How not to explain the QWERTY Effect

Cross-posted from my Facebook Page.

Andrew Sullivan today passes along a link to a study on the QWERTY Effect with a false, inane comment.

Here’s my reply to him:

These authors of the QWERTY Effect have identified a valid phenomenon, but they are utterly clueless as to the explanation (as I wrote the other day on my blog when I first read the report). Just think about it: does it make *any* sense at all that letter combinations on the right side of a keyboard are “easier to type” and therefore words that contain those letters have a more positive feeling? It’s preposterous.

It’s an utterly thoughtless hypothesis to explain something whose explanation would have been obvious if the authors had considered one shred of evidence from the study of sound symbolism or phonosemantics. (Google “sound symbolism” or Margaret Magnus, Ph.D., the MIT-educated linguist who demonstrated the essential validity of Plato’s sound symbolism hypothesis that’s 2,000 years old in her groundbreaking doctoral dissertation.)

Even if you only accept a weak version of the phonosemantic hypothesis and not a strong version (e.g., quasi-Platonic), it’s more than adequate to explain the QWERTY effect. There are more vowels on the right than the left, and vowels generally are more positive than consonants, with unrestricted airflow giving the sounds a more Divine quality according to sacred word traditions in various esoteric religious traditions.

The letters on the right hand side of the keyboard have sounds which happen to be associated with more positive affects (the soft, more precise, particular, and peculiar unvoiced labial “p,” on the right contrasted to the brutish, bawdy, and blasting sound of the voiced “b.” The words which are comprised of sounds carry an emotional or subtle resonance with the sound’s symbol — e.g., stopped consonants tending somewhat to refer more to endings and disruptions and glides tending to refer to sustained patterns.)

You don’t have to be a Kabbalist to see the ridiculousness of this paper’s explanation (although the Kabbalists know a lot more about sound than these scientists seemingly ignorant of the relevant literature).

I’m giving you, Andrew, a break because your post consisted in only one word — “Explained” — but it was a very poor choice of word.


Spirituality of the fantastic letter “F”


Let us take a hands-on exercise today in language mysticism. What, from Spirit’s point of view, is the F? WTF?

Pronounce the sound of the letter F — /f/, the voiceless labiodental fricative consonant — and feel the position of your body.

Feel into the rising jaw, the tightening front of the mouth, the friction of your upper teeth against your inner lower lip.

Feel into the turbulence of air pushed through your throat through your mouth.

Feel into the lack of vibration in your vocal chords (you may need to switch to pronouncing a V to become aware of their stillness.

Feel into the lack of vibration in your nasal cavity (you may need to pronounce a /?/ — as in the first syllable of the Spanish word influencia to become aware of the difference).

Experience the letter F with beginner’s mind. Feel what is happening, be the air pushed through the mouth.

Feel it all, be the sound waves spraying warmth into the cooler air outside.

Tai Hsuan Ching 010

Wheel of Spirit, "Fire." (Compare to "Fire" in the I Ching)

Is not the sound /f/ the energy of Yang, the energy of beginnings and frontness, pronounced as it is at the opening of the mouth? It is, I think, of the essence of Yang.

Is not /f/ also the energy of Yin, the energy of bringing together the teeth and lips slightly into the inner of the mouth, but not so far forward in the mouth as the labial consonants such as /b/ and /p/ Is not /f/ also inherently about connection, bringing the tongue, lip, and teeth together in harmony to produce a noise? Is it not like rubbing two sticks together to produce Fire?

Yes, F is Yang, but it is also Yin.

It is, I think, more Yang than Yin, when one considers the properties of the other consonants, and looks at the location of the speech organs relative to the entire mouth. That is, when you picture the mouth as a giant Sounding Cave of Spirit, the throat is in the direction of the back and center and the lips are at the outside edge and front.

If F is of a Yang essence and a Yin direction, can we not also add that /f/ may also be described as being in a Yang diposition? Along with /v/, /f/ is the only other common sound in English which is labio-dental, a mode of speech which takes the lips and teeth into war.

To summarize, we may say that:

  • /f/ is of a Yang essence
  • /f/ is of a Yin direction, and
  • /f/ is of a Yang disposition.

Of course, this isn’t the only way of describing the subtle energetics of the letter F. But at the least it is a reasonable and plausible model, I think.

By analogy, you might say that F is like how you start to tell a Fable to a child: you speak out loud, but in a kind way to a younger person, and with an intent to instruct.

By analogy, you might say that F is like how you start to have Faith: you reach out beyond yourself, transcending your limits; you reach out in a hostile, doubting way, but one which embraces; and you begin with a prideful, arrogant, stance. With faith there are always two things in tension (friction) with each other: the belief and the doubt.

By analogy, you might say that F is like how you end up, after many difficult trials, at last Safe: you have penetrated stillness into a new state, finding comfort and calm, and ultimately feeling capable of action. Although capable of action, your vocal chords and your nasal cavities are at rest, so you are still a bit excited but overall returning to a solid place.

Where is God REALLY? (or: explorations of the energy of vowels)


Photo Credit: Inssomnia-PHT

Where is God?

I repeat: Where is God?

Here’s one important way of answering the question, one anyone striving for an integral spiritual outlook ought to consider.

According to an article by Corey de Vos published on, Wilber and Brother David Steindl-Rast engaged in a dialogue on Integral Christianity in 2008. A key part of their discussion was to address “The Three Faces of God,” a way of approaching spiritual reality for all people (not just Christians).

This integral approach looks at God from three angles: 1st-person, 2nd-person, and 3rd-person. These angles correspond to the most common types of pronouns in most languages: “I,” “We/us,” and “It/its.” Each pronoun is aligned with a different perspective on God, one subjective, one intersubjective, and one objective.

de Vos writes:

God in 1st-person refers to the actual phenomenological experience of God, in the form of satori, kensho, ecstatic reverie, and other sorts of “peak experiences” of the divine. These are most frequently exercised through some form of contemplative practice, such as meditation or prayer, in which we can directly experience consciousness as the “singular to which the plural is unknown”—and the effortless, open awareness behind all of our experiences is recognized as the consciousness of God (or Godhead, as Christian mystics might prefer). In this space, all of our thoughts, emotions, and experiences, as well as the rest of the world around us, are simply and effortlessly witnessed, in much the same way that clouds float effortlessly through the infinite expanse of the sky. And that effortless expanse at the center of each and every moment IS God transcendent, looking at His/Her own immanence through each of our eyes…

My favorite image of God in the 1st person is the Hebrew tradition’s revelation that the name of God means “I AM.” In this illumination, God is not just something we talk about with 1st person pronouns. God dwells within the 1st-person pronoun in a special, unique way. And for the mystic, when we refer to ourselves in the 1st person (“I” in English), we are giving expression to the same divine spirit in God and within all things. There is even an integral practice called an “I AMness meditation” which directs our attention to this inner dimension of divinity.

de Vos continues:

God in 2nd-person is traditionally defined as the “I-Thou” relationship with the divine, where Spirit is experienced as a living intelligence that we can actually interact with in our own lives. As Ken often says, borrowing from renowned theologian Martin Buber, in the “I-Thou” relationship, God is the hyphen connecting the I and the Thou. And of course, our conceptions of God in 2nd-person evolve right alongside the rest of humanity, growing from magical animistic immersion, to the mythic “old bearded white man in the sky” interpretation, to rational and pluralistic recognitions of divinity within our families, communities, and humanity itself, to the simple intuition that we all exist within the unimaginable Mind of some Supreme Being, by whatever name…

This aspect to spirituality is the encounter of God not as an “I” or n “It,” but as a “You.” Relationships are the most meaningful part of existence for Martin Buber, and it is within our worldly relations that he most finds the essence of spirituality. And many types of devotional religion emphasize a personal relationship to a deity (for instance, the Christian evangelical faith’s focus on friendship with Jesus Christ).

de Vos continues:

God in 3rd-person is often described as the “great web-of-life,” and is frequently experienced when observing objects of miraculous beauty such as the Grand Canyon, exquisite music, transcendent art, or the mind-boggling elegance of deep-space photography. Many astronauts returning to Earth have experienced powerful states of transcendence triggered by simply looking at our planet floating in the vacuum of space, the sublime fragility and significance of the human condition clearly reflected in their retinas. As John Glenn said, “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible. It just strengthens my faith.”…

Fundamentalist and other traditional views of religion can fall into the trap of insisting that God is an “It” — something completely Other to the person and the world. And many people in progressive spiritual movements have adopted a sort of pantheistic or Nature-centered spiritual outlook which gets rid of the notion of an otherworldly God altogether and simply deifies this world alone, exclusive of any possible transcendent dimensions. Both views of God — the theist and the pantheist — are both focusing on the 3rd-person dimension of God in different ways.

The point of making all these distinctions is to help to ensure that nothing essential is missing in our understanding of spirituality. Anyone’s life is going to be more complete and integral if they are sure to include these three major dimensions.

That’s all well and good. BUT…Where is God REALLY?

In a series of forthcoming posts on Language Mystic, I want to present an experimental approach to this question a little different from anything you have ever heard before (except on the Language Mystic blog, naturally). And I invite you to look at the question “Where is God?” much differently and arrive, I hope, at an answer a little bit more inclusive, more full and rich. The view I will be proposing is noteworthy because if it is successful it will include all of the “Three Faces of God,” and transcend them in an interesting, useful, and elegant way.

This is a thought experiment and a sneak preview of some of my work in progress. You can be the judge of how successful it is.

My answer to the question “Where is God?” is to begin by (1) acknowledging that there are an infinite number of ways to answer; an infinite variety of perspectives and understandings and ways of communicating in relationship to the question. Let’s take this truth as a given, and then move along.

Personal Pronouns

Above: Wikipedia on Personal Pronouns in English

Let’s try to narrow the answer down beyond infinity. Specifically, let’s follow in the path suggested by Integral Theory and direct our attention to the perspectives opened up by personal pronouns. So,  as we can quickly see according to a chart from Wikipedia, (2) there are about 70 different pronouns in the English language alone. Every language works somewhat differently, but today we’ll just talk about English and expand the conversation in the future.

So there isn’t just an I, we, and it/its of God. There’s also a me of God, myself of God, mine of God, my of God, ourselves of God, ourself of God, ours of God, our of God, you of God, yourself of God, yours of God, your of God, and so on… about 70 major configurations.

In Ken Wilber’s philosophy, these 70 configurations can be said to correspond to perspectives. Let’s pause and think about this word.

According to, a perspective is:

1. a technique of depicting volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface. Compare aerial perspective, linear perspective. 2. a picture employing this technique, especially one in which it is prominent: an architect’s perspective of a house. 3. a visible scene, especially one extending to a distance; vista: a perspective on the main axis of an estate. 4. the state of existing in space before the eye: The elevations look all right, but the building’s composition is a failure in perspective. 5. the state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one, etc., in having a meaningful interrelationship.

So while pronouns are in reality very diverse (more than 70 in English) and somewhat variable from culture to culture, it’s not obvious to me why it is that simply by using a pronoun we are actually drawing a perspective.  Sure, that’s one possible metaphor for looking at the ideas that may be formed at some point after the pronoun has been used in a sentence to produce an understanding about something. But why does simply using a pronoun open a perspective, as lifting a window pane opens a window?

More obviously, what using a pronoun literally does — when the pronoun is spoken as opposed to written or read — is re-position the speech organs (lips, tongue, larnyx, etc.)

Let’s put it a bit differently: pronoun use is fundamentally about adjusting the relative positioning of air and the speech organs. Pronouns are about shifting the relationship between air — representing Spirit — and the speech organs — representing the human body, quite literally.

So let’s answer the question “Where is God?” by speaking the answer out loud as opposed to thinking or writing silently, because there’s an important difference. Now, before you take a single perspective, you are taking a new posture/position in your body.

And so (3) we can narrow down our possible approaches even further by looking at the simplest, most fundamental postures that it is possible to take with your body. We notice firstly that there aren’t just 70 different spelt words, but 70 different unique sound patterns.

Now take a small step with me on faith here. What I am going to suggest may not be obvious (though I believe it is intuitive), but it is a useful approach and it does work. Let’s ignore the consonants in those sound patterns and inquire only about the distinct vowel postures that it is possible to take while pronouncing a pronoun.

As you will see in another chart from Wikipedia, linguists at the International Phonetic Association (IPA) have analyzed the patterns of speech production for vowels and deduced that there are about a dozen major positions that the mouth can be in when uttering a vowel sound. (Notice the 11 dots in the diagram — those are the major vocal postures, plus the schwa sound in the middle and a few others. Double these numbers by accounting for rounded versus unrounded vowels.)

IPA Vowels

Vowels (International Phonetic Alphabet)

Not all of these dozen vowels are created equal. In fact, there are exactly three which have a special biological significance: they are the sounds pronounced when the tongue is at an extreme position in the mouth (sometimes called cardinal vowels). When drawn on paper at the locations in the mouth where the sounds begin, these three vowels form a triangle. Moreover, there is a fourth vowel which stands apart from them at the far bottom corner of the mouth, which when drawn on the same diagram forms a kite-shaped polygon.

So there are four very interesting vowels which represent primordial, extreme sounds based on the kinesthetics of speech. If the mouth is imagined to be a cosmology (or Kosmic Map if you will), these are the four Dragons standing at the Four Gates of the Four Directions of the Universe. These vowels are: a (the open front vowel), i (the close front vowel), u (the close back vowel), and ɑ (the open back vowel).

Let’s adjust the list of vowels in one small way. In English, the vowel a is very rare (not appearing once in a list of the top 100 most common words, except as the first part of the dipthong ). In fact, many English speakers can’t tell the difference between a and ɑ. Therefore, let’s use to represent the open front vowel.

Essentially, what we have here is the notion that there are not just three prime perspectives that we can take on God; there are four cardinal positions that our body can enter in order to transform air (emptiness) into God, and out into the universe. These are:

  1. aɪ, as in the “I” of God,
  2. i, as in the “me,” “he,” “she,” and “we” of God,
  3. u, as in the “you” or “who” of God, and
  4. ɑ, as in the “y’all” of God.

As we will see as we continue our investigation into “Where is God REALLY?” it is not really the case that these four cardinal postures of God represent or symbolize the Three Faces of God or the Four Quadrants of Integral Theory.

If I am on to something profound, as I think I am, then the Four Cardinal Postures of God are primordial; it is the Three Faces and Four Quadrants models which are cognitive maps overlaid upon the more physically grounded postures. (Not that I’m denying that the The Four Cardinal Postures are constructs; I’m only asserting that they are more primordial, more kinesthetic.)

These four postures are truly universals, and at the grounding of phonosemantic (sound symbolic) universes in every natural language. The perspectives, the quadrants of Integral Theory, and the Faces of God all live in the body. And we don’t just passively think about them, discovering them as Platonic Ideals floating above our heads; we generate them with every act of speech, chant, or song.

We can feel into the Four Positions more deeply than we can think about integral quadrants.

We can feel into the Four Positions more deeply than we can look at the integral faces of God.

Where is God REALLY?

We can approach all spiritual realities from four primordial postures: the opening front posture (aɪ), the closing front posture (i), the closing back posture (u), and the opening back posture (ɑ). God not only looks different when we are in one of these postures, we are in God in a different way, feeling, breathing, and giving voice to the Word of God in different ways. We’re not just seeing or drawing perspectives about God; we are generating the essence of God through the breath of life.

Before our mind takes a perspective, our body takes a position. In a special way, God is in the vowels.

Help me develop the approach to spirituality sketched in this article. Your feedback and ideas are welcome.

Help me develop the approach to spirituality sketched in this article. Your feedback and ideas are welcome.

Can language change biology?

Amazon Tribe

Photo Credit: pierre pouliquin

Cultural differences, including language, may be a possible driver of biological evolution, research implies. An article in Discover Magazine reports on research involving the Xavánte, an Amazon aboriginal tribe, and concludes:

Hostile neighbors still tend to exchange genes (e.g., kidnapping of women for brides, or slaves which are eventually assimilated into the enslaving tribe). Only a small amount of gene flow is necessary to prevent the accumulation of group-level differences. So you need strong between group selection to maintain those differences. In contrast, cultural differences can easily manifest in large between group variation, and little within group variation. An accent is the most obvious illustration. A tribe can easily have a distinctive accent which immediately separates it from its neighbors, and only manifests modest within group variation (e.g., along generational lines). The model posited here is that these between group cultural differences are powerful enough to driven biological differences. Are they? I am not sure that they are at this fine a scale, but am open to the proposition.

via Culture evolves our bodies! | Gene Expression.

Languages love multiple meanings like a dog loves to grip a Frisbee

Dog with frisbee

Photo Credit: Reina Cañí

Sometimes I wonder why I (more than occasionally) read Language Log. In a lengthy post ostensibly on the word “draft,” Mark Liberman offers a memorable simile for people who like etymology.

He writes:

[H]umans who love to explore etymology are like dogs avidly smelling the crap that other dogs have rubbed into their fur.

By way of explanation, he quotes Tom Davis’s book Why Dogs Do That:

There are couple of theories, by no means mutually exclusive, that explain why dogs take such obvious and unabashed delight in rolling in stuff that makes us gag: excrement, carrion (the older and fouler, the better), anything and everything that is rotten, putrid and deliquescent. And they don’t just roll in it; wriggling joyfully on their backs, they do their damnedest to smear it around and rub it in. The specific hypothesis suggest that dogs roll in stinky stuff to mask their own scent, and thus gain an edge over prey species […] (Contemporary human deer hunters do much the same thing when dousing their clothing with various bottled scents.)

The other theory, more general in application, holds that it’s a way for a dog to tell other dogs where they’ve been and what they found there. A dog streaked with excrescence is viewed by his brethren as a storyteller, and canine society hold storytellers in high esteem.

Much as I find Liberman’s simile, um, interesting, I think he runs far afield of the essential point about polysemy — the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase — in language. He begins by wondering if, as Geoff Pullum says, languages love multiple meanings like a dog rolling around in fresh grass. But then he gets lost, well, maybe like a dog who rolls around in mud or feces, shifting from a discussion of the preoccupations of language to the preoccupations of etymologists.

The pleasure of etymologists in relishing ambiguity is pretty carnal and passionate. Language, however, is dispassionate regarding polysemy.

From a cultural evolutionary perspective, polysemy varies from time to time, place to place…and it is not altogether clear whether it is an evolutionary necessity or artifact.

If we spiritual evolutionaries are correct in our belief that language is evolving into greater degrees of congruity and uniformity with underlying subtle principles, then polysemy may increasingly fade as it becomes less efficient or useful for the sorts of communication becoming increasingly important in the 21st century and beyond. I can’t say for sure if decreasing polysemy is an evolutionary by-product, but it would at the very least be a worthy subject of linguistic research.

In that case, languages embrace multiple meanings according to their usefulness at any given stage in evolution. Languages love to be helpful. They hold multiple meanings like a dog clutches a Frisbee in her teeth, gripping them so long as it is fun and stimulating…but eventually the stress becomes exhausting.

On Chinese phonosemantics (or: why does “cop” mean the same thing in many unrelated languages?)


It’s always interesting to read articles on phonosemantics and related fields when they come out, especially one that examines a language that I don’t read. Linguist Victor Mair looks at a few recent efforts to identify the underlying phonosemantic patterns in the Chinese language, including this one:

William Rozycki has written a stimulating article (“Phonosymbolism and the Verb cop”) in which he attempts to show that various presumably unrelated languages around the world have independently chosen the syllable kap, or some close variant thereof, to convey the following meanings: “take, grasp, grab, seize, capture”. He is able to cite an impressive amount of evidence in favor of his contention.

Rozycki explicitly states that he makes no claim for the universality of phonosymbolism, yet the manner in which he presents his argument leads him to come dangerously close to making such an assertion. Here is the distillation of his thesis:


I will present both historic and areal evidence that a tendency or force is at work in the connection of the phonetic shape [kap] and the semantic range of ‘catch, seize, snatch.’ Like suprasegmentals in relation to the workings of phonology, this phonosymbolic force is another dimension, not yet clearly understood, that exerts influence on the process of word formation.

Rozycki, William. “Phonosymbolism and the Verb cop.” Journal of English Linguistics, 25.3 (September, 1997), 202-206.

and this one:

Below are Howell’s big picture conclusions about Proto-Chinese.

The language is phonosemantic in nature.

Seven concepts (Frame, Continuum, Concealment, Supple, Spread, Small / Slender, Straight) generated all its terms excepting onomatopoeia and a handful of loan words. Each concept corresponds to an initial consonant (K L M N P S and T, respectively). When secondary concepts (Extend; Encompass, Adhere / be proximate; Press; Continuum; Cut / Divide / Reduce) were to be conveyed, this function was performed by the consonant within the final (-NG -M -N -P -R and -T respectively).

The y?nf?? (“sound note”) in xngsh?ng z ???(“phono-semantic compounds”) was intended to suggest not only the character’s pronunciation but also its meaning, again with the exception of onomatopoeia and loan words.

All compound characters created in Proto-Chinese that traditionally have been assigned to the huy z ???(ideogrammic compounds) category were devised as phono-semantic compounds (???). Apparent anomalies in compound characters owe to 1) transposed, abbreviated or otherwise altered elements, 2) sound notes the independent character forms of which dropped out of use, and 3) pronunciation changes owing to consonant shifts in either the initial or the final.

Consonant shifts in derived terms, occurring in both the initials and the finals, correspond to shifts in meaning, and these follow the conceptual associations noted above….

[Victor Mair's critique of the thesis omitted; see original site.]

Howell considers his phonosemantics to be a type of phonosymbolism, but I believe that his system is far more comprehensive in its scope and has been developed with greater attention to the specifics of the Chinese writing system. Nonetheless, for the reasons outlined above, I am not convinced that the Howell-Morimoto scheme can explain the origins and development of the Old Sinitic lexicon.

For those who might wish to judge for themselves, Howell’s data (as noted at the outset) may be accessed online (no charge); they are also available through the site in book form as Kanji Etymology….

via Phonosymbolism and Phonosemantics in Chinese.

Cards on the table. I’m a sort of universal Kabbalist. My own philosophical/mystical presupposition informs me that OF COURSE there must be phonosemantic connections in Chinese and in every language under the sun because God/Spirit emanates through all languages in patterns that are inherently meaningful and evolving (not random chance).

However, the state of academic knowledge about what those patterns are, and how buried they are, and an understanding of how much they can be identified and reconstructed at all, is embryonic.

That these connections exist to a certain degree is perfectly clear from what limited cross-cultural phonosemantic research has been done; it’s the “how much is this true?” and the “so what if it is true?” questions that are most perplexing.

Robot study gives clues to evolution of language

Robot Communication

Language evolution may be driven by mutations designed to increase the robustness of survival, a study reports:

Even if everything about different groups of animals is identical down to the level of their genes and physical surroundings, they can develop unique ways to communicate, according to an experiment done with robots that use flashing lights to “talk.”

The Swiss researchers used the robots to get handle on why there is such diversity in communication systems within and between species, something that is difficult to do in living animals.

The answer, they found, “is contingencies in evolutionary history, i.e. stochasticity (randomness) in the occurrence order of new … traits,” Steffen Wischmann, a researcher in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Lausanne, told me in an email….

In other words, there’s a tradeoff between communication efficiency and competitive robustness, the researchers note. And, randomness in evolutionary history can affect the outcome of competition between populations.

via Future of Technology (MSNBC).

A perfectly efficient language will never evolve, one might speculate, because efficiency is just one among many variables to have an impact on species survival.

Jeff Carreira on self and language

Jeff Carriera

On the Evolutionary Collective blog, Jeff Carreira writes:

We are all trapped in a self-image a set of ideas that we identify with as who we are. If you want to discover radical freedom then you have to look closely at what choices you are making that are causing you to have the identity that you are experiencing right now. It has been my experience that the key to discovering the mechanism of self-construction is recognizing that there are two kinds of thoughts….

Consider these two thoughts, I could have Mexican food. vs. I want Mexican food. The second is much more laden with identity. It is infused with selfhood. The first one we simply relate to as a thought to be considered. The second one we relate to as a statement about ourselves, from ourselves, telling us who we are. If you examine how we construct our sense of self you will find that it is constructed with thoughts just like, I want Mexican food. I am a mother. I am a good person. I am a person who does this and not that.. and on and on and on. Our self is constructed by a never-ending string of conclusions that appear in our minds as statements directed toward us telling us who we are and who we are not.

via Self, Reality, Truth and Language  Part II.

True. And behind “I want…” and “I could have…” constructions is the same pronoun, I, which exerts its power over all language speakers (i.e., the first-person pronoun in whatever language).

Carriera continues:

This realization [of linguistic conditioning] is part of the dawning of enlightenment. It is the realization that there is a whole classification of thought that we have unknowingly and blindly accepted as accurate descriptions of who we are. This is what spiritual ignorance is the unconscious belief that a certain set of unexamined ideas defines the limit of who we are.

Indeed, coming into greater awareness of linguistic conditioning is the essence of a certain sort of enlightenment: a lifting of one’s exclusive identification of self with the ego. In terms of World Spirituality, it’s the raising of consciousness from personal self to True Self.

And yet there is a further realization, in the work of Marc Gafni, in which language is not seen as a barrier to enlightenment but a gateway. At a higher plane of awareness than True Self, there is Unique Self: the True Self as embodied through a particular (linguistic) perspective.

From the Unique Self view, “I want Mexican food” can be a full and completely enlightened utterance, if the “I” refers not the personal self but to the Unique Self, a non-dual way of being in the world in which the Self is fully inhabited at its most expansive point.

Monkey faces and the evolution of language

Monkey Face

Photo Credit: 10000 wishes

A secret to the evolution of language may be found in the face of a monkey. A report on io9 explains:

New World Monkeys are the strangest-looking primates on Earth and they all look nothing like each other, from the bald-headed, demon-like Uakari to the lion-maned golden marmoset to the massively mustachioed emperor tamarin up top. What’s behind this insane variety?

That’s the question UCLA researcher Michael Alfaro set out to answer that question. The monkeys of Central and South America represent a truly staggering amount of facial diversity, with many species like the emperor tamarin sporting truly epic facial hair. But it’s unlikely that all these monkeys evolved such bizarre appearances just to amuse us so what’s really going on here?

Alfaro and his team realized the monkeys’ faces weren’t the only thing that had unusually strong variation. The social structure of the different species also varied greatly, with some living almost completely solitary existences while others lived in huge populations of a hundred or more….

They discovered that the monkeys with the most complex faces tended to live by themselves, while those who lived in groups tended to have plain faces. Another factor behind facial diversity seems to be the proximity of other species. When lots of different monkey species live in close quarters, they will tend to have much more complicated faces than more isolated species.

The study has implications for understanding language, the report continues:

Our species, generally speaking, has quite simple, bare faces, and of course we’ve also evolved what is arguably the most sophisticated system of communication in our planet’s history. Language itself might never have emerged if we were lion-maned or hugely-mustached or even polka-dotted basically, anything that would have kept our ancestors from producing crisp, clear facial expressions.

via Why are monkeys’ faces all so bizarrely different?.

Food for thought:

As language continues to evolve, will the human face change too? It seems inevitable.

As human beings grow in consciousness to expanded awareness of linguistic constructs, how will this affect the evolution of the new languages, body language, facial expressions, and even the body itself?

On the non-arbitrary relationship between name and occupation


Photo Credit: hans s

Your name is probably connected to your life’s occupation. Precisely why that is so is the subject of controversy and research.

Jessica Love writes in The American Scholar:

Cleverly designed experiments reveal a so-called baker-Baker paradox: we find it easier to learn that a particular face belongs to a baker than to learn that the same face belongs to a Mr. Baker. The word baker actually means something in a way Mr. Baker does not. Bakers wake up early, tie on their aprons, and bake. This preexisting knowledge constitutes something sturdy to which new associations can be bound. As for Mr. Baker, well we might suppose that he is male and, likelier than not, has an Anglo-Saxton ancestor.

The baker-Baker paradox has two caveats. First, we are considerably better at remembering names if we have assigned them ourselves. This is probably because the relationship between name and person is no longer arbitrary. We may see someone across the room and assign her the name Veronica because she reminds us of someone else named Veronica. This is no different than calling a fluffy creature Fluffy. If only we had more opportunities in life to name other human beings.

But caveat two is of more practical importance: to some extent, our names may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The very arbitrariness of Mr. Baker’s name, for instance, might land him a job. A number of studies have demonstrated that having certain names particularly those that sound ethnic or lower-class (and thus contain demographic information that makes them, well, less than arbitrary to many employers) will hurt job seekers chances of landing an interview. According to economist David Figlio of Northwestern University, a girl whose name sounds more feminine (as determined by a longer length and greater frequency of soft consonants) is less likely to study science than her twin sister with a less feminine-sounding name.

via The American Scholar: When Rosemary Should Be Rosy and Merry – Jessica Love.

One of the blog post’s commenters suggests “priming” as the key explanation:

Extensive research has gone into what psychologists call ‘priming.’ For example, in one study college students were called into a professor’s office and asked to read one of two articles. One article contained words such as ‘old’, ‘grey’, ‘Florida’, etc. (words associated with old age). The other contained words like ‘young’, ‘quick’, etc. (words associated with youth). Students were video recorded entering and leaving the office and their walking speed was recorded. Students who were made to read the ‘old’ article were statistically likelier to walk slower upon exiting while those who read the ‘young’ article walked faster.

The point is not that reading one article or the other permanently changed their character and mannerisms; rather, you are ‘primed’ to behave in a certain way based on cues that you receive from the environment, even if you don’t consciously notice them. The effects are very temporary.

It’s understandable that scholars are grounding their research into empirical investigations likely to pass muster with other language scientists. And yet something “magical” about the connection between the Word and the Work seems to lurk just under the surface of the article, a ghost as it were.

The fact that personal names are generally non-arbitrary when they are given to babies and that they have been handed down for thousands of years are not disputable. But the notion that the first names were thought to be handed down by God or the gods, and thus of sacred and divine origin, is not mentioned.

Kabbala and other sacred word traditions see the Name as revealing not merely of personality types or social characteristics but of a person’s relationship to the ultimate reality. Many ancient traditions of numerology have sought to apply insights into Name for spiritual edification.

The Name itself is seen as having a “power” to help to create reality. Is there room for this notion today in the investigation of language’s significance? A more integral and holistic semiotics must make room for pre-rational, rational, and trans-rational methodologies of research capable of providing illumination.

In a trans-rational view, perhaps a person finding herself gifted with the name “Baker” may be someone tasked by God to understand her life’s vocation in relationship to the metaphor of baking: applying a fiery energy indirectly rather than directly, creating incubators capable of transforming raw ingredients into nourishing and healing food for the spirit. Our names may give us sacred wisdom for living, not merely subconscious Pavlovian responses to stimuli.