Outbreaks of contagious laughter (and mewing)

May 10, 2014

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation has a very interesting chapter on contagious laughter. This curious phenomenon has long been exploited in such items as laugh boxes and musical laugh records, as well as being central to laugh tracks (from Ancient Rome to modern TV) and churches of “holy laughter”.

Contagious laughter is, of course, also an everyday occurrence, spreading directly from person to person in normal interaction. But even this activity can become abnormal, when for instance instead of dying down it persists and spreads over a wide area, as happened in the Tanganyika laughter epidemic (though it wasn’t just laughter).

Provine writes:

Read the rest of this entry »


Book spine poem: a language evolution special

October 24, 2013

Someone once told me it was harder to make a book spine poem, aka bookmash, from non-fiction titles. I don’t know; I hadn’t really thought about it before, and I’m never conscious of it when constructing them.

But it led me to look at my earlier book spine poems and see what pattern emerged. Fiction/non-fiction ratios (in reverse chronological order) are as follows: 5:5, 7:2, 8:2, 4:4, 2:5, 6:2, 2:4, 4:4, 2:4, 2:4, 2:5, 3:2, 3:4, 4:3, 2:1, 0:4, 1:4, 0:3, 2:2, 4:2, 1:2, 4:4, 7:9.

That’s 75 fiction vs. 81 non-fiction. I was surprised that there were more non-fiction, and that the totals ended up so close. Two are exclusively non-fiction but none contain only fiction. (New challenge!)

I don’t usually set out with a theme in mind, but this time I wanted to make one about language/linguistics, which was always going to skew heavily towards non-fiction: 2:7. Non-fiction surges ahead – for now.

[click to enlarge]

stan carey - book spine poem - bookmash - evolution the difference engine

Evolution: the difference engine

Words words words ad infinitum –
The power of Babel,
The languages of the world.
Human speech: the articulate mammal enigma,
Evolution: the difference engine.

*

Thanks to the authors: Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, Nicholas Ostler, John McWhorter, Kenneth Katzner, Richard Paget, Jean Aitchison, Robert Harris, Carl Zimmer, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; and to artist Nina Katchadourian.

More in the bookmash archive.


Living with Herds: a vocalisation dictionary

May 30, 2013

This short observational film (9 min.) by Natasha Fijn, research fellow at the Australian National University, will appeal to anyone interested in animal behaviour, interspecies communication, or biology or anthropology generally.

Fijn describes it as “a visual dictionary showing how Mongolian herders vocalise to their herd animals, followed by the response of the herd animal(s)”:

Read the rest of this entry »


Most animals bark a little

May 7, 2012

In The Hidden Life of Dogs, anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas reports what she has learned about dog behaviour and psychology from watching different breeds in diverse environments and social situations. I like the observations she makes about the communicative aspects of barking and sniffing:

[O]nly the pugs took much interest in the human life around them, so only the pugs barked. Of course, most animals bark a little – which is to say that if surprised and puzzled simultaneously, most animals, including human beings, make a short, sharp call; the call is “Huh?” in our species. Highly domesticated dogs make an art of their puzzlement and bark insistently, alerting others to unexplained events. But not the huskies, who didn’t bark at human-generated sounds or happenings any more than they barked at birds in the sky, and surely for the same reason: the doings of the birds and the people lacked significance for them.

Is it true that most animals make such a sound? It depends on what’s meant by animals, I suppose: mammals or non-aquatic vertebrates may be closer to what was meant, but I still don’t know how true it is.

In any case, by the author’s reckoning I myself have, on occasion, barked in puzzled surprise, and maybe you have too. I don’t know if there’s another verb for when people make this sound. Huh is a good phonic approximation but it doesn’t lend itself naturally to inflection. Yelping is usually high-pitched and is associated more with pain. I’m open to suggestions of existing words or invented ones.

Marshall Thomas continues:

In contrast, the dogs took an unlimited interest in each other. When a dog returned after a brief absence, the others would quietly surround him and investigate him for scent – the scents of his own body, which would show his state of mind and probably a great deal more as well, and the scents of the place he had been, which he carried on his fur. They’d smell his lips and his mantle, his penis, his legs and his feet. Seldom, if ever, would they investigate his anus or anal glands, evidently because the information therefrom has to do with a dog’s persona but not with his travels. The dogs would investigate me too, particularly if I had been away a long time. They paid special attention to my legs from the knees down, as if I had been wading through odors.

“Wading through odours” is a lovely, memorable description, evoking the dog’s sensorial surroundings with appropriate emphasis on smell. What a rush of stimuli it must be for a dog to go exploring outside, where – save a minuscule stationary layer above the ground – the air is more subject to turbulence and so constitutes a fluctuating “garden of exotic flora and fauna”, to use a phrase from Lyall Watson’s book Jacobson’s Organ.

Humans’ sense of smell is puny by comparison, and our visual sense may have crowded the field in recent history, but our noses are still capable of delivering intense and subtle effect, sometimes transporting us instantly to another time and place. Most of us need hardly a moment’s thought to list many smells that give us particular pleasure; other smells might even make us bark.

*

Related items: I’ve written before about word recognition in dogs and the claims made for their command of human language. On Tumblr I posted another passage from Marshall Thomas’s very enjoyable book, which includes the marvellous phrase cynomorphic substitute; you can read chapter one of Watson’s book on smell and pheromones online; and finally, here’s a fun drawing by Lili Chin of a Boston terrier’s body language.


The normality of conversation on Twitter

February 27, 2012

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, recently said that it may be unhealthy to spend too much time using the service. He has a point, albeit a trivial one: it may also be unhealthy to spend too much time in the bath or up a tree. Too much is too much, and by and large we can judge this for ourselves.

But his comments were ammunition for Professor Susan Greenfield, who believes Facebook and video games, among other things, are damaging our brains. So she appeared on Channel 4 News to offer condescending assumptions about people’s use of Twitter. Fortunately, her arguments were well challenged by science journalist Mark Henderson.

Many scientists and viewers responding to the interview seemed exasperated (or grimly amused) by Prof. Greenfield’s habit of using commercial news media to sound societal alarm bells instead of publishing peer-reviewed studies to support her sweeping claims. It has become a running argument.

I’d like to draw your attention to one response in particular, from someone I follow on Twitter. Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at the UCL Speech Communication Laboratory, was unsurprised to find that Greenfield is missing some essential facts about human communication. Her riposte, “A little more conversation”, is a sane and solid defence of how normal it is to spend time on Twitter:

much of what goes on, on Twitter, is people using a slightly different medium to do what they’ll do any way they can, which is to converse, to talk to others. For humans, conversation is an end in itself.

Conversation, she writes, is “like a dance, only instead of dancing in synchrony, we take turns.” By outlining and illustrating some of the principles of conversation, Prof. Scott also makes helpful reference to the similarities and differences between electronic and face-to-face forms of it:

if you free people from the demands of having to organize all the stuff in face-to-face conversations that is concerned with the turn-taking negotiations, then conversations can really flourish. People can leap from one conversation to the next, and back and forth, when the time line is fast and busy, as it is for many people on Twitter (or chat rooms etc.).

You can read the rest here; it’s well worth two minutes of your time.

Another reason we can hold several simultaneous chats online is that although they happen in real time, if slightly delayed, they remain available to us as tweets, comments, etc. This is significant because our parallel processing power is limited, speech is ephemeral, and we quickly forget exactly what someone has said in spoken exchanges.

I love chatting on Twitter for more reasons than I could say. Most have to do with the people I chat with, who are a constant source of insight, fun, help, and goodness. Some have become friends or acquaintances offline. I need hardly mention Twitter’s other uses, for example as an aid to journalism, education, and activism.

Of course it can be addicting, but so can many everyday activities; what matters is the degree to which they’re healthy or unhealthy, and this depends more on how they’re used than on the activities themselves.

What do you think?

[image source]

Terrence Deacon on language evolution

December 20, 2011

Was it William Burroughs who first described language as a virus from outer space? I’ve always liked the analogy, though it may be more useful to think of language as a symbiont from inner space.

In his book The Symbolic Species (1997), Terrence Deacon describes the language-as-a-virus metaphor as extreme but helpful. He identifies the most basic principle guiding the design of languages to be “not communicative utility but reproduction — theirs and ours”.

Deacon feels the best way to study language structure is to do so from an evolutionary point of view. Languages have co-evolved with their hosts — us — under the forces of selection. This can help us make sense of children’s precocious rate of linguistic development:

The structure of a language is under intense selection because in its reproduction from generation to generation, it must pass through a narrow bottleneck: children’s minds. Language operations that can be learned quickly and easily by children will tend to get passed on to the next generation more effectively and more intact than those that are difficult to learn. . . . Language structures that are poorly adapted to this niche simply will not persist for long.

As language emerged in tandem with the human nervous system — each adapting to the other — it drew on existing cognitive abilities. The facility for language is not the responsibility of some dedicated device in the brain but rather is spread across many parts of it.

In his excellent article “Rethinking the natural selection of human language”, Deacon writes that

the neural structures and circuits involved in the production and comprehension of language are homologous to structures found ubiquitously in most monkey and ape brains: old structures performing unprecedented new tricks.

Below is a video of Deacon giving a talk in 2010 called “Language & complexity: Evolution inside out”. It’s quite a technical presentation (I was grateful for my distant background in genetics and developmental biology), but Deacon is a clear and engaging speaker and his subject matter is deeply interesting.

A post at Replicated Typo, reporting on the talk, says Deacon’s ideas are “our best avenue for exploring how language evolved”. Edmund Blair Bolles at Babel’s Dawn is similarly impressed; he writes that the strength of Deacon’s proposal is that it “[describes] a mechanism for the brain changes that support language”:

The old view that language functions are confined to a few regions like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, or even the left hemisphere can no longer stand. Language processing involves complex coordination between multiple systems. But the modern human brain is a relatively recent acquisition. How did all that complexity evolve and become coordinated?

Deacon has some persuasive thoughts on this. Birdsong, some of you will be happy to hear, features quite a lot. The talk lasts about an hour, with a short Q&A at the end.


Evolution of the language organism

June 10, 2011

Professor Simon Kirby is a computational linguist who holds the Chair of Language Evolution in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh.

Kirby and his colleagues investigate, among other things, how culture and biology interact in humans to give rise to language. He appeared on this blog before, when I included his paper “The Evolution of Language” (PDF) in an early collection of language links. Here’s a diagram from the paper:

The Language Evolution and Computation research unit, which Kirby co-founded, focuses on “understanding the origins and evolution of language and communication”. It has “pioneered the application of computational and mathematical modelling techniques to traditional issues in language acquisition, change and evolution”. Its website has an overview of this work, along with a selection of dissertations and an introduction to the intriguing “alien language” experiment.

Kirby’s public Inaugural Lecture took place in March but appeared on YouTube just recently. Titled The Language Organism: evolution, culture, and what it means to be human, it is a broad discussion with general appeal, and Kirby is a relaxed and genial speaker. (I don’t know whether the ambiguity in the phrase “the language organism” is deliberate; it’s apt in any case.) From his summary:

Our species can do something utterly unique in the natural world – a behaviour so transformative that it has reshaped the mechanisms of our own evolution. . . . Virtually all species communicate, but only humans have this trick called Language.

Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,471 other followers