on culture and language [scrapbook]

If it can be shown that culture has an innate form, a series of contours, quite apart from subject-matter of any description whatsoever, we have a something in culture that may serve as a term of comparison with and possibly a means of relating it to language. But until such purely formal patterns of culture are discovered and laid bare, we shall do well to hold the drifts of language and of culture to be non-comparable and unrelated processes.

Sapir (1921) Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.

Polynesian Lexicon Online

I’ve been meaning to pimp this: POLLEX is online! Simon says:

I’d just like to announce that Ross Clark and I have placed the POLLEX (Polynesian lexicon) database online at http://pollex.org.nz. POLLEX-Online currently contains 55,183 reflexes with 4,746 reconstructions from 68 languages.

An awesome resource for anyone interested in the Pacific, comparative and historical linguistics, and Polynesian culture history. Databases are what will transform linguistics.

blue is not better than white, and metaphor is unhelpful

The blue-beats-white winning bias in judo as reported in 2006 appears to have been confounded by a number of factors, and there is no bias after all. So say Dijkstra & Preenen in Proceedings B:

A study by Rowe et al. reported a winning bias for judo athletes wearing a blue outfit relative to those wearing a white one during the 2004 Olympics. It was suggested that blue is associated with a higher likelihood of winning through differential effects of colour on opponent visibility and/or an intimidating effect on the opponent. However, we argue that there is no colour effect on winning in judo. We show that alternative factors, namely allocation biases, asymmetries in prior experience and differences in recovery time are possible confounding factors in the analysis of Rowe et al. After controlling for these factors, we found no difference in blue and white wins. We further analysed contest outcomes of 71 other major judo tournaments and also found no winning bias. Our findings have implications for sports policy makers: they suggest that a white–blue outfit pairing ensures an equal level of play.

I love negative results. They’re a complete bummer if it was your darling positive result in the first place, but they provide the clearest demonstration of how science works. The red-wins bias reported in 2006 appears to be still (pardon the pun) in play!

From the realms of philosophy of biology, an interesting article by Bjorn Brunnander about intentional language in evolutionary discourse. Is the trade-off between the efficiency-and-power of metaphorical shorthand, and the misconceptions it produces (the never-ending of conflation of proximate and ultimate), actually producing more problems than it solves?

Many evolutionists today argue for the need to make evolutionary theory an integrated part of psychology and the social sciences. If this is the agenda it should be in the interests of these thinkers to worry about factors that affect the probability of successful communication across boundaries. The track record of communication of evolutionary thinking is not altogether impressive. This is commonly recognised by evolutionists themselves, as shown by presentations of ‘popular misunderstandings’. The fact that some recurring misconceptions are clearly what we would expect to find if processing of the intentional shorthand was unreliable should make us lift questions about efficiency of exposition above the realm of rather effortless rationalisation.

Is the language of intentional psychology an efficient tool for evolutionists?(doi)

is this thing on?

Er, so I’m writing up still. End is in sight! Back to blogging sometime in February! For now I just wanted to post this quote for posterity, although no doubt I will find someplace to jam it in the conclusion.

On comparative linguistics and ethnography

In conducting diachronic research on a language that existed five or six millennia in the past one learns to accept a certain measure of crudity in comparison with what could be accomplished if direct observation were possible. The same caveat applies to the reconstruction of cultures that are associated with such prehistoric languages: for a social anthropologist to demand that a linguistic reconstruction provide details that are descriptively important to anthropological theory may be unreasonable, given the cultural lability of both lingusitic and cultural forms over a period of millennia. It is a remarkable fact that the comparative method allows us to penetrate confidently to a time-depth of perhaps six millenia, and any general feature of social organization that can be inferred from such reconstructed language material is a gift that we are not likely to recieve in any other way. (p. 37)

R. Blust (1980) Austronesian sibling terms and culture history. Bijdragen TLV 149 (11), 22-76.

on dialects of english

My friend J once described something as being “kitty-corner” from a person in a restaurant, and I seriously thought she was making up random feline-words because she’s such a sucker for cats.

It turned out that kitty-corner (or catty-corner) is some Yankee slang for “diagonally opposite” – who knew?

I just thought of this as I was in a waiting room this morning with its attendant collection of rubbish magazines, one of which was the Reader’s Digest. Ah, the Digest, with its moralising stories of real-life bravery and unceasingly good clean jokes. When I was a kid and fancied myself the cleverest, I used to like those “Word Power” quizzes where you had to know the meaning of some tricky vocabulary word. Sometimes, however, they were completely beyond my ken, not ‘cos I wasn’t smrt, but because I wasn’t North American.

I am still fascinated and will yabber on boringly to people here, even after five years, about dialect differences. “Oh, we call it a such-and-such,” I say, and go on to make people’s eyes glaze over with the myriad ways in which sweets differ from candies differ from lollies (my term) which differ from ice lollies which are actually iceblocks, not popsicles. My fairly international set of friends provide hours of fun for my dialectical (haha) observations.

Wiki sez:

On New Zealand English.
Some NZ vocab words. Up the Boohai!
On Maori influence on NZ English, including some of my favourite phrases to use that result in blank stares:
taihoa: hold on a second, wait up
puku: belly, esp. when full
half-pai: pai = good. I had always thought this was half-pie, denoting something half-done or unfinished, but this makes much more sense.
Am suprised porangi is not on there, but maybe only the kids I grew up with delighted in using “crazy” as an insult.

Another guide to Kiwi slang, which is making me yearn to have a blog called “Waikikamukau Dispatches”.

early observations on historical linguistics

Aha! Not Sir William Jones after all, but rather Lord Monboddo, his correspondent, who suggested the following in a letter of 1789.

[I]f you can discover that central country from which all those nations, which you have named, have derived their affinity in language, manners and arts, which you observe, it will be a most wonderful discovery in the history of man. Of the three things I have named, by which the connection and relation of one nation to another is discovered, I hold Language to be the principal. […] And as it is the first of arts, so it is the most lasting, and one that travels the farthest, and is propagated to the most distant regions.

From Cannon (1968) in Am. Anth. [link]

Do read the wiki on Monboddo; he sounds an entertaining and erudite sort of thinker, and one of those minor Enlightenment figures who no doubt had more of an influence on the development of evolutionary thought than the standard textbooks give a hint of. 

Language: hip-hop

Hip-hop and linguistics: you ain’t heard no research like it. Calgary linguist Daryn Howe investigates Black vernacular in hip-hop lyrics. Jeff Long, the GWUM[1], was the hip-hop fan here. The message: Black speech has lots of ain’t.

I was sitting on the bus this week idly eavesdropping on conversations and just could not understand the boys behind me, who were conversing in their particular northeast London urban Black/chav patois that I assume is an “in-group” dialect and meant to be unintelligible to me. It succeeded. It succeeded so well that I thought one of them was replying in French to his mate. I could make out a few words, but my ear honestly thought the pronounciation was Gallic. When I listened harder it became apparent it was the aforementioned dialect, but really? Couldn’t understand for the life of me.

[1] Grunt-Work Undergraduate Minion. We’ve all been there.

Edited to add:  I wondered about the possible offensiveness of my phrase “northeast London urban Black/chav patois”, but I can’t really think of a better way to put it. It’s not exclusively Black. It’s not exclusively a class thing, either, and chav is the nearest I can come up with.