The strangeness of language: 6 amazing coincidences with names

Today let’s pay attention to the strangeness of language. We’ll take a look at a handful of odd coincidences (collected in an article on Oddee), but the coincidences to really pay attention to are those in your own life. What is it about the power of a human name that we usually only notice when staring into the face of the bizarre and inexplicable?

What I invite you to do is rid yourself of preconceptions about language in much the way that Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) asked Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to attend to his dreams in the movie Inception. To refresh your memory, remember this dialogue from a dream-within-a-dream sequence:

[the room shakes]

Dom Cobb: You feel that? You’ve actually been trained for this Mr Fischer, pay attention to the strangeness of the weather, the shift in gravity. None of this is real, you’re in a dream.

[everyone in the bar turns to look at them]

Dom Cobb: Now the easiest way for you to test yourself is to try and remember how you’ve arrived at this hotel. Can you do that?

Robert Fischer:  Yeah… I…

Dom Cobb:  Now breathe…breathe, remember your training. Accept the fact that you’re in a dream and I’m here to protect you. Go on.

What is it about a baby that seems to call for one name to be given it rather than another? How is it that a spouse’s name calls us or repulses us? How is it that we give names to our pets?

Twin Boys, twin lives

The stories of identical twins’ nearly identical lives are often astonishing, but perhaps none more so than those of identical twins born in Ohio. The twin boys were separated at birth, being adopted by different families. Unknown to each other, both families named the boys James. And here the coincidences just begin. Both James grew up not even knowing of the other, yet both sought law-enforcement training, both had abilities in mechanical drawing and carpentry, and each had married women named Linda. They both had sons whom one named James Alan and the other named James Allan. The twin brothers also divorced their wives and married other women – both named Betty. And they both owned dogs which they named Toy. Forty years after their childhood separation, the two men were reunited to share their amazingly similar lives. (Source: Reader’s Digest, January 1980)

The conventional view is that individuals make conscious choices based on their likes and dislikes in naming things. But these strange stories suggest something else entirely: something difficult to describe, almost impossible to conventional thinking, is going on. You might even say the names seem to be choosing us.

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What is non-symbolic consciousness?

Jeffrey Martin, Ph.D.’s two-part interview with BuddhistGeeks provides a glimpse into some of the most bleeding edge, beyond-the-shark, over-the-moon research being done these days in interdisciplinary psychology. But it’s hard to put a label on precisely what sort of research that involves.

Much of the problem, Martin suggests, relates to the difficulties people at advanced stages of psychological development have in describing the phenomena of memory, thinking, experience, and thought in general. For some, the language of religious and spiritual traditions helps them to make sense of their mind. But then there comes a time for many of the people he studies where the traditional terminology becomes inadequate, and the language of spirituality becomes not only unhelpful but increasingly problematic.

Martin searched for terminology that his desired study participants wouldn’t reject out of hand, and he settled on “non-symbolic consciousness.” That is, consciousness beyond the power of language and other symbols. According to Martin’s organization, the Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness, it includes:

  • Nondual awareness
  • Enlightenment
  • Mystical experiences
  • Peak experiences
  • Plateau experiences
  • Samadhi
  • Satori
  • Silence beyond sound
  • Unity consciousness
  • Transcendental experiences
  • Cosmic Consciousness
  • Numinous experiences
  • Deautomatization
  • Flow experience
  • The peace of God, which passeth all understanding
  • Shamanic ecstasy

Although he’s holding onto his research while he prepares it for publication, the Harvard doctoral student’s BuddhistGeeks interview provides a glimpse of what consciousness beyond language looks like.

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Analysis of nouns and verbs in financial news can predict the stock market

In one of the more astonishing scientific studies I’ve seen lately, computer scientists in Dublin have now tapped the power of linguistic analysis to predict the stock market. Their focus has been on identifying the linguistic trends preceding stock market crashes, but this could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of research to come.

In “Fewer Verbs and Nouns in Financial Reporting Could Predict Stock Market Bubble, Study Shows,” ScienceDaily explains:

After examining 18,000 online articles published by the Financial Times, The New York Times, and the BBC, computer scientists have discovered that the verbs and nouns used by financial commentators converge in a ‘herd-like’ fashion in the lead up to a stock market bubble. Immediately afterwards, the language disperses.

The findings presented at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, Barcelona, Spain, on July 19, 2011, show that the trends in the use of words by financial journalists correlate closely with changes in the leading stock indices.

“Our analysis shows that trends in the use of words by financial journalists correlate closely with changes in the leading stock indices — the DJI, the NIKKEI-225, and FTSE-100,” says Professor Mark Keane, Chair of Computer Science in University College Dublin, who was involved in the research.

Tipoffs of impending financial doom include the proliferation of news items with similar language, which may indicate a narrowing or fixation of attention on a handful of companies and trends to the exclusion of the broader financial markets.

Russian language like “soft clay for poems”

Thank you, Jamie Olson of Olympia, Washington, for translating a cool quote from Alexander Kushner, the celebrated Russian poet. Kushner says:

And the Russian language is arranged in such a wonderful way it’s like a kind of soft clay that was created especially for poems: we’ve got shifting stresses, we’ve got wonderful suffixes.  It’s a very soft language. Take grammatical cases alone, or free word order within sentences: in our language, the subject can come at the very end, which doesn’t exist anywhere else. And it’s a shame that we’re moving over to vers libre, to free verse, and giving up on rhyme. I hope it doesn’t actually happen. Alexander Kushner, interview on Radio Liberty (April 2010; translation [by Jamie Olson])

If you’d like to hear a poem spoken in Russian, here’s a short poem by the poet Boris Ryzhy (starts at about 1:16):

Hat tip to the Language Hat blog.

Dumbledore on the magic of words

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” — Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II

Making sense of the “organized nonsense” of irregular verbs

The headline of the ScienceDaily article “Database Explains Strange Survival of Irregular Verbs” overstates matters a bit. Nobody fully understands how and why irregular verbs come into and out of existence, but then again until recent decades few scholars bothered to investigate the question. Now that’s starting to change.

Leading the way is the faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and of Linguistics, Philology & Phonetics at the University of Oxford. Their Project called “Autonomous Morphology in Diachrony: comparative evidence from the Romance languages” is exploring and making sense of the “organized nonsense” of verbs.

According to the Project’s website, the team is focusing on the analysis of the history of Romance languages and their changes over time in morphology (that is, how verbs inflect for tense, finitude, subject agreement, etc.)

Irregularities seem to have no purpose, but they continue to survive over time. Why?

ScienceNews interviewed Oxford’s Martin Maiden who put a major finding simply:

He [Maiden] said: ‘Many people will remember groaning at school when faced with irregular French or Spanish verbs and wondering why they were the way they were. Our work helps to explain why they, and their equivalents in many related languages, not only exist but are even reinforced and replicated over time.’

There is usually a good historical reason why irregularities appear in a language, Professor Maiden adds, but often the original causes disappear, leaving behind apparently inexplicable irregularities.

Quite often, subsequent generations of speakers simply eliminate these irregularities. ‘But what we have found is that an alternative strategy is to keep the irregularity yet seek to make its occurrence and distribution as predictable as possible, through spreading and various kinds of reinforcement of the irregular pattern’.

Some forms of the French verb mourir (to die) have the spelling ‘eu’ rather than ‘ou’ (for example je meurs — ‘I die’ — against nous mourons — ‘we die’. This difference is due to sound changes at an earlier stage of the language but the pattern of irregularity created by these changes then provides a template into which other kinds of irregularity, which cannot be explained by sound change, are attracted.

The irregular forms of the verb aller (to go, for example je vais — ‘I go’ — against nous allons — ‘we go’) can be shown to have followed this pattern.

Put simply, irregular verbs begin with sound changes that emerge for a “good historical reason,” then either fade out or spread to other verbs as a way of making the original mutation seem more predictable. I would say that it’s as if a language speaker’s mind rebels against irregularity and searches for a sense behind it, and sometimes goes so far as to spread the pattern. Of course, such a rebellion does in fact occur — but not so much in the mind of individual speakers but in intersubjective spaces.

I’m disappointed not to find more detail about what the researchers believe constitutes a “good historical reason,” because of my great interest in understanding what constitutes a good explanation for sound changes in languages and whether such changes may be regarded as part of a purposeful evolutionary pattern or if they are merely chaotic transformations.

One major finding is the rejection of the prevailing “morphomic ghetto” account of language changes, which holds that morphological developments are only to be defined as morphomic if all other explanations (e.g., phonological or semantic) can be ruled out. On the contrary, researchers found that “phenomena traditionally ascribed purely to phonological or semantic conditioning often contain an irreducibly morphological component.”

This and other findings of the Project will be published in a forthcoming book. And there’s hope that as data is collected in Oxford’s database more complete explanations can be found for language irregularities.

Some interesting discoveries of the research emphasize the underappreciated importance of Romanian languages in the evolution of Romance languages, and the finding that changes in Romance languages outside of Europe have influenced the overall language development (e.g., Canadian French has had an important influence on French as it is spoken in Europe).

Are there different primary colors in different languages?

If you think that the three primary colors are red, blue, and yellow (or green), might you be looking at color through a culturally conditioned and incomplete lense? On the Language Hat blog is a post with a listing of some websites on the language of color (including this table at Omniglot), and the comment boxes include interesting points including this one by Maidhc:

There’s a problem in that [Omniglot’s] table, which is a belief that every language would have the same primary colours.

In actuality, it takes 3 values to define a colour. There are a number of different ways to define the three numbers. A common choice is hue, saturation, and brightness.

In English, colour names are primarily derived from hue. Hence light blue and dark blue are considered to be variations of the same colour.

In Irish, colour names have much more to do with saturation. “Glas” can mean a pale grey, green or blue. “Uaine” is a saturated green, and “gorm” is a saturated blue. Red like red hair is “rua” but red like blood is “dearg”.

(Somewhere I have a copy of a scholarly paper on this topic.)

You can see that in the Irish row in the table where they’re forced to sandwich in more than one term.

Given that colour names are ways of describing how a three-dimensional colour space could be chopped up into regions, it would seem to me that there are a whole lot of different ways it could be done. However I don’t know enough exotic languages to come up with further examples.

The idea that primary colors might vary from language to language is a new insight to me, and while I am a bit hesitant to chime in without reading more about Irish color names, the basic point seems intuitively valid.

Another issue with color names that I don’t see discussed on the aforementioned sites is the problem of defining color terms WITHIN the same language. Once color names step outside of the most common dozen or so, there is no universal agreement on what names correspond to which colors. Wikipedia’s completely unauthoritative table aside, the process of labeling a color is rather subjective.

Just taking reddish brown colors alone, you can find such names as Seashell, Sandy Brown, Raw Sienna, Chocolate, Cadmium Orange, Burnt Sienna, Salmon, Coral, Orange Red, Sepia, Coral, Burnt Umber, Tomato, Misty Rose, Rosy Brown, Indian Red, Brown, Firebrick, etc.,

Dictionaries with their self-referential definitions are of little use and often offer somewhat different interpretations. Here’s what a Google search in English for “define:Burnt Sienna” turns up:

reddish brown: a shade of brown with a tinge of red

a reddish-brown pigment produced by roasting sienna

Burnt sienna is an iron oxide pigment: a warm mid brown color. Chemically, burnt sienna is formed by burning raw sienna (Terra di Sienna).

a dark reddish brown colour, like that of roasted sienna; of a dark reddish brown colour, like that of roasted sienna

There are few places more striking to investigate than color when looking at the cultural construction of reality.

Prairie dogs are talking about us

A recent blog post from Beyond Words (great title for a blog, by the way!) reminds me of a fascinating segment I heard on NPR a while ago about prairie dog language. Here’s a clip from the post:

Through recording the calls prairie dogs made in response to predators?a hawk or human or coyote, for example?and then analyzing the call?s layers of frequencies in a computer lab, Slobodchikoff discovered that the calls were grouped together into frequency clusters, with obvious differences between a general warning call or an alarm about a domestic dog versus a coyote.

This in itself spurred more inquiry?why is the prairie dog call for “human!” consistently different than the others, and is there a possibility that prairie dogs are distinguishing between different humans?

“He began to wonder whether the little rodents could possibly be describing their predators ? not just differentiating hawk from human, but actually saying something about the particular human or coyote or hawk that was approaching.”

His test for this was quite simple, actually. He dressed four humans in four different colored shirts?blue, yellow, green, grey?and had them walk through the prairie dog village four times. After recording the warning calls and then analyzing them, Slobodchikoff found that the calls organized themselves based on the color of the human?s shirt. Amazingly enough, the calls even differentiated between other factors like height?”?Essentially they were saying, ?Here comes the tall human in the blue,? versus, ?Here comes the short human in the yellow.?”

It seems as though every time we study animal communication, the more we are discovering their intelligence and perceptiveness. I don’t know of any reason to think that groundhogs are uniquely capable of this sort of “language” whereas other rodents and species are not. If we haven’t noticed the complexity of animal communication before, it’s quite likely because few people were looking (Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, aside).

“Let My Name Not Be Forgotten”

In this touching and well-written story, Ahamefule J. Oluo, a man of African descent, discovers the power of a name to shape — or distort — a life’s destiny. A clip:

When my father abandoned us, he left very little behind: a few photos, an empty storage chest, a copy of his doctoral thesis on the Biafran War… and the name he had given me, Ahamefule J. Oluo.*** Ahamefule is a very uncommon Nigerian name that literally translates to “let my name not be forgotten,” a rather ironic meaning for a five-syllable first name. In fact, most people I meet find it absolutely impossible to remember.****

“LET MY NAME NOT BE FORGOTTEN.” For my entire life, I had viewed my name as a mandate handed down from the larger-than-life, Mufasa-esque vision of my father that had been growing in my head for as long as I could remember. “MAKE YOUR MARK! BE SPECTACULAR! DON’T LET ANYONE FORGET THE DAY THAT THEY MET THE ONE AND ONLY AHAMEFULE J. OLUO!”

“Yes, cloud-dad. I won’t let you down.”

It is the name of a legend, it is the name of a star, it is the name of an artist. It is not the name of an accountant. So why did he give me this name if he had hoped I would do something sensible with my life? Ahamefule is not the name of a sensible man.

The question haunted me for years, and I had always thought that someday I would have the courage and the opportunity to ask my father about it, once and for all, face-to-face. But on the evening of February 21, 2006, I received a call from a Nigerian half-brother I had never met, informing me that our father had passed away at the age of 76 due to complications from diabetes.

For the whole piece, including a twisty discovery regarding the name Ahamefule, see The Stranger’s “My Father Is an African Immigrant and My Mother Is a White Girl from Kansas and I Am Not the President of the United States.”