We all take comfort in our ability to project into the future. Be it through arbitrary patterns in Spring Pouchong tea leaves, or making statistical inferences about the likelihood that it will rain tomorrow, our accumulation of knowledge about the future is based on continued attempts of attaining certainty: that is, we wish to know what tomorrow will bring. Yet the difference between benignly staring at tea leaves and using computer models to predict tomorrow’s weather is fairly apparent: the former relies on a completely spurious relationship between tea leaves and events in the future, whereas the latter utilises our knowledge of weather patterns and then applies this to abstract from currently available data into the future. Put simply: if there are dense grey clouds in the sky, then it is likely we’ll get rain. Conversely, if tea-leaves arrange themselves into the shape of a middle finger, it doesn’t mean you are going to be continually dicked over for the rest of your life. Although, as I’ll attempt to make clear below, these are differences in degrees, rather than absolutes.
So, how are we going to get from tea-leaves to Lingua Francas? Well, the other evening I found myself watching Dr Nicholas Ostler give a talk on his new book, The Last Lingua Franca: English until the Return to Babel. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ostler, he’s a relatively well-known linguist, having written several successful books popularising socio-historical linguistics, and first came to my attention through Razib Kahn’s detailed review of Empires of the Word. Indeed, on the basis of Razib’s post, I was not surprised by the depth of knowledge expounded during the talk. On this note alone I’m probably going to buy the book, as the work certainly filters into my own interests of historical contact between languages and the subsequent consequences. However, as you can probably infer from the previous paragraph, there were some elements I was slightly-less impressed with — and it is here where we get into the murky realms between tea-leaves and knowledge-based inferences. But first, here is a quick summary of what I took away from the talk:
Continue reading “Tea Leaves and Lingua Francas: Why the future is not easy to predict”
As Niyogi & Berwick (2009) point out, there is a tendency in modelling of Linguistic Evolution to assume chains of single learners inheriting single grammars from single teachers. This is, of course, not realistic – we learn language from many people and people can speak more than one language. However, Niyogi & Berwick suggest deeper objections.
Continue reading “Learning Multiple languages from Multiple teachers”
The returns on homogeneity Razib Kahn writes about the potential costs of the world having diversity in its languages, instead of just one. He also asks: “The extreme linguistic diversity of less developed regions of the world, or even 18th century France and Italy, is probably detrimental to economic growth and economies of scale, but do diminishing returns kick in at some point?” I’m not too sure where my thoughts lie on this, as I’ve never really thought about it before, which, for me at least, is always the sign of a good blog post. Of course, the economic woes or pros will be negated once the universal translator is made…
Cultural Induction is hard Sean Roberts offers a very thought-provoking post about cultural induction. A week or so ago he ran a little experiment on Facebook, with the explicit aim of looking at Welsh Mutations and agreements between Welsh-speaking individuals in regards to simple sentences. All this fits into a larger picture, with Sean arguing, quite persuasively, that “cultural induction may not be easier than learning about the natural world if everybody is doing something different.”
Cultural Evolution I tend to think I write fairly in-depth posts about cultural evolution, but it appears Bill Benzon over at New Savanna has dethroned me with a knock out tome of posts. These include one on language games, which, in the spirit of being completely honest, I haven’t yet had chance to completely read. I think a New Savanna day is due at some point next week.
Simon Jenkins writes something stupid, and in doing so invites a whole number of science bloggers to have their very own spoof Jenks day, in which (apparently) evil boffins seek revenge.
A new Papua tribe is discovered. Numbering around 3000 the tribe will surely be of interest to field linguists. They also apparently live in trees and run around completely naked (apart from banana leaves covering their private parts).
Culture as an evolutionary phenomenon. An interesting lecture by Rob Boyd over at the ICCI’s website.
Of my random meanderings around the Internet, I think the coolest thing I’ve seen this past week certainly has to be the Steampunk sequencer:
With that out of the way, here are some links:
- In somewhat keeping with the theme from some links 2’s look at primitive writing systems, comes a post from the excellent Not Exactly Rocket Science: An 60,000-year old artistic movement recorded in Ostrich egg shells.
- More on topic of writing systems is Kevin Mitchell’s post on Why Johnny can’t read (but Jane can). Essentially, the post is asking: why dyslexia is about twice as common in boys as in girls?
- Is synaesthesia a high-level brain power? I’m not sure, but that’s the question being asked over at New Scientist.
- Science Daily claims: Simple math explains dramatic beak shape variation in Darwin’s finches. Key paragraph: “Using digitization techniques, the researchers found that 14 distinct beak shapes, that at first glance look unrelated, could be categorized into three broader, group shapes. Despite the striking variety of sizes and shapes, mathematically, the beaks within a particular group only differ by their scales.”
- Pamelia Brown has 50 Fascinating Lectures All About Your Brain. I’ve only managed to watch one of the videos (see below), so I’m certain that there is at least one fascinating lecture…
- Be sure to check out the Kahn Academy — a not-for-profit organisation that provides some great educational resources. For those of you interested in demographics and the quantitative analysis of movement, then here’s a whole section on differential equations.
- Dormivigilia provides a brief overview of a paper examining the neural origins of handedness.
- Razib Kahn over at GNXP has an in-depth discussion about the convergent evolution of skin pigmentation: OCA2 makes East Asians white and Europeans blue.
- How reliable are fMRI results? Another question I’m not so sure about. However, Prefrontal.org has a full paper on providing something of an answer. The key sentence: “the results from fMRI research may be somewhat less reliable than many researchers implicitly believe.”
- Jonah Leher has a lengthy, interesting piece over at the New York Times, asking: Is depression an adaptation? Probably not. But for a more balanced perspective, read Neurocritic’s brilliant analysis of the topic.
- Laelaps writes about a paper claiming the discovery a 4,300 year old chimpanzee nut-cracking site: Uncovering the “Chimpanzee Stone Age”.
- Lastly, Jeff Elman, UCSD professor of cognitive science and co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, presents a lecture on some of the latest research in our ability to use language and why it is so far removed from other animal communication systems: