Posts Tagged ‘communication’

Numeracy and language

December 2, 2013

I tend towards considering mathematics a language rather than a science. In fact mathematics is more like a family of languages each with a rigorous grammar. I like this quote:

R. L. E. SchwarzenbergerThe Language of Geometry, in A Mathematical Spectrum Miscellany, Applied Probability Trust, 2000, p. 112:

My own attitude, which I share with many of my colleagues, is simply that mathematics is a language. Like English, or Latin, or Chinese, there are certain concepts for which mathematics is particularly well suited: it would be as foolish to attempt to write a love poem in the language of mathematics as to prove the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra using the English language.

Just as conventional languages enable culture and provide a tool for social communication, the various languages of mathematics, I think, enable science and provide a tool for scientific discourse. I take “science” here to be analaogous to a “culture”. To follow that thought then, just as science is embedded within a “larger” culture, so is mathematics embedded within conventional languages. This embedding shows up as the ability of a language to deal with numeracy and numerical concepts.

And that means then the value judgement of what is “primitive” when applied to language can depend upon the extent to which mathematics and therefore numeracy is embedded within that language.

GeoCurrents examines numeracy embedded within languages:

According to a recent article by Mike Vuolo in, Pirahã is among “only a few documented cases” of languages that almost completely lack of numbers. Dan Everett, a renowned expert in the Pirahã language, further claims that the lack of numeracy is just one of many linguistic deficiencies of this language, which he relates to gaps in the Pirahã culture. ….. 

The various types of number systems are considered in the article on Numeral Bases, written by Bernard Comrie. Of the 196 languages in the sample, 88% can handle an infinite set of numerals. To do so, languages use some arithmetic base to construct numeral expressions. According to Comrie, “we live in a decimal world”: two thirds of the world’s languages use base 10 and such languages are spoken “in nearly every part of the world”. English, Russian, and Mandarin are three examples of such languages. ….. 

Around 20% of the world’s languages use either purely vigesimal (or base 20) or a hybrid vigesimal-decimal system. In a purely vigesimal system, the base is consistently 20, yielding the general formula for constructing numerals as x20 + y. For example, in Diola-Fogny, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal, 51 is expressed as bukan ku-gaba di uɲɛn di b-əkɔn ‘two twenties and eleven’. Other languages with a purely vigesimal system include Arawak spoken in Suriname, Chukchi spoken in the Russian Far East, Yimas in Papua New Guinea, and Tamang in Nepal. In a hybrid vigesimal-decimal system, numbers up to 99 use base 20, but the system then shifts to being decimal for the expression of the hundreds, so that one ends up with expressions of the type x100 + y20 + z. A good example of such a system is Basque, where 256 is expressed as berr-eun eta berr-ogei-ta-hama-sei ‘two hundred and two-twenty-and-ten-six’. Other hybrid vigesimal-decimal systems are found in Abkhaz in the Caucasus, Burushaski in northern Pakistan, Fulfulde in West Africa, Jakaltek in Guatemala, and Greenlandic. In a few mostly decimal languages, moreover, a small proportion of the overall numerical system is vigesimal. In French, for example, numerals in the range 80-99 have a vigesimal structure: 97 is thus expressed as quatre-vingt-dix-sept ‘four-twenty-ten-seven’. Only five languages in the WALS sample use a base that is neither 10 nor 20. For instance, Ekari, a Trans-New Guinean language spoken in Indonesian Papua uses base of 60, as did the ancient Near Eastern language Sumerian, which has bequeathed to us our system of counting seconds and minutes. Besides Ekari, non-10-non-20-base languages include Embera Chami in Colombia, Ngiti in Democratic Republic of Congo, Supyire in Mali, and Tommo So in Mali. …… 

Going back to the various types of counting, some languages use a restricted system that does not effectively go above around 20, and some languages are even more limited, as is the case in Pirahã. The WALS sample contains 20 such languages, all but one of which are spoken in either Australia, highland New Guinea, or Amazonia. The one such language found outside these areas is !Xóõ, a Khoisan language spoken in Botswana. ……. 

Read the whole article. 

Counting monkey?

In some societies in the ancient past, numeracy did not contribute significantly to survival as probably with isolated tribes like the Pirahã. But in most human societies, numeracy was of significant benefit especially for cooperation between different bands of humans. I suspect that it was the need for social cooperation which fed the need for communication within a tribe and among tribes, which in turn was the spur to the development of language, perhaps over 100,000 years ago. What instigated the need to count is in the realm of speculation. The need for a calendar would only have developed with the development of agriculture. But the need for counting herds probably came earlier in a semi-nomadic phase. Even earlier than that would have come the need to trade with other hunter gatherer groups and that  probably gave rise to counting 50,000 years ago or even earlier. The tribes who learned to trade and developed the ability and concepts of trading were probably the tribes that had the best prospects of surviving while moving from one territory to another. It could be that the ability to trade was an indicator of how far a group could move.

And so I am inclined to think that numeracy in language became a critical factor which 30,000 to 50,000 years ago determined the groups which survived and prospered. It may well be that it is these tribes which developed numbers, and learned to count, and learned to trade that eventually populated most of the globe. It may be a little far-fetched but not impossible that numeracy in language may have been one of the features distinguishing Anatomically Modern Humans from Neanderthals. Even though the Neanderthals had larger brains and that we are all Neanderthals to some extent!

Dolphins have unique whistle-names for each other

July 23, 2013
Mother and juvenile bottlenose dolphins head t...

Mother and juvenile bottlenose dolphins – Wikipedia

Dolphins it seems are not just self-aware but identify specific individuals with specific whistles. And that would mean not just having a sense of self-identity but also of having a “naming” convention and of communication. And if whistle-names exist then whistle-words and language are also already present or certainly not very far away. Researchers from the Sea Mammal Research Unit, School of Biology at the University of St. Andrews have just published a study of bottle-nosed dolphins.

Stephanie L. King and Vincent M. Janik, Bottlenose dolphins can use learned vocal labels to address each other, Published online before print July 22, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1304459110PNAS July 22, 2013

Abstract: In animal communication research, vocal labeling refers to incidents in which an animal consistently uses a specific acoustic signal when presented with a specific object or class of objects. Labeling with learned signals is a foundation of human language but is notably rare in nonhuman communication systems. In natural animal systems, labeling often occurs with signals that are not influenced by learning, such as in alarm and food calling. There is a suggestion, however, that some species use learned signals to label conspecific individuals in their own communication system when mimicking individually distinctive calls. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are a promising animal for exploration in this area because they are capable of vocal production learning and can learn to use arbitrary signals to report the presence or absence of objects. Bottlenose dolphins develop their own unique identity signal, the signature whistle. This whistle encodes individual identity independently of voice features. The copying of signature whistles may therefore allow animals to label or address one another. Here, we show that wild bottlenose dolphins respond to hearing a copy of their own signature whistle by calling back. Animals did not respond to whistles that were not their own signature. This study provides compelling evidence that a dolphin’s learned identity signal is used as a label when addressing conspecifics. Bottlenose dolphins therefore appear to be unique as nonhuman mammals to use learned signals as individually specific labels for different social companions in their own natural communication system.

The need for communication leads to speech and grammar and language

February 25, 2013

Extracts from a recent lecture

from liu presentation -Communication for Managers

  1. Thinking gives rise to words
  2. Words are not necessary for thought –but they help
  3. Many words and many people give rise to the need for cooperation which needs communication
  4. The need for communication leads to speech and grammar and language
  5. Grammar is not necessary for thought – but it helps
  6. Language is not necessary for communication – but it helps
  7. Speech is not necessary for language – but it helps
  8. Message is an information package
  9. Meaning comes first and is necessary for message and needs an algorithm for the conversion
  10. Information is whatever can be detected by our senses (sensory, aural, visual, olefactory…..)


So, once upon another time, I closed my Twitter account

November 1, 2012

Once upon a time I opened a Twitter account.

I found

  1. I followed nobody and nobody followed me
  2. I had no messages – of 140 characters or less – that I desired to paste indiscriminately and with no defined recipient on the Twitter noticeboard.
  3. When I wished to just write something – not specifically directed to anybody – it was easier to do it on my blog where I was not constrained to 140 characters
  4. I had no desire to let the world in general know what I was doing. Where I desired someone or some people to be informed about my activity – or inactivity – email and mobile phone texts were sufficient to my needs and were not constrained to 140 characters.
  5. I found my blog to be my extended space which provided an open access to the world but where I didn’t much care whether anybody read what I had written or not. What was important to me was clearly the writing of the post. The reading of the post by others was an incidental consequence of no great significance (to me).
  6. I found I used communication primarily as a tool to mobilise actions or to induce desired behaviour in others. Here the transmission of an information package was necessary but  the transmission had to be well directed. Indiscriminate transmission of information was ineffective, irritating to the unintended reader and wasteful. To be effective the information package needed direction and needed to be complete for the intended purpose.
  7. Transmission of truncated and incomplete information led – more often than not – to misunderstandings and invoked unwanted responses
  8. Transmission of information without any purpose was not of interest to me
  9. Reading tweets written by twits did not seem to provide any value to me

Twitter is just another medium. The message inherent in this medium is that the tweeter is so obsessed by his own ego that he must broadcast his indiscriminate, purposeless, directionless, 140 character snippets about his life to the whole world. In short that the tweeter is a twit. Perhaps the medium has its uses. But the medium encourages a general “dumbing-down” of transmitted information. It uses “black and white” when “full colour” is available. It downgrades the quality of the information transmitted.

Bad information leads to bad communication which gives bad actions.

It does not seem to add any value for me.

So, once upon another time, I closed my Twitter account.

Essence of a Manager

Chapter 4: Communication: Hearing What Isn’t Said

Communication is the tool that a manager must make use of to mobilise actions from his chosen actors. Communication is a process and not a singular event. It extends from the meaning that he selects and then through all the subsequent steps of converting the meaning into a message which he transmits as information making up a communiqué directed at a particular recipient. The process continues till it is received, interpreted and reconverted into meaning in the recipient’s mind. But the process is not complete until the manager gets the feedback confirming that his intended meaning has been successfully transferred. The manager retains responsibility throughout the entire process. Language and culture enable communication and are not barriers. Focusing on the recipient leads naturally to the process required to generate the desired meanings in his mind. Any manager can make himself into a good communicator. Some will have to work harder at it than others. But being aware of the steps contained within a communications process is where the learning starts.

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