Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Known, unknown and unknowable

July 22, 2017

Donald Rumsfeld was often the butt of cheap jokes after this quote. In reality, Rumsfeld was absolutely spot on and close to philosophic.

Starting from where Rumsfeld left off we come to the distinction between the knowable and the unknowable

These are things we don’t know that we don’t know. There are knowable unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we could know but we don’t know which we don’t know. But there are also unknowable unknowns. There are things we cannot know that we don’t know that we can never know. 

a la Rumsfeld

I am coming to the conclusion that the sum of all human cognition lacks some of the dimensions of the universe. It may be increasing with time, but human cognition is limited. The expanding universe may be infinite or it may be boundless. For human cognition to grasp the universe is then like trying to measure an infinite length with a ruler of finite length, or of trying to measure some unknown parameter with a ruler marked in inches. Those measurements will never reach a conclusion.


Logic is discovered, language is invented

July 9, 2017

Logic is inherent in the universe. It is not a creation of man and is not dependent on observation or what kind of brain perceives the universe.

The laws of logic are taken to be unchanging over space and time. Logic now, is as logic was, and as logic will always be. Logic here, is as logic is there and everywhere.

Language, however, is invented. All languages (including mathematics or chemical notation or Boolean algebra or …..) must have a structure which is compliant with the logic of the universe it is used to describe. We perceive a logic in the universe and express it through the inbuilt logic of our language(s). We use the one to describe the other and they are both the same.

How not?



June 29, 2017

It is one of the worst feelings one can experience. To have reality intrude rudely on illusions one has cherished.

And the worst of the worst is when it is another person who is the disillusionment. When somebody turns out to be not quite what they seem to be.


Language follows economy: 150 years of US/English hegemony

June 25, 2017

The domination of English as a world language probably begins only about 200 years ago and 1820 is as good a starting time as any.

Language influence, I would suggest, follows economic influence. The predominance of English today is merely a consequence of growth and spread of the English speaking economies. And the role of the US has been decisive in the last 150 years. The Latin of 2,000 years ago which had gained dominance in Europe died during the dark ages, evolved into Italian at home and was replaced by a plethora of local dialects in the rest of Europe. Latin was possibly the first ever which could be considered a “world language”. As a language of international communication it was probably preceded by Greek and Egyptian before that. Perhaps Arabic came close to being an international language during the Middle Ages. As European countries colonised the Americas and parts of Asia, they took their local languages with them. But the key for English was that North America adopted English rather than Spanish (or French or German). The US does not formally have an official language but English is the de facto national language. (According to legend German came close to being adopted in Pennsylvania in 1794).

There is no official language at the U.S. federal level. However, 32 states of the United States … have adopted legislation granting official status to English. Out of 50 states, 30 have established English as the only official language, while Hawaii recognizes both English and Hawaiian as official and Alaska has made some 20 Native languages official, along with English.

…… American schools, public as well as private, require English classes at every grade level, even in bilingual or dual-language learning. Semesters of English composition are required in virtually all U.S. colleges and universities to satisfy associate’s and bachelor’s degree requirements. – Wikipedia

Harald Haarmann writes in his Mosaic of Languages:

Europe has far exceeded all other continents regarding the export of languages. There is no other continent from which so many languages have been spread around the world, taking root elsewhere in the world and giving rise to global language communities. Most world languages, i.e. languages with global communicative functions, are European in origin and belong to the Indo-European family of languages. The result of this language export from the 15th century onward is a vast increase in the numbers of speakers. Today, the majority of speakers of languages such as English, Spanish, Portuguese and French live in regions outside of Europe. The proportion of speakers in Europe compared to those in other continents varies considerably between the individual languages:

German and Russian are Europe-centred, with the vast majority of speakers of these languages living in Europe. Languages such as Portuguese, English and Spanish, on the other hand, have far more speakers overseas, and the speakers in the countries of origin constitute a minority of the total number of speakers.

The spread of language cannot be divorced from economic well-being. Angus Maddison’s important work on historical GDP’s is insightful and fascinating. In his Millenial Perspective of the World Economy he begins:

Maddison world economy Vol 1

Over the past millennium, world population rose 22–fold. Per capita income increased 13–fold, world GDP nearly 300–fold. This contrasts sharply with the preceding millennium, when world population grew by only a sixth, and there was no advance in per capita income. From the year 1000 to 1820 the advance in per capita income was a slow crawl — the world average rose about 50 per cent. Most of the growth went to accommodate a fourfold increase in population. Since 1820, world development has been much more dynamic. Per capita income rose more than eightfold, population more than fivefold. Per capita income growth is not the only indicator of welfare. Over the long run, there has been a dramatic increase in life expectation. In the year 1000, the average infant could expect to live about 24 years. A third would die in the first year of life, hunger and epidemic disease would ravage the survivors. There was an almost imperceptible rise up to 1820, mainly in Western Europe. Most of the improvement has occurred since then. Now the average infant can expect to survive 66 years. The growth process was uneven in space as well as time. The rise in life expectation and income has been most rapid in Western Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan. By 1820, this group had forged ahead to an income level twice that in the rest of the world. By 1998, the gap was 7:1. Between the United States (the present world leader) and Africa (the poorest region) the gap is now 20:1. This gap is still widening. Divergence is dominant but not inexorable. In the past half century, resurgent Asian countries have demonstrated that an important degree of catch–up is feasible. Nevertheless world economic growth has slowed substantially since 1973, and the Asian advance has been offset by stagnation or retrogression elsewhere.

What he writes about population and income applies as well to language

Advances in population and income over the past millennium have been sustained by three interactive processes:
a) Conquest or settlement of relatively empty areas which had fertile land, new biological resources, or a potential to accommodate transfers of population, crops and livestock;
b) international trade and capital movements;
c) technological and institutional innovation.

I would suggest that the spread of English during the colonial expansion (say 1650 – 1850), immediately followed by the economic dominance of the English-speaking US (1870 – present), led to English happening to be the dominant language at just the right time during the explosion of Maddison’s period of technological and institutional innovation. It is being adopted as the language of science and engineering and innovation which has given English the decisive penetration it now has.

World GDP by country 1 – 2008AD (Maddison)

The US became the country with the largest GDP in about 1872. By 1918 (after World War 1) the US economy exceeded that of the UK, France and Germany combined. By 1942 the US economy was larger than that of all of Western Europe. China and India are rising though their per capita GDP is diluted by their large populations.

GDP rising

Within 10 – 20 years the Chinese economy will be significantly larger than that of the United States.

GDP 2030 projection

The question is whether another language will replace English, in time, to reflect the economic realities of the age. I suspect it will not happen for another 200 years – if ever. The position of English as the language of innovation and science and now as the language of the internet presents an inertial barrier that even Mandarin Chinese may not be able to overcome. Hindi and Tamil are the only Indian languages that could even be remotely considered, but either becoming a dominating language is in the realm of fantasy. It is the same type of inertial barrier which will also keep English predominant in Europe, even after BREXIT. In fact, English may have an added strength in a Europe without the UK, as a non-French, non-German, “neutral” language. There are those who name Spanish or Arabic as potential world languages but I find the case for them replacing English less than convincing. The adoption of Spanish would require that the economies of South and Central America (without Brazil but including Mexico) become dominant in the global economy and that is a very remote possibility. German and Russian are too Euro-centric to be considered. The case for French rests entirely – and implausibly – on the economic dominance of France and French-speaking Africa.

Unless the world shifts from the economic growth model that has served us for over 8,000 years (at least) – and I cannot imagine what that paradigm shift could be – I cannot see any language replacing an English (which will of course mutate and change and evolve) as the dominant world language for at least a few hundred years.



Compliments never match complements

June 24, 2017

Language is ultimately a matter of usage for the purpose of communication. Grammar is never “right” or “wrong” but it can be “correct usage” or “incorrect usage” or “effective” or “ineffective”. New forms of usage always override existing “rules”. The point of language is communication and if that is achieved – to the communicator’s satisfaction – then whatever manner language is used – whether following current usage or not – is a successful use of language.

Chapter 4: Essence of a Manager

Communication: Hearing what isn’t said

Where a communication is intended, the responsibility for what has been understood lies always with the communicator, not with the receiver. It is why the statement “He did not understand what I meant!” actually reflects poorly on the speaker. The intending communicator cannot escape from the consequences of what has been finally understood by the receiver. 

A European in Japan cannot blame the Japanese for not understanding his English. A grandfather cannot blame his grandchild for not understanding his archaic usage of language. The onus lies with the person intending to communicate. It is the communicator who has the freedom – even the prerogative – to comply with or deviate from conventional usage, or to even invent words. The only test is whether the intended communication was achieved.

Language changes and, in itself, the change should not be a matter of regret. If the change helps to achieve better communication then it can only be a good thing. However not all change does help. It is not also just the generational effect. Usage does change with each generation and generally it improves communication within the new generation. (The abbreviations used on Twitter or Snapchat being a case in point). But not always. Sometimes the generational change is to bring in an increase in sloppiness and a loss of precision in the communication. But the responsibility always lies with the communicator. So when misunderstandings arise between people or across generations, the fault always lies with the communicator.

All this because someone used the word “matching” to describe 4 people in a photograph. (The four were dressed similarly in various shades of blue). I couldn’t quite see what the “matching” referred to and in explanation I was offered “complimentary”. Remarkably, it was actually the misuse of “complimentary”, instead of (I think) “complementary” (which itself would have been a misuse), which did succeed in getting me to understand what the “matching” referred to. A case of two wrongs making a right.

A “compliment” may well be flattering but rarely ever “matches” the “complement” which completes. And not to forget that when it comes to colours, the objective of complementary colours is to finally achieve white or black.

If someone takes offense at an intended insult then that is a case of a successful communication. But, an intended insult delivered by swearing in an incomprehensible language fails miserably as a communication.


EU language war is about to begin

March 22, 2017

After Brexit, English will have no legal status in the EU. But without English, the EU language wars will surely begin. It would be a horrible loss of face for the EU if they continued to use English after Brexit. Maybe the UK could claim a royalty if they did.

Each member state of the EU nominates and registers a primary language. Only the UK has registered English as a primary language. Ireland has registered Gaelic and even Malta chose Maltese.

The European Union has 24 official and working languages. They are:

Bulgarian             French Maltese            
Croatian German             Polish
Czech Greek Portuguese
Danish Hungarian Romanian
Dutch Irish Slovak
English Italian Slovenian
Estonian Latvian Spanish
Finnish Lithuanian Swedish

The first official language policy of what was then the European Community identified Dutch, French, German, and Italian as the official working languages of the EU.

Since then, as more countries have become part of the EU, the number of official and working languages has increased. However, there are fewer official languages than Member States, as some share common languages.

On the other hand, some regional languages, such as Catalan and Welsh, have gained a status as co-official languages of the European Union. The official use of such languages can be authorised on the basis of an administrative arrangement concluded between the Council and the requesting Member State.

Part of the ridiculous bureaucracy in Brussels is a permanent staff of 1,750 linguists, 600 support staff, 600 full-time interpreters, and a further 3,000 freelance interpreters.

French MEP’s are already calling for the removal of English after Brexit. Before the UK joined the EU (1st January 1973) the EU had Dutch French, German and Italian. Spain only joined in 1986. For English to remain a “working language” would require agreement by all member states. French dominated until Sweden, Finland and Austria tilted the balance in the 1990s. With the Eastern European members now established the resistance to French and German will be all the more obvious.

English is the most spoken second language in the EU and even in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. The dominance of English as a second language in Scandinavia and in the low countries is accompanied by a very high level of fluency in English. Without English as a unifying factor, the existing cracks and splits in the EU will not only be all the more visible, they will be positively encouraged.

map by

map by


Grimm brothers vindicated – Fairy tales go back to ancient beginnings of Indo-European language

January 20, 2016

The Royal Society has a new paper

Sara Graça da Silva, Jamshid J. Tehrani, Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales

The Smith and the Devil - Russian folk tale or something much older?

The Smith and the Devil – Russian folk tale or something much older?

The BBC reports:

In the 19th Century, authors the Brothers Grimm believed many of the fairy tales they popularised were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.

Later thinkers challenged that view, saying some stories were much younger and had been passed into oral tradition having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graca Da Silva, from the New University of Lisbon, said: “We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm. Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than Classical mythology – some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts – but our findings suggest they are much older than that.” ……


It also used a tree of Indo-European languages to trace the descent of shared tales to see how far they could be demonstrated to go back in time.

Dr Tehrani said Jack And The Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.

Analysis showed Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old. And a folk tale called The Smith And The Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the bronze age. Dr Tehrani said: “We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written. They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. “They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.”

Tale telling around a camp-fire must have been one of the major contributors for the evolution of language. But what is a little surprising is that the oral tradition can be so persistent, and for so long. That suggests that orally transmitted tales from ancient cultures should probably be given much more weight. The origin of many concepts, which are often dated to the beginning of written records, are probably much older than thought.


Ancient population expansions and dispersals often leave enduring signatures in the cultural traditions of their descendants, as well as in their genes and languages. The international folktale record has long been regarded as a rich context in which to explore these legacies. To date, investigations in this area have been complicated by a lack of historical data and the impact of more recent waves of diffusion. In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies. We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age. On a broader level, the kinds of stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.

We communicate emotions faster with sounds than with words

January 20, 2016

If we include the vocalisations and sounds that we regularly use to express emotions (frustration, anger, amusement, satisfaction ….), our vocabularies are far larger than just the words we know. Very often, and this happens every day, such sounds alone are sufficient for a complete communication.

“Aaaaaaaargh” as your son storms out of the room — for example.

the scream

the scream  edvard munch

A new paper describes a study where brain EEG’s were used to measure how and how quickly the brain responds to such sounds.

M.D. Pell, et al, Preferential decoding of emotion from human non-linguistic vocalizations versus speech prosody. Biological Psychology, 2015; 111: 14 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.08.008

From the McGill University press release

It takes just one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions conveyed by vocalizations, according to researchers from McGill. It doesn’t matter whether the non-verbal sounds are growls of anger, the laughter of happiness or cries of sadness. More importantly, the researchers have also discovered that we pay more attention when an emotion (such as happiness, sadness or anger) is expressed through vocalizations than we do when the same emotion is expressed in speech.

The researchers believe that the speed with which the brain ‘tags’ these vocalizations and the preference given to them compared to language, is due to the potentially crucial role that decoding vocal sounds has played in human survival. 

“The identification of emotional vocalizations depends on systems in the brain that are older in evolutionary terms,” says Marc Pell, Director of McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the lead author on the study that was recently published in Biological Psychology. “Understanding emotions expressed in spoken language, on the other hand, involves more recent brain systems that have evolved as human language developed.” ………

The researchers found that the participants were able to detect vocalizations of happiness (i.e., laughter) more quickly than vocal sounds conveying either anger or sadness. But, interestingly, they found that angry sounds and angry speech both produced ongoing brain activity that lasted longer than either of the other emotions, suggesting that the brain pays special attention to the importance of anger signals.

“Our data suggest that listeners engage in sustained monitoring of angry voices, irrespective of the form they take, to grasp the significance of potentially threatening events,” says Pell.

The researchers also discovered that individuals who are more anxious have a faster and more heightened response to emotional voices in general than people who are less anxious.

“Vocalizations appear to have the advantage of conveying meaning in a more immediate way than speech,” says Pell. “Our findings are consistent with studies of non-human primates which suggest that vocalizations that are specific to a species are treated preferentially by the neural system over other sounds.”



This study used event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to compare the time course of emotion processing from non-linguistic vocalizations versus speech prosody, to test whether vocalizations are treated preferentially by the neurocognitive system. Participants passively listened to vocalizations or pseudo-utterances conveying anger, sadness, or happiness as the EEG was recorded. Simultaneous effects of vocal expression type and emotion were analyzed for three ERP components (N100, P200, late positive component). Emotional vocalizations and speech were differentiated very early (N100) and vocalizations elicited stronger, earlier, and more differentiated P200 responses than speech. At later stages (450–700 ms), anger vocalizations evoked a stronger late positivity (LPC) than other vocal expressions, which was similar but delayed for angry speech. Individuals with high trait anxiety exhibited early, heightened sensitivity to vocal emotions (particularly vocalizations). These data provide new neurophysiological evidence that vocalizations, as evolutionarily primitive signals, are accorded precedence over speech-embedded emotions in the human voice.

I have no doubt that human need for communication first gave rise to our vocalisations from the very beginnings of the species homo, but the invention of words – also driven by communication needs – came very much later. So it is not surprising that communication using vocalisations of sounds, which are not words, lies much deeper in our make-up.

The ability to think limits language (not the other way around)

January 3, 2016

The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition. Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined to include two versions. The strong version says that language determines thought, and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories, whereas the weak version says that linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.

I am not convinced.

I take a simple, uncomplicated view. I think I often think without the confines of language or its structure. Sometimes I dream in a particular language and sometimes not. I don’t need a language to wake up in a good mood or in a foul one. Thought (cognitive ability) therefore comes first and is what is hard-wired by our genes together with our physical attributes which gives us our senses. Language only comes as a consequence of a need (a need for cooperation leading to a need for communication) and is merely a tool which is shaped by our cognitive abilities. We cannot communicate that which is beyond language. But what we can conceive of, but is not covered by existing language, can be described by learning a new, existing language or by inventing new language. (New words, new grammar, mathematical notations, chemistry notation, …..).

Suppose our noses were highly developed and our sight was not. Suppose further that we had the same cognitive ability as we have now. If we had the ability to create and discern and record smells, I can imagine a language based on smells, where we could describe electrons and dark energy and the shape of the universe and the world around us and emotions in terms of their smells. We could still develop radiation detectors and describe what we could not “see” with our senses. We could still invent mathematics and nuclear power and “smell-writing” would be quite advanced. Literature and drama would be quite different but not necessarily music. Grand opera with smell and sound rather than sight and sound.

But whatever the language, the limits of our cognitive abilities would define the imponderable.

  1. before the beginning
  2. after the end
  3. life before birth
  4. life after death
  5. the stillness of time
  6. the speed of time
  7. whiter than pale
  8. blacker than black
  9. far ago and long away
  10. infinite universe of finite mass
  11. zero is a number
  12. x/0 = ∞
  13. √-1
  14. x0= 1
  15. Magic
  16. parallel lines meet at infinity
  17. the Big Bang theory
  18. gravity is not a force
  19. evolution is wonderful
  20. ………….
  21. ..

“A good continuation” for the “in-between days” as Swedish adopts 37 new words

December 28, 2015

In Sweden the days after Christmas Day and up to the New Year are known as the “in-between days” (mellandagarna) and the normal greeting during this time is “a good continuation” (god fortsättning). The “in-between days” is also the period when the The Language Council of Sweden (Språkrådet) produces an official list of “new words ” that have entered the Swedish language during the previous year.

The Language Council of Sweden does not – fortunately – waste its time too much on futile exercises to defend against change (like the French do) but generally acts as an observer of change that has occurred. (I take the view that “defence of a language” and trying to prevent change is a meaningless exercise. The only language that does not change is a dead language and a living language is defined by current usage. Equally there is no such thing as “correct” spelling or grammar – there is only “accepted” usage).

Thirty seven new words are now acknowledged officially as having entered the language during 2015. However, the Language Council is also terminally afflicted by a deep-seated political correctness, especially about gender “equality” (this is Sweden after all). They sometimes try to be exceedingly good and try intentionally to introduce “gender-neutral” words – usually with little success. It is no different this time and this shows up in 3 of the words “officially” recognised (14, 16 and 35).

  1. avinvestera – to divest or disinvest (alternative divestera)
  2. cosplaymasquerade with participants dressed up as fictional characters from TV, films, comics or games (often Japanese)
  3. delningsekonomi – shared economy used for pooled activities where goods and services are shared (e.g. carpools, Airbnb etc.)
  4. douche – a douchebag
  5. dumpstra – to recover and reuse what others have dumped (from dumpster dive)
  6. EU-migrant – An EU citizen in another EU country for the better welfare and benefits (a euphemism often for Roma people)
  7. faktaresistens – resisting facts (and preferring conspiracy theories for example)
  8. funkis- – used as an adjective or a prefix and to do with people having functional disabilities
  9. geoblockering – geographic blocking of internet content
  10. groupie – a group selfie
  11. haffa – to hit on
  12. halmdocka – a strawman argument or position
  13. klickokrati – a society dominated by internet views(likes) from clickocracy
  14. klittra – verb for female masturbation (hardly used but a politically correct word introduced after a competition)
  15. kulturell appropriering – cultural appropriation
  16. mansplaining – (of a man) explain (something) to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing (a politically correct word)
  17. naturvin – ecologic wine (usually not very good)
  18. nyhetsundvikare – a news avoider
  19. obror – ”unbrotherly”, unfriendly
  20. plattfilm – a flat film with no 3-D or VR effects
  21. rattsurfa – to surf while at the wheel (while driving)
  22. robotjournalistik  – news journalism with computer generated articles
  23. självradikalisering – self radicalisation
  24. skuldkvotstak – income based borrowing limit
  25. ståpaddling – stand-up paddling
  26. svajpa – to swipe
  27. svischa – to Swish (use an App for transfer of funds)
  28. talepunkt – talking point
  29. terrorresa – a journey for the purpose of participating in ”terror” activities
  30. transitflykting – a refugee in transit
  31. triggervarning – advance warning that something unpleasant is to be published
  32. trollfabrik – troll factory
  33. vejpa – to ”vape”, smoke an e-cigarette
  34. vithetsnorm – a standard where ”white-skin” is the norm
  35. värdgraviditet – politically correct alternative to surrogate motherhood
  36. youtuber – a ”professional” video uploader
  37. ögonkramp – eye pain due to excessive looking at a mobile screen

Many of the “new words” recorded every year by the Language Council do not stand the test of time.

Actual usage always wins.

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