Language - An Introduction

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An introduction to Language for the SMMMASH of April 18, 2013, at Stanford University http://www.scaruffi.com/stanford/tour2012.html

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Language - An Introduction

  1. 1. lAnGuAgEfor the SMMMASH! of April 18, 2012 www.smmmash.com piero scaruffi www.scaruffi.com
  2. 2. "Shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi" ("the master is fond of licking lion spittle“) (Chinese tongue-twister) 2
  3. 3. A Tool to Shape Minds• Edward Sapir & Benjamin Lee Whorf: language determines how one thinks• Lev Vygotsky: language guides the childs cognitive growth• Katherine Nelson: language acts as the medium through which the mind becomes part of a culture 3
  4. 4. A Tool to Shape Minds• We not only speak, but also listen.• The listening is no less important than the speaking: the speaking expresses our mind, but the listening shapes our mind.• Language creates minds. 4
  5. 5. A Tool to Shape Minds• “Communication” is about one brain trying to replicate some kind of neural pattern (thought, image, story) into another brain• Language is structured in such a way as to interact with the neural process of the other brain and cause it to create a specific neural pattern: that’s what we call “understanding”• A “discussion” is two beings that engage in changing each other’s brain 5
  6. 6. Redundant and Inefficient• On average western languages are about 50% redundant: we would not lose any expressive power if we gave up 50% of our dictionary. We can guess the meaning of most sentences from a fragment of them.• Human communication is wildly inefficient: two computers can simply exchange in a split second an image without any loss of information, whereas a human must describe to another human the image in a lengthy way and will certainly miss some details 6
  7. 7. Redundant and Inefficient• Alfred Korzybski: Symbolic thinking constitutes a tremendous advantage (the ability to generalize experience and pass them on to other humans, so they do not need to repeat our mistakes or rediscover what we already discovered), but also a disadvantage, that accounts for many of our social and personal problems: there are fewer words (and concepts) than experiences 7
  8. 8. Grammar• “Xgewut is not a meaningful word" is a correct English sentence. What makes a sentence correct even when it contains a word that does not exist? 8
  9. 9. Grammar• Ferdinand DeSaussure: "parole" (an actual utterance in a language) vs "langue" (the entire body of the language)• Noam Chomsky: "performance" (all sentences that an individual will ever use) vs "competence" (all sentences that an individual can utter, but will not necessarily utter) 9
  10. 10. Grammar• Noam Chomsky: – The number of sentences in a language is potentially infinite, but there is a finite system of rules that defines which sentences can potentially be built – You have never read a sentence with these exact words before but (hopefully!) you understand the meaning of what I just wrote 10
  11. 11. Grammar• Noam Chomsky: – The logical formalism used to prove mathematical theorems can be employed to express the grammar of a language – The grammar of a language “is" the specification for the entire language 11
  12. 12. Grammar• Chomsky: – Children do not learn, as they do not make any effort. Language "happens" to a child. – We are born with some innate knowledge of what a grammar is and how it works (a “universal grammar”) – Then experience determines which specific language (i.e., grammar) we will learn. – We are predisposed to learn a language the same way we are predisposed to learn to eat – Language acquisition is not only possible: it is virtually inevitable 12
  13. 13. Grammar• Steven Pinker: the “language instinct” 13
  14. 14. Give me Ambiguity or Something Else• "Prostitutes appeal to Pope"• "Soviet virgin lands short of goal again"• “Panda mating fails - veterinarian takes over”• “Killer sentenced to die for second time”• “Miners refuse to mine after death”(actual newspaper headlines reported by Keith Devlin) 14
  15. 15. Anaphora• "He went to bed" (who?)• "Today I wrote this sentence" (which day?)• "Here it is cold“ (where?) 15
  16. 16. Ambiguity• In every language one can build a sentence that is perfectly valid but not clear at all.• The context usually solves the ambiguity.• Syntax is not enough: one needs semantics to understand what a sentence means 16
  17. 17. What is Language• Charles Darwin: languages seem to evolve the same way that species evolve• Language brings more benefits to the listener than to the talker• If communication were the purpose of language, it would have evolved a race of listeners, not of gossipers• Individuals, unless they are relatives, have no motivation to share key information since they are supposed to compete 17
  18. 18. Not a Means to Communicate• Derek Bickerton: a means to represent the world that evolved from older representation systems.• Robin Dunbar: a means to cement society, e.g. gossiping is similar to grooming• Geoffrey Miller: a means for sexual selection, a way for males and females to play the game of sex - language is a form of sexual display• Richard Gregory: a particular type of tool• Philip Lieberman: an evolutionary accident 18
  19. 19. Metaphor• “Her marriage is a nightmare”• “My room is a jungle”• “He is a snake”• “This job is a piece of cake”• “Time is money” 19
  20. 20. Metaphor• Metaphor is pervasive in our language• George Lakoff: – all language is metaphorical – all metaphors are ultimately based on our bodily experience. 20
  21. 21. Pragmatics• A word, or a sentence, has no meaning per se. It is not the meaning, it is the "use" of language that matters.• Ludwig Wittgenstein: to understand a word is to understand a language and to understand a language is to master the linguistic skills• Paul Grice: language is based on a form of cooperation among the speakers 21
  22. 22. Pragmatics• What are the speaker’s motif and goal?• Semantics can account for the meaning of the sentence “do you know what time it is?”, but not for the fact that an answer is required (the speaker’s intention is to learn what time it is) 22
  23. 23. Jokes• What is a joke?• Why do we tell jokes?• What is in a joke?• I order to understand a joke one must master the whole power of the language 23
  24. 24. A Basic Property of Life• Language is widespread in nature• All animals communicate and even plants have some rudimentary form of interaction• Communication (and therefore language) is one of the most basic modes of living beings 24
  25. 25. The oldest language on Earth• DNA 25
  26. 26. Further Reading• Scaruffi, Piero: “The Nature of Consciousness” 26

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