Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘language’

11 OCTOBER, 2011

What Translation Reveals about the Human Condition

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How to get a tarantula off your southwest leg, or what Astérix has to do with religion and the Manhattan grid.

Language is one of the most fascinating technologies, a human invention so central to our social function and very survival it’s practically indistinguishable from life itself. Yet languages are incredibly intricate, complicated, culture-specific organisms, and much of their delicate complexity can get lost in translation. In Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, a fine new addition to our five favorite books on language, translator, biographer, and Princeton professor David Bellos explores the mystery of how we come to understand what someone else means, using translation as a lens on empathy in the human experience. Intelligent, entertaining, and brimming with delightful, surprising factoids, it’s a cross-disciplinary lens that spans from the evolution of written language to Astérix cartoons and a wealth in between, revealing how translation shaped everything from the propagation of religion to the literary legacy of famous authors.

The practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different: we speak different tongues, and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same—that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist. Nor could anything we would like to call social life. Translation is another name for the human condition.”

~ David Bellos

This charming kinetic typography trailer by Matt Young, full of fascinating trivia-worthy bites of knowledge, is the ultimate cherry on top, and an instant addition to our favorite book trailers:

From what Manhattanese has in common with the Kuuk Thaayorre language of South Australia to why we don’t have a word for all things with chrome handlebars, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything dances across linguistic fascination, cultural history, and pure wit to deliver a unique meditation on mankind’s ever-evolving tango with global communication.

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03 OCTOBER, 2011

People Who Became Nouns: The Music Video

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Boycott, Maverick, Guillotine, Shrapnel, Cardigan, Sandwich, Silhouette, Zeppelin, Leotard, Lamborghini.

Finding your name in the dictionary as a noun is a sure-fire litmus test for having made a impact on culture and history. Just look at OED-approved fine folks like Charles Boycott, Samuel Maverick, Joseph-Ignace Guillotine, Henry Shrapnel, and Lord Cardigan. But there are unsuspected downsides to being reduced to a noun — just ask suffragette and women’s rights pioneer Amelia Bloomer, now equated with a baggy pair of women’s underpants.

Now, thanks to NPR‘s Robert Krulwich and Adam Cole, there’s a delightful music video about them.

Semi-relatedly, this reminded me of a lovely illustrated children’s book called If You Were a Noun.

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21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Culturomics: What We Can Learn from 5 Million Books

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How to put your “beft” foot forward, or what the algorithm of censorship has to do with 1950.

We’ve already established that we could learn a remarkable amount about language from these 5 essential books, but imagine what we could learn from 5 million books. In this excellent talk from TEDxBoston, Harvard scientists Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden reveal fascinating insights from their computational tool that inspired Google Labs’ addictive NGram Viewer, which pulls from a database of 500 billion words and ideas culled from 5 million books across many centuries, 12% of the books that have ever been published.

They call their approach Culturomics — “the application of massive scale data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.” From advising you on the best career choices for early success to figuring out when an artist is being censored to proving that we’re forgetting the past exponentially more quickly than ever before, the data speaks volumes when queried with intelligence and curiosity.

[The database pulls from] a collection of 5 million books. 500 billion words. A string of characters a thousand times longer than the human genome. A text which, when written out, would stretch from here to the moon and back ten times over. A veritable shard of our cultural genome.”

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