Saturday Jan 31, 2009

Pinker: "Grammar Matters, Linguistics is Important"

If you love language and the quirks of the English language you may have run into Steven Pinker. The guy is brilliant. His talks are complex at times but quite humorous as well. Check out his lecture at Google from a couple of years ago -- Authors@Google: Steven Pinker. It`s typical Pinker. But the bit between the 20:32 - 23:00 minute mark is just hysterical. Adults only, please, the language is strong. And the government reaction is, well, classic. And that`s what makes it jaw dropping funny. The adverb closing by Pinker is precious, too. Also interesting are the linguistic and psychological reasons explaining all this, which Pinker articulates in great detail. Good stuff.

Monday Oct 20, 2008

The Individual vs The Context

Harmony and China's dream, from David Brooks, columnist at the NY Times:
If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

Interesting distinction in perspective. I wonder how the Chinese language fits into this notion of context. In other words, how does the language itself express context and not individualism. I'll have to ask some Chinese friends because it seems the concept is pretty similar in Japan. In fact, I'm reading a book on Japanese linguistics that would tend to support this view from Brooks. The book documents how the Japanese language is used to create context vs how the English language is used to do the exact opposite -- topics vs subjects, passive voice vs active voice, nominalized verbs vs action verbs, etc. There are probably a lot of exceptions among people on both sides of the language/culture line, but the tendencies seem pretty clear.

Wednesday Sep 03, 2008


Fascinating little article about the English word "I" -- On Language: Me, Myself and I -- by Caroline Winter in the New York Times. Really good read.

I didn't know where the capital "I" came from. I'm not surprised by the answer, though. The article says, in part, that the single letter, lower case "i" was just not hefty enough to stand on it's own and carry the significance of what "I" truly represents in English. So, scribes made it bigger. And it became a capital letter. Great story. And it seems reasonable given the evolution and structure of the English language.

The article goes beyond that, though. Winter suggests that capitalizing the first-person pronoun "I" may lead to excessive ego, and she cites examples of other languages that don't capitalize I. She also says that some languages, such as Japanese, make it possible to leave out pronouns altogether. Well, sure, but you don't really need subjects in Japanese, either. And in Japanese the emphasis is on the "topic" of the sentence, not the subject. Also, Japanese verbs are usually passive and/or nominalized and buried at the end of sentences well after all the context is explained in painfully long detail. But in English, a centralized subject performing an action is the focus right up front. And while English can structurally handle a "topic" it has no grammatical role and is generally left out -- just as Japanese leaves out subjects and pronouns and whatever else.

I'm not sure about the other languages Winter cites, but Japanese and English seem polar opposites to me. I also don't see how comparing the languages supports the argument that using "i" instead of "I" can make "our individualistic, workaholic society ... more rooted in community and quality and less focused on money and success if we each thought of ourselves as a small ā€œiā€ with a sweet little dot." Japanese has a lot of what Winter is looking for, yet many Japanese people are workaholics, many express a lot of individuality (though not as much as the US), many are focused on money, and much of their famous humility/politeness is locked inside a rather rigid group structure with rules that would greatly stress the Western definition of community. Of course, many Japanese people are lovely and kind and genuinely community-oriented and all that, just as many English-speaking people are as well. It's extremely difficult to judge languages/cultures out of their context. Definitions of "community" and "individual" are expressed, perceived, and internalized very differently in the East and West.

Interesting article, but I think it goes a tad too far. I don't see why the capital I can't just be a quirk of linguistic history rather than a statement on individual ego -- and a pejorative one at that. Actually, I'd go further. I think it's perfectly fine to express "I" as a capital letter to reflect the centrality of a person articulating a perspective. That's how English is structured, and it makes sense in the context of that language. It may not make sense in another language, sure, but does that make it bad?

Saturday Dec 29, 2007

The Samurai and the Cowboy

I'm reading a really interesting linguistics book on how the Japanese communicate and think and how their language differs from the English spoken by Americans -- Japanese Communication: Language and Thought in Context. It's very much a Venus and Mars sort of thing since the two cultures and languages are so different. Instead of planets, though, the author uses the cultural myths of the samurai and the cowboy to juxtapose the two. It's a miracle any information survives this barrier. But it's fascinating to peel back the layers to figure out why. More on this when I'm done.


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