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Of Interest:

Patience is a Virtue

You may have heard about this: the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago has finally completed a project they’d begun in 1921 - they have published the final volume in a comprehensive dictionary of the ancient Akkadian language, bringing the project to a close after 21 volumes.

The dictionary covers a huge scope of time, ranging from 2,500 BC to 100 AD, and describes the language that brought the world the Code of Hammurabi, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and which was spoken in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Though usually written in cuneiform, the language is the earliest example we have from the Semitic language family, which includes Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Nabatean, Amharic, Syriac and several others.

Perhaps the most interesting angle to us is the name of the dictionary itself: the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, which was the name by which the language was known when the project started. These days, after a century of scholarship, archeology and argument, the language is known as Akkadian, reflecting the empire run by Sargon the Great from the city of Akkad, commonly held to be the first empire in human history.

You can read more

Reason to Win

An interesting theory is making the rounds, wherein it is argued that the development of reason and logic was prompted not by a noble search for truth, but for the more prosaic cause of winning arguments. This, of course, presupposes the existence of language and communication before the constraints of critical thinking. I guess we’ve all seen examples of that earlier state even today...

comments on the article are again interesting in their own right.

We delight in the recursive quality of the arguments about argumentation...

Put In Words

We came across a rather lyrical and enthralling article which describes the job of being a lexicographer - one who compiles dictionaries. Written by a working lexicographer, of whom there are few in this world, the article describes the process and the history of this noble and obscure profession.

We are reminded of a story told by the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith at a Harvard luncheon, where he told of his experience testifying before a congressional panel on the economy. A senator, being unfamiliar with a word the Professor had used in his presentation, had an aide look up the word for him. He then addressed the speaker, saying he’d had an aide look up the word ‘febrile,’ and went on to say that Galbraith had used the word incorrectly.

The Professor responded thusly: “Being that I sit on the Usage Committee of the American Heritage Dictionary, I shall have them emend the entry.”


And Thanks For All The Fish

We note with excitement the reports of an experimental effort being called CHAT, for Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry, which for the first time seeks to establish a two-way communication with dolphins. While researchers have been working on communicating with dolphins using pictures and sound since the 1960s, all previous efforts have been, in essence, one way, with humans directing the dolphin’s activities - and with no opportunity for the dolphins to communicate their needs to the humans. Remarkable things have been shown through these earlier efforts, including the dolphins’ ability to recognize and keep track of more than 100 words, and to respond appropriately to changes in syntax [‘bring the surfboard to the man’ versus ‘bring the man to the surfboard.’]. In this new experiment, divers are working with the dolphins to create a mutually agreed upon series of sounds to represent concepts.

This is the first real step towards true interspecies communications, and we’re excited about the possibilities, and what can be built on the outcome of these experiments. We’re especially pleased to know the researchers are really getting down to basics and examining the preconceptions, going so far as to wonder if dolphins even have words, as we understand them.

We’ll be keeping our eye on this one...

Linkfest the First

As promised earlier, here’s a quick rundown of some of the stories that caught our eye over the past week:

One of the features that we humans had held as self-defining
has now been observed in monkeys, namely, the ability to recall qualities and positions of objects that are not present. The more we learn about what our primate relatives can do, the more alike we seem...

A new study claims to show a link between personalities and language in multilingual individuals, with different perceptions and ways of behaving when using different languages. We’re not so sure about this one...

Uhhh, like, y’know...
Hesitation particles are an important part of a child’s first language acquisition, as they serve as verbal cues that the upcoming word is potentially important or, ummm, new...

After 120 years, Oscar Wilde’s
The Picture of Dorian Gray will finally be issued in its uncensored form. Huzzah for freedom of speech, boo to censorship...

We noted
a fantastic introductory guide to the field of Historical Linguistics, with great comments worth reading through...

Well, if we thought we could stop Skynet from becoming self-aware using humor, we’re out of luck, as
a program has been developed which allows computers to recognize and produce dirty jokes of the “that’s what she said” variety.

We think we’re going to love
this book by Arthur Phillips, a novel about the purported discovery of a lost play by Shakespeare. The final third of the book features the manuscript in question, and the reviewers are crowing about the fantastic faux-Shakespeare presented therein.

We have a soft spot for Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Viennese philosopher of language who changed the way we think about the world, and the role of language in thought and perception. Having published only one volume in his lifetime -
the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus - it is beyond amazing to learn of a discovery of a trunkful of his notes and writings that will revolutionize our understanding of the man and his mind.

The New York Times
bemoans the incipient loss of cursive, or script, writing. We’re right there with ‘em.

A seventeenth-century book, whose popularity was rife but which seemed to be unremarkable, turns out to be a very discreet sex manual of sorts, with enough metaphors to make it past the censors of the day...

Well, that should do for now... Stay tuned for more soon.


Word Search

The English language is a vast, wonderful thing. It is, in fact, the language with the largest number of words, and arguably the best documented, with most every word tracked to its sources, etymology and first use in print courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary

We note with pleasure
a new attempt to corral a large number of the words we have in English which have no apparent derivation - ‘orphan’ words, in the field. Prof. Anatoly Liberman at the University of Minnesota has made this effort is life’s work.

He seeks to account for words we use every day, but which have no apparent source or discernible etymology. Words like frog, boy, girl, oat, dwarf or heifer seem to have shown up out of nowhere, and while getting a first date of use for many of these will be easy, sorting out their backstory seems nigh on impossible to us.

Brave lexicographer, credit to linguists everywhere...

A more considered response...

To follow up on yesterday’s post regarding the latest theory in the field of historical linguistics, Sam had posted this comment in a thread elsewhere on the web:

“[...] There is no such thing as a constant rate of change when we talk about language. Contemporary Icelandic is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same as Old Norse, such so that a schoolchild in Iceland can read the thousand year old eddas and sagas in the original with no issues. Compare English, and how we almost need a dictionary for Shakespeare, written only four hundred years back. "Glottochronology" is pseudoscience and woo. Comparative Historical Linguistics, as an academic pursuit, relies on actual evidence when reconstructing protoforms, and thus can only make claims about the common ancestor of two or more languages of which we have actual evidence, usually of the written variety. This pretty much only goes back about 5,000 years, with the Sanskrit of the Rig Veda being the oldest attested Indo-European language we have, therefore closest to the protoform. In the same way that one can reconstruct Latin if one knows about French, Italian, Spanish, Romanche, etc., it is possible to reconstruct I-E with knowledge of Old Church Slavonic, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hittite, etc. I know of no proof of efficacy for any attempt to posit relations between the larger language families like Semitic, Altaic, Bantu, Sino-Tibetan, and I-E, etc., and call anyone out on the verifiability of any such claims.

We have an awful lot more than a few words in proto-Indo-European, actually, and a very good idea of the society and belief system in which they were spoken. Even some of the laws and religious beliefs and practices. Here's a good cocktail fact for example: the words 'naked' and 'night' are, in fact, etymologically related -so we can posit that the Indo-European speakers probably wore no pyjamas...

The methodology used for the study is also suspect, in my opinion. The claim is that the phonemic inventory (i.e., the set of allowable sounds within a given language) shrinks the further one gets from southwest central Africa, but they've only sampled 504 languages. It is generally agreed that there are about 5,000 to 7,000 languages in the world, so why is the sample so small? The grammars of most all of these languages have been published over the years, so the data are available...

Nonetheless, the article is making some ripples in the unusually staid waters of the field. Closer inspection is warranted... “

We’d be glad to have your thoughts on the matter.

Could it be? Naaah...

Some news in the unusually dusty and arcane field of historical linguistics today, as an article in Science Magazine posits evidence of a single origin point for all of human language, as well as a time frame. Without getting into the academic and political considerations, this is a controversial position to take. However, from what we’ve read about the article, we’re skeptical.

Aside from the obvious impossibility of proving anything about spoken communications that may have occurred tens of thousands of years before anything like a record of a language exists, we note that the crux of the argument relies on an [admittedly clever] count of phonemic inventories - allowable sounds in a given language - across a geographic swath ranging from Southwest Africa to the Pacific Island, it apparently only looks at a sample size of 500 languages. As linguists generally place the number of living languages across the globe at somewhere between five and seven thousand, we see red flags at the conclusions being drawn from the size of the sample...

We’d love to hear the arguments, and welcome more technical questions form the readership. We’ll be following this one pretty closely...