Category Archives: The Science of Language

Pariah Words

The fifth annual “day of awareness” was held recently, in a national campaign to stop the use of the word “retarded” and its variants. As a medical label for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the R-word used to be neutral, clinical, incapable of giving offense. But words are mere vessels for meaning, and this one has long since been put to other uses.

via A Word Gone Wrong – NYTimes.com.

I find this debate utterly fascinating.

I don’t have strong feelings about the word “retarded” one way or the other. A lot of people have said, “Hey, please don’t use that word just willy-nilly; we find it insulting.” And my response is, “Okie dokie!” Same thing with “midget”, which the Little Peoples’ Association has very politely asked that we avoid using to describe people of short stature. No problem; have a nice day.

What’s fascinating about the word “retarded” is not clearly stated in the article, and it is this:  the word “retarded” has been retired from clinical applications. As of this May, when the 5th editon of the  Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V) comes out, people will no longer be diagnosed with “mental retardation”. There has been a debate over what term will be used instead: “intellectual disability” or “intellectual developmental disorder” are the contenders. But either way, nobody is “retarded”.

Technically, there are other legitimate uses for the word: one might say that one’s profits had been retarded by the budget debated. Except one wouldn’t, would one? English having one of the largest vocabularies in the world (oo-er!) and “retarded” being the charged little number that it is, one would be much more likely to steer clear. It’s still scientifically valid to talk about “retarded growth”, I think, but the word “growth” has to be in or around there: it is most definitely a compound.

And of course, calling people “retarded,” whether they have a disability or not, is simply not ok. As many organizations for the disabled have argued, using it as an insult perpetuates the common representation of intellectual disability as pathetic or repellant.

So… the word “retarded” has no official medical use. And it has largely moved out of use in other fields because of its now-taboo common usages.

And here’s the question:

How is a word forcibly removed from a language?

Some words just fall out of usage because they are ridiculous. Thee and thou? Yeah, people just started feeling like goobers saying thee and thou, so they stopped. (Yes, yes, I know it’s more complicated than that. Shut up: my blog, my rules.) But when a word becomes, quite suddenly, meaningless?

It happened in my area in the late 80s/early 90s, with certain uses of the word “rubber.”  When AIDS education picked up, the word became “condom”. Now, before that, any other uses of the word “rubber” had become too charged to bother with. Tell someone you’re putting on your rubbers (galoshes) or use the word in reference to a flat, pink eraser and you’d earn yourself a nice chorus of Beavis and Butthead: “Heh… heh heh… she said ‘rubber’!”

Just as with “retarded,” “rubber” persisted in compound uses: “rubber tree,” “rubber boots” (rain boots, aka gum boots), “rubber band,” etc. But in common parlance, “rubber” came to mean ONLY condom. Until people started saying “condom” ONLY — and then what? Well, then did “rubber” join the shoddy, haggard company of the Pariah Words that roam the earth. And that is never good:

“I am a Word. Hath not a Word letters? Hath not a Word vowels,
consonants, syllables, pronunciations; spoken with the same
mouths, written with the same pens, subject to the same grammatical rules,
bludgeoned by the same accents as any other Word is? If you misspell us, do we not grate? If
you capitalize us, do we not YELL? If you reframe us in a negative connotation, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that.”

What does revenge look like for a word? It’s not pretty, I’ll tell you that: language is tenacious.  I’m not saying we should be using a word that people find insulting. I’m just saying don’t be too surprised the next time you mean to text “bug spray” and it mysteriously autocorrects to “buggery.”

 

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Filed under The History of Language, The Politics of Language, The Power of Language, The Science of Language

“It would have been truly spectacular if they had wound up with a talking mouse.”

A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks – NYTimes.com

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have now genetically engineered a strain of mice whose FOXP2 gene (identified in 1998 as the human gene for language) has been swapped out for the human version. Svante Paabo, in whose laboratory the mouse was engineered, promised several years ago that when the project was completed, “We will speak to the mouse.” He did not promise that the mouse would say anything in reply, doubtless because a great many genes must have undergone evolutionary change to endow people with the faculty of language, and the new mouse was gaining only one of them. So it is perhaps surprising that possession of the human version of FOXP2 does in fact change the sounds that mice use to communicate with other mice, as well as other aspects of brain function.

via A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks – NYTimes.com.

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Filed under Nerd Candy, The Science of Language

Exactly how many words do you, you know, like, NEED?

The 100 most-used words in the English language make up 50% of all written material. Twenty-five nouns, twenty-five verbs, twenty-six adjectives and fourteen prepositions grant you an astounding command of the language.

good words (right order) » Use Words As If You Were Paying For Them.

And what are these magical words?

Nouns

1.      person

2.     year

3.     way

4.     day

5.     thing

6.     man

7.     world

8.     life

9.     hand

10.part

11.   child

12.  eye

13.  woman

14.  place

15.  work

16.  week

17.  case

18.  point

19.  government

20.company

21.  number

22.group

23.problem

24.fact

Verbs

1.      be

2.     have

3.     do

4.     say

5.     get

6.     make

7.     go

8.     know

9.     take

10.see

11.   come

12.  think

13.  look

14.  want

15.  give

16.  use

17.  find

18.  tell

19.  ask

20.work

21.  seem

22.feel

23.try

24.leave

25.call

Adjectives

1.      good

2.     new

3.     first

4.     last

5.     long

6.     great

7.     little

8.     own

9.     other

10.old

11.   right

12.  big

13.  high

14.  different

15.  small

16.  large

17.  next

18.  early

19.  young

20.important

21.  few

22.public

23.bad

24.same

25.able

26.many

Prepositions

1.      to

2.     of

3.     in

4.     for

5.     on

6.     with

7.     at

8.     by

9.     from

10.up

11.   about

12.  into

13.  over

14.  after

15.  beneath

16.  under

17.  above

 NOW the question is: what percentage of that 50% is worth reading?

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Filed under Fancy Words, The Science of Language

Why Computers Still Can’t Translate Languages Automatically — Slate

Recently, on the eighth floor of an office building in Arlington, Va., Rachael held her finger down on a Dell Streak touchscreen and asked Aziz whether he knew the village elder. The handheld tablet beeped as if imitating R2-D2 and then said what sounded like, “Aya tai ahili che dev kali musha.”

The software running on the tablet was the culmination of TransTac, a five-year effort run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create a system for “speech to speech” translation…. [TransTac] set out to do something very hard: getting a computer to listen to a person speak in one language, translate that speech into another language, and pronounce it aloud. The dream of using computers to translate human language goes back to the very early days of computing, when computers still used vacuum tubes. But it has consistently proved elusive.

via DARPA’s TransTac, BOLT, and other machine translation programs search for meaning. – Slate Magazine.

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Filed under Extra! Extra!, The Science of Language

Why Computers Still Can’t Translate Languages Automatically – Slate Magazine

Recently, on the eighth floor of an office building in Arlington, Va., Rachael held her finger down on a Dell Streak touchscreen and asked Aziz whether he knew the village elder. The handheld tablet beeped as if imitating R2-D2 and then said what sounded like, “Aya tai ahili che dev kali musha.”

The software running on the tablet was the culmination of TransTac, a five-year effort run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create a system for “speech to speech” translation…. [TransTac] set out to do something very hard: getting a computer to listen to a person speak in one language, translate that speech into another language, and pronounce it aloud. The dream of using computers to translate human language goes back to the very early days of computing, when computers still used vacuum tubes. But it has consistently proved elusive.

via DARPA’s TransTac, BOLT, and other machine translation programs search for meaning. – Slate Magazine.

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Filed under Extra! Extra!, The Science of Language

Negative Words Can Be Shut Out Unconsciously | Psych Central News

Our brains can unconsciously decide to withhold negative information, according to new work by psychologists at Bangor University in the U.K.

Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, the psychologists discovered the unconscious process during their work with bilingual people.

Building on a previous discovery — that bilingual people subconsciously access their first language when reading in their second language — the psychologists found that the brain similarly shuts down when faced with a negative word, such as war, discomfort, and unfortunate.

“We think this is a protective mechanism,” added co-researcher Guillaume Thierry, Ph.D. “We know that in trauma, for example, people behave very differently. Surface conscious processes are modulated by a deeper emotional system in the brain. Perhaps this brain mechanism spontaneously minimizes the negative impact of disturbing emotional content on our thinking, to prevent causing anxiety or mental discomfort.”The researchers said they were surprised by the finding.“We were expecting to find modulation between the different words and perhaps a heightened reaction to the emotional word, but what we found was the exact opposite to what we expected — a cancellation of the response to the negative words,” Thierry said.

via Negative Words Can Be Shut Out Unconsciously | Psych Central News.

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Filed under The Science of Language

Caltech scientist discovers worms have their own language – SGVTribune.com

via Caltech scientist discovers worms have their own language – SGVTribune.com.

Humans looking for love might need to practice their pickup lines. But how’s a worm without vocal cords supposed to find a foxy date?

It turns out, all a worm’s got to do to get lucky is sweat a little.

They might lack the ability to use words, but worms have a language all their own – an assortment of 150 or chemical pheromones they secrete from their skin to express themselves.

“One chemical means `Hey there’s a lot of us around.’ Another would be `Hey I’m a female, come over,”‘ said Paul Sternberg, a Caltech researcher who has been studying the wriggly creatures.

Sternberg, a 25-year veteran of Caltech, said he began studying nematodes – a group of smallish roundworms – as a graduate student.

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So maybe — and I’m just guessing here —  “Hey, I’m a female, come over!” isn’t something the guy heard an awful lot back in the day.

Now, of course, he’s studly enough to pose with a five-foot stuffed worm —  blessed are the geeks, for they shall  inherit the earth.

“I’m really fascinated by the idea that there are worms eavesdropping on each other,” [Sternberg] said.

Um… ok, possibly not.

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Filed under Extra! Extra!, The Science of Language