That’s Linguistics (Not logistics)

Linguists really need a catchy tune to match those in logistics. Any takers?

I always remember when one of my former lecturers said he was surprised by how little the average person will know about linguistics. For me, this was best exemplified when, upon enquiring about my degree, my friend paused for a brief moment and said: “Linguistics. That’s like logistics, right?” Indeed. Not really being in the mood to bash my friend’s ignorance into a bloody pulp of understanding, I decided to take a swig of my beer and simply replied: “No, not really. But it doesn’t matter.” Feeling guilty for not gathering the entire congregation of party-goers, sitting them down and proceeding to explain the fundamentals of linguistics, I have instead decided to write a series of 101 posts.

With that said, a good place to start is by providing some dictionary definitions highlighting the difference between linguistics and logistics:

Linguistics /lɪŋˈgwɪs.tɪks/ noun

the systematic study of the structure and development of language in general or of particular languages.

Logistics /ləˈdʒɪs.tɪks/ plural noun

the careful organization of a complicated activity so that it happens in a successful and effective way.

Arguably, linguistics is a logistical solution for successfully, and rigorously, studying language through the scientific method, but to avoid further confusion this is the last time you’ll see logistics in these posts. So, as you can probably infer, linguistics is a fairly broad term that, for all intensive purposes, simply means it’s a discipline for studying language. Those who partake in the study of language are known as linguists. This leads me to another point of contention: a linguist isn’t synonymous with a polyglot. Although there are plenty of linguists who do speak more than one language, many of them are quite content just sticking to their native language. It is, after all, possible for linguists to study many aspects of a language without necessarily having anything like native-level competency. In fact, other than occasionally shouting pourquoi when (drunkly) reflecting on my life choices, or ach-y-fi when a Brussels sprout somehow manages to make its way near my plate, I’m mainly monolingual.

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Some Links #18: GxExC

The depression map: genes, culture, serotonin, and a side of pathogens. Another new science blog network (Wired) and once again a new stable of good science writers. I’m particularly pleased to see that David Dobbs, a former SciBling and top science writer, has found a new home for Neuron Culture. I was also pleased to see he had written an article on studies into the interactions between genes and culture, namely: Chiao & Blizinsky (2009) and Way & Lieberman (2010). And I was even more pleased to see that he’d mentioned both mine and Sean’s posts on the social sensitivity hypothesis. Suffice to say, I was pleased.

Take home paragraph:

In a sense, these studies are looking not at gene-x-environment interactions, or GxE, but at genes x (immediate) environment x culture — GxExC. The third variable can make all the difference. Gene-by-environment studies over the last 20 years have contributed enormously to our understanding of mood and behavior. Without them we would not have studies, like these led by Chiao and Way and Kim, that suggest broader and deeper dimensions to what makes us struggle, thrive, or just act differently in different situations. GxE is clearly important. But when we leave out variations in culture, we risk profoundly misunderstanding how these genes — and the people who carry them — actually operate in the big wide world.
Razib also has some thoughts on the topic:
The same issues are not as operative when it comes to culture. Two tribes can speak different dialects or languages. If a woman moves from one tribe to another her children don’t necessarily speak a mixture of languages, rather, they may speak the language of their fathers. The nature of cultural inheritance is more flexible, and so allows for the persistence of more heritable variation at different levels of organization. Differences of religion, language, dress, and values, can be very strong between two groups who have long lived near each other and may be genetically similar.

Homo was born vocalizing. Babel’s Dawn links to a recently finished PhD thesis that supposedly argues for a relatively recent emergence for language (approx. 120,000 years ago). She defends her assertions by stating: “[…] all of the unique cognitive traits attributed to humans arose as the consequence of one crucial mutation, which radically altered the architecture of the ancestral primate brain.” I haven’t read the thesis, and I probably won’t as I’m already stretched in regards to my reading, but I’m completely unconvinced by the hopeful mutation hypothesis. Plus, as Bolles notes in his post, there is plenty of available evidence to the contrary.

Primed for Reading. Robert Boyd reviews Stanislas Dehane’s new book, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention, which I’ll be picking up soon. In the meantime, to give you a bit of background, I suggest you read Dehane’s (2007) paper on the Neuronal Recycling Hypothesis: the Cultural recycling of cortical maps. H/T: Gene Expression.

Through the looking glass (part 1). The Lousy Linguist reviews Guy Deutscher’s new book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, with the general takeaway message being that, in part one at least, one where the book is a bit science-lite. What really interested me, though, were these two paragraphs:

We discover quite quickly what Deutscher is doing as he begins to walk through complexity issues of “particular areas of language” (page 109), namely morphology, phonology, and subordination. And these last 15 pages are really the gem of Part 1. He shows that there is an interesting, somewhat illogical, entirely engaging but as yet unexplained set of correlations between speaker population size and linguistic complexity.

For example, languages with small numbers of speakers tend to have more morphologically rich grammars (hence one could claim that small = more complex). However, small languages with small numbers of speakers also tend to have small phonological inventories. Hmmm, weird, right? [My emphasis]

As those of you who read this blog will know: I don’t think it’s weird that small speaker populations also tend to have small phonological inventories.

Clothing lice out of Africa. A cool new paper by Troups et al which looks at the evolutionary history of clothing lice to provide specific estimates on the origin of clothing. Using a Bayesian coalescent modelling approach, they estimate that clothing lice diverged from head louse ancestors between 83,000 and 170,000 years ago. H/T: Dienekes.

Cumulative Culture Evolved to Rapidly Coordinate Novel Behaviours

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the deliberations over humanity and its perceived uniqueness, a link is frequently made between our ability to support a rich, diverse culture and the origin of complex human behaviour. Yet what is often overlooked in our view of these two, clearly connected phenomena is the thread that weaves them together: the ability to coordinate behaviour. We need only look at the products of our culture, from language to religion, to see that any variant we may deem successful is contingent on coordinating the behaviour of two or more individuals. Still, what is truly illuminating about this ability is that, far from being a uniquely human feature, the ability to coordinate behaviour is ubiquitous throughout the many organismal kingdoms.

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Need a platform for uninformed opinions?

Then try the Guardian’s comment is free on for size. Just read Jonathan Jones’ article on religion, science and nouveau atheism. I’m not going to say much (this turns out to be a slight lie) here, other than to direct your attention to this paragraph:

[…] the Dawkins view encourages a caricature of the history of science. It dramatises a clash between scientific reason and religious superstition that is supposedly as intense today as it was in the age of Galileo. But this is a schoolchild’s version of the history of science. It is simplistic and inaccurate to imagine that scientific discovery has ever been either the fruit, or the seed, of pure reason. Science, like art, is imaginative. And the imaginative pictures of the universe created by the great scientists have rarely been free of ideas that in the nouveau atheist view are irrational.

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