whose carriers are allegedly more social and sensitive. But this link between gene and behaviour depends on culture; it exists among American people, who tend to look for support in troubled times, but not in Korean cultures, where such support is less socially acceptable. Culture sets the stage on which the OXTR gene expresses itself.

OXTR varies from person to person, and the DNA ‘letters’ at particular spots can affect the way we behave. According to previous studies, people with a ‘G’ at one specific site tend to be more sensitive parents, more empathetic and less lonely than those with an ‘A’. But most of these studies have been done with white, Western people who are hardly representative of the world at large – in fact, they’re positively W.E.I.R.D. [My emphasis]

Some Links #11: Linguistic Diversity or Homogeneity?

Linguistic Diversity = Poverty. Razib Khan basically argues, correctly in my opinion, that linguistic homogeneity is good for economic development and general prosperity. From the perspective of a linguist, however, I do like the idea of really obscure linguistic communities, ready and waiting to be discovered and documented. On the flip side, it is selfish of me to want these small communities to remain in a bubble, free from the very same benefits I enjoy in belonging to a modern, post-industrialised society. Our goal, then, should probably be more focused on documenting, as opposed to saving, these languages. Razib has recently posted another, quite lengthy post on the topic: Knowledge is not value-free.

When did we first ‘Rock the Mic’? A meeting of my two favourite interests over at the New York Times: Linguistics and Hip Hop. Ben Zimmer writes:

In “Rapper’s Delight,” the M.C. Big Bank Hank raps, “I’m gonna rock the mic till you can’t resist,” using what was then a novel sense of rock, defined by the O.E.D. as “to handle effectively and impressively; to use or wield effectively, esp. with style or self-assurance.” To be sure, singers in the prerap era often used rock as a transitive verb, whether it was Bill Haley promising, “We’re gonna rock this joint tonight,” or the bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup more suggestively wailing, “Rock me, mama.” But the M.C.’s of early hip-hop took the verb in a new direction, transforming the microphone (abbreviated in rap circles as mic, not mike) into an emblem of stylish display. Later elaborations on the theme would allow clothes and other accessories to serve as the objects of rock, as when Kanye West boasted in a 2008 issue of Spin magazine, “I rock a bespoke suit and I go to Harold’s for fried chicken.”

It’d be nice to see more stuff on linguistics and hip hop, and, having said that, I might write a bit on the subject. In fact, I would go as far as to say that hip hop is part of reason why I fell into linguistics: the eloquent word play encouraged, and perhaps moulded, my fascination with language. To demonstrate why, here’s a track by Maryland rapper, Edan, who certainly knows how to rock the mic:

Edan — One Man Arsenal

Life without language. Neuroanthropology provides yet another great read. This time it’s on the topic of life without language — something that’s always crept into my thoughts, yet seems impossible to imagine (as I’m already so embedded within a language-using society). The post goes on to discuss Susan Schaller and the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who did not learn sign language:

The man she would call, ‘Ildefonso,’ had figured out how to survive, in part by simply copying those around him, but he had no idea what language was. Schaller found that he observed people’s lips and mouth moving, unaware that they were making sound, unaware that there was sound, trying to figure out what was happening from the movements of the mouths. She felt that he was frustrated because he thought everyone else could figure things out from looking at each others’ moving mouths.

One problem for Schaller’s efforts was that Ildefonso’s survival strategy, imitation, actually got in the way of him learning how to sign because it short-circuited the possibility of conversation. As she puts, Ildefonso acted as if he had a kind of visual echolalia (we sometimes call it ‘echopraxia’), simply copying the actions he saw

One Man’s Take on the Facts of the Matter. Babel’s Dawn takes a look at Tecumseh Fitch’s book, The Evolution of Language, and concisely explains a clear departure between two camps in evolutionary linguistics:

One clear difference between the scenarios is in the role of the individual in relation to language. Language is somehow built into the brain in Chomsky’s thought-first scenario, while it is learned from others in the topics-first approach. Empiricists, like Morten Christiansen and Nicholas Chater, see language as ‘out there’ to be learned while nativists, like Fitch and Chomsky, say there is an internal, I-language, and the language out there is merely the sum of all those little I-languages. How to settle the dispute? Look for factual evidence.

Some Links #4

Back to the future on syntax and Broca’s area. Talking Brains provide a concise and humorous post about why Broca’s area is not the seat of syntax, be it domain-specific or domain-general. I tend to think that areas important for syntactic processing are probably distributed throughout the left perisylvian region. Hence why Broca’s aphasiacs are quite capable of making grammatical judgements. Then again, another reason why damage to Broca’s area doesn’t, to quote Hickok, “obliterate the ability to make such judgements”, is because the processing shifts to another region (sort of an ancillary system). This is very possible in the advent of neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is a dirty word. Having mentioned neuroplasticity, I now feel obligated to mention this brilliant post over at Mind Hacks. It provides a sort of 101 approach to neuroplasticity, which, after all, simply means something in the brain has changed. Still, as one poster from pointed out: “However, at its most abstract, the concept of neuroplasticity is often arrayed against that other commonplace abstract notion, that the brain is genetically ‘hard-wired’ in some way”.

Dialect Geography and Social Networks. Mark Lieberman over at Language Log discusses geographical patterns of linguistic variation and recent analyses of facebook networks in the US. Put succinctly: they don’t line up very well. He also asks some interesting questions about the role facebook might play as a proxy for communication patterns.

How best to learn R. R is an invaluable statistical package. If, like me, you find yourself being dropped in at the deep end, then things can seem slightly confusing in an environment that is far less user friendly than, say, SPSS. All the important stuff is in the comments section of the post, but you should take some time out to have a general poke around Statistical Modelling, Causal Inference and Social Science.

Are Scottish People Living Dangerously? The short answer: Yes. Barking Up The Wrong Tree links to a study claiming that “Almost the entire adult population of Scotland (97.5%) are likely to be either cigarette smokers, heavy drinkers, physically inactive, overweight or have a poor diet.”

The Sun Gone Crazy? Apparently, for the past two years there’s been a prolonged absence in sunspots. But as Adam Frank mentions, “The magnetic activity of stars like sun, which is the root cause of the sunspot cycle, is still poorly understood even after decades of intense study.  It’s more than an academic concern”.

Three Questions for Michael Tomasello. A cool little interview with the chimpanzee, linguistic and cooperation guru, Michael Tomasello, over at cognition and culture.