Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘language’

20 JUNE, 2012

We Got Merge: Noam Chomsky on the Cognitive Function that Made Language Evolve

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“You got an operation that enables you to take mental objects … already constructed … and make bigger mental objects out of them.”

In 2004, Noam Chomsky — pioneering MIT linguist, cognitive scientist, education guru, Occupy pamphleteer — sat down with McGill University professor James McGilvray to talk about the origin and purpose of language. In 2009, the two reconvened to discuss how half a decade of scientific progress, including developments like “biolinguistics” and computational linguistics, has altered our understanding of the subject. Their fascinating conversations have now been gathered in The Science of Language (public library) — a fine addition to these essential books on language.

Rather than a gradual evolutionary progression, language, says Chomsky, developed incredibly rapidly somewhere between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago — an occurrence he calls “just an outburst of creative energy that somehow takes place in an instant of evolutionary time.” And even though we now know that there is no such thing as a first human being, this cognitive growth spurt could only be explained by some genetic modification that resulted from a small mutation that happened in a single person.

It looks as if — given the time involved — there was a sudden ‘great leap forward.’ Some small genetic modification somehow that rewired the brain slightly [and] made this human capacity available. And with it came an entire range of creative options that are available to humans within a theory of mind — a second-order theory of mind, so you know that somebody is trying to make you think what somebody else wants you to think.

[…]

Well, mutations take place in a person, not in a a group. We know, incidentally, that this was a very small breeding group — some little group of hominids in some corner of Africa, apparently. Somewhere in that group, some small mutation took place, leading to the great leap forward. It had to have happened in a single person.

But what, exactly, happened in our great linguistic grandmother or grandfather? Chomsky calls it Merge — a basic cognitive function that, in its simplest form, enables you to take two things and construct a thing that is the set of the two things.

You got an operation that enables you to take mental objects [or concepts of some sort], already constructed, and make bigger mental objects out of them. That’s Merge. As soon as you have that, you have an infinite variety of hierarchically structured expressions [and thoughts] available to you.

Sound familiar? The origin of language appears to have much in common with the origin of creativity, both operating as combinatorial forces that hinge on synthesizing existing ideas into new combinations. There is a reason, perhaps, that we speak of “creative expression” — how we express ourselves creatively is just another form of language, driven by the same Merge function that sparked language itself.

Photo by Brendan Lynch

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21 MAY, 2012

To Do: Gertrude Stein’s Posthumous Alphabet Book

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“Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster.”

In 1939, Gertrude Stein penned her first children’s book, The World Is Round, whose dramatic story was featured in this two-part omnibus of obscure children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature. The following year, Stein wrote an intended follow-up, titled To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays — a fine addition to my well-documented obsession with unusual alphabet books.

But publisher after publisher rejected the manuscript as too complex for children. (One must wonder what Maurice Sendak might have said to that.) The book was never published in Stein’s lifetime. In 1957, more than a decade after Stein’s death, Yale University Press published a text-only version and in 2011, more than half a century later, the first illustrated version true to Stein’s original vision was released, with exquisite artwork by New Yorker illustrator Giselle Potter.

In the press release for The World Is Round, Stein offered the following characteristically philosophical statement regarding her children’s writing, exuding the same dedication to the intertwining of form and meaning we’ve come to expect from her adult writing:

Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.

Z is a nice letter, and I am glad it is not Y, I do not care for Y, why, well there is the reason why, I do not care for Y, but Z is a nice letter.
I like Z because it is not real it just is not real and so it is a nice letter to you and nice to me, you will see.

Zebra and Zed.

A Zebra is a nice animal, it thinks it is a wild animal but it is not it goes at a gentle trot. It has black and white stripes and it is always fat. There never was a thin Zebra never, and it is always well as sound as a bell and its name is Zebra.

It is not like a goat, when a goat is thin there is nothing to do for him, nothing nothing, but a Zebra is never thin it is always young and fat, just like that.

Images courtesy of Yale University Press

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17 MAY, 2012

Hippopposites: A Minimalist Lesson in Opposites and Aesthetics for Little Designers

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Navigating the complex web of simple terms with the help of a red hippo.

This must be the season for sensational picture books. The latest addition comes from French graphic designer Janik Coat: In Hippopposites, her children’s book debut, she teaches the progeny of the design-inclined about opposites and basic spatial, dimensional, and aesthetic vocabulary through a minimalist red hippo-hero, who remains charmingly catatonic throughout the book. Blending Blexbolex’s unexpected parallels and contrasts with Paul Rand’s simple semiotic sensibility, Coat explores fundamental concepts in simple yet refreshing ways.

For a touch of tactile whimsy, Coat adds a delightful show-rather-than-just-tell element:

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