Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

27 SEPTEMBER, 2013

What Elvish, Klingon, and Dothraki Reveal about Real Language & the Essence of Human Communication

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Why a good language, like a good life, requires both rules and messiness.

Language, Darwin believed, was not a conscious invention but a phenomenon “slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps.” But what makes a language a language? In this short animation from TED Ed, linguist John McWhorter, author of the indispensable The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (public library), explores the fascinating world of fantasy constructed languages — known as conlangs — from Game of Thrones’ Dothraki to Avatar’s Na’vi to Star Trek’s Klingon to Lord of the Rings’ Elvish. Though fictional, these conlangs reveal a great deal about the fundamentals of real human communication and help us understand the essential components of a successful language — extensive vocabulary, consistent grammar rules but peppered with exceptions, and just the right amount of room for messiness and evolution.

We can see the difference between vocabulary alone and what makes a real language from a look at how Tolkien put together grand old Elvish, a conlang with several thousand words. After all, you can memorize 5,000 words of Russian and still be barely able to construct a sentence — a 4-year-old would talk rings around you. That’s because you have to know how to put the words together — that is, a real language has grammar; Elvish does. … Real languages also change over time — there’s no such thing as a language that’s the same today as it was 1,000 years ago: As people speak, they drift into new habits, shed old ones, make mistakes, and get creative. … Real languages are messy — that’s because they change, and change has a way of working against order. … Real languages are never perfectly logical — that’s why Tolkien made sure Elvish had plenty of exceptions.

Complement with this illustrated vintage guide to the science of language and the fascinating story of how Darwin shaped our understanding of why language exists.

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12 JUNE, 2013

Horizontal vs. Vertical Identity and How Love Both Changes Us and Makes Us More Ourselves

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“I do not accept subtractive models of love, only additive ones.”

It’s been said that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” But the opposite is also true — we blossom into who we are under the warming light of the love that surrounds us.

This beautiful osmosis is precisely what Andrew Solomon explores in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (public library) — a fascinating and deeply moving meditation on our evolving definitions of family, our diverse dispositions toward parenthood, the enduring ideals of motherhood and fatherhood, and, perhaps above all, how the freedom of identity unites us in our differences.

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children,” legendary psychoanalyst Carl Jung famously asserted, “than the unlived lives of the parents.” And, indeed, the propensity for projection in parents who want to see in their children better or unfulfilled versions of themselves, Solomon argues, is a dangerous byproduct of our selfish genes:

In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination. … [But] our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children; the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis.

Solomon goes on to differentiate between vertical, or directly inherited, and horizontal, or independently divergent, identity:

Because of the transmission of identity from one generation to the next, most children share at least some traits with their parents. These are vertical identities. Attributes and values are passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms. Ethnicity, for example, is a vertical identity. Children of color are in general born to parents of color; the genetic fact of skin pigmentation is transmitted across generations along with a self-image as a person of color, even though that self-image may be subject to generational flux. Language is usually vertical, since most people who speak Greek raise their children to speak Greek, too, even if they inflect it differently or speak another language much of the time. Religion is moderately vertical: Catholic parents will tend to bring up Catholic children, though the children may turn irreligious or convert to another faith. Nationality is vertical, except for immigrants. Blondness and myopia are often transmitted from parent to child, but in most cases do not form a significant basis for identity— blondness because it is fairly insignificant, and myopia because it is easily corrected.

Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity. Such horizontal identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors. Being gay is a horizontal identity; most gay kids are born to straight parents, and while their sexuality is not determined by their peers, they learn gay identity by observing and participating in a subculture outside the family. Physical disability tends to be horizontal, as does genius. Psychopathy, too, is often horizontal; most criminals are not raised by mobsters and must invent their own treachery. So are conditions such as autism and intellectual disability.

But Solomon wasn’t moved to consider these intricate issues until he had first-hand contact with a particular horizontal identity other than his own. In 1993, he was assigned to do a story on Deaf culture for The New York Times and immersed himself in the Deaf world — a world in which most deaf children are born to hearing parents, who often wish their children had full-range hearing and led “normal” lives. And yet he found himself in awe of the vibrant richness of Deaf identity as he visited Deaf theater performances, reading clubs, and beauty pageants.

Shortly thereafter, a friend of Solomon’s had a daughter diagnosed with dwarfism and “wondered whether she should bring up her daughter to consider herself just like everyone else, only shorter [or] whether she should make sure her daughter had dwarf role models.” Suddenly, a pattern revealed itself — a tendency for “normal” culture, including the parents of children with different horizontal identities, to try to subvert or even “cure” those identities — and it rang with painful familiarity for Solomon, who is himself gay. He writes:

I had been startled to note my common ground with the Deaf, and now I was identifying with a dwarf; I wondered who else was out there waiting to join our gladsome throng. I thought that if gayness, an identity, could grow out of homosexuality, an illness, and Deafness, an identity, could grow out of deafness, an illness, and if dwarfism as an identity could emerge from an apparent disability, then there must be many other categories in this awkward interstitial territory. It was a radicalizing insight. Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.

But in families, Solomon argues, many parents tend to perceive their child’s horizontal identity as not only a problem to be fixed but a personal failure or even an affront. He observes:

Whereas families tend to reinforce vertical identities from earliest childhood, many will oppose horizontal ones. Vertical identities are usually respected as identities; horizontal ones are often treated as flaws.

One could argue that black people face many disadvantages in the United States today, but there is little research into how gene expression could be altered to make the next generation of children born to black parents come out with straight, flaxen hair and creamy complexions. In modern America, it is sometimes hard to be Asian or Jewish or female, yet no one suggests that Asians, Jews, or women would be foolish not to become white Christian men if they could. Many vertical identities make people uncomfortable, and yet we do not attempt to homogenize them. The disadvantages of being gay are arguably no greater than those of such vertical identities, but most parents have long sought to turn their gay children straight. … Labeling a child’s mind as diseased — whether with autism, intellectual disabilities, or transgenderism — may reflect the discomfort that mind gives parents more than any discomfort it causes their child.

As we’ve observed the powerful role of language in other cultural change and social justice reform movements, the way we talk about these issues not only reflects but also shapes the way we think about them. Solomon calls for a necessary change in vocabulary by way of an apt analogy:

We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. In physics, the Copenhagen interpretation defines energy/ matter as behaving sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, which suggests that it is both, and posits that it is our human limitation to be unable to see both at the same time. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac identified how light appears to be a particle if we ask a particle-like question, and a wave if we ask a wavelike question. A similar duality obtains in this matter of self. Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can see one only when we obscure the other. Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine shortchanges identity. Both are diminished by this narrowness.

Physicists gain certain insights from understanding energy as a wave, and other insights from understanding it as a particle, and use quantum mechanics to reconcile the information they have gleaned. Similarly, we have to examine illness and identity, understand that observation will usually happen in one domain or the other, and come up with a syncretic mechanics. We need a vocabulary in which the two concepts are not opposites, but compatible aspects of a condition. The problem is to change how we assess the value of individuals and of lives, to reach for a more ecumenical take on healthy.

Having a child with a horizontal identity vastly different from that of the parent, Solomon argues, is a kind of magnifying mirror for the parent’s character and capacity as a human being:

Having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies; those who would be bad parents become awful parents, but those who would be good parents often become extraordinary.

But the dynamic flows both ways:

Parents’ early responses to and interactions with a child determine how that child comes to view himself. These parents are also profoundly changed by their experiences.

“Love can change a person,” Lemony Snicket wrote in Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid, “the way a parent can change a baby — awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.” But Solomon makes a case for precisely the inverse — that a child can change a parent, just as awkwardly and with just as much of a mess, through the power of love:

Self-acceptance is part of the ideal, but without familial and societal acceptance, it cannot ameliorate the relentless injustices to which many horizontal identity groups are subject and will not bring about adequate reform. … To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon. It is astonishing how often such mutuality has been realized — how frequently parents who had supposed that they couldn’t care for an exceptional child discover that they can. The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.

What Solomon’s key point boils down to is a necessary and thoughtful addition to history’s most notable definitions of love. In the closing pages, he writes:

Some people are trapped by the belief that love comes in finite quantities, and that our kind of love exhausts the supply upon which they need to draw. I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones. My journey toward a family and this book have taught me that love is a magnifying phenomenon — that every increase in love strengthens all the other love in the world. . . .

In his stirring TED talk, Solomon paraphrases this already poignant sentiment even more beautifully:

I do not accept subtractive models of love, only additive ones.

Far From the Tree comes a decade after Solomon’s indispensable The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.

The Dish

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02 MAY, 2013

Who Invented Writing? An Animated Historical Detective Story

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From Sumerian cuneiform to hieroglyphics to Chinese script, a tale of simultaneous invention.

Theories of why humans write abound — for George Orwell, the impulse was driven by sheer egoism and aesthetic enthusiasm; for Joan Didion, writing provides vital access to one’s own mind; David Foster Wallace sought in it the nature of fun; for Joy Williams, it offers an escape from darkness into light; for Isabel Allende, it’s an irrepressible outpouring of inner life. But how did we get to write in the first place?

In this lovely short animation from TED Ed, Matthew Winkler, author of The Bloomberg Way: A Guide for Reporters and Editors, takes us on a historical detective story to figure out who invented writing and explains how symbols set writing and drawing apart as vehicles of meaning:

If you just draw what you mean, that’s art — not writing. In order for this to be writing, the symbol has to stand for the word.

Complement with this fascinating visual history of how sounds became shapes.

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