Book spine poem: a language evolution special

October 24, 2013

Someone once told me it was harder to make a book spine poem from non-fiction titles. I hadn’t thought about this 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, 81 non-fiction. I’m surprised there are more non-fiction, and that the totals ended up so close. Two bookmashes 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.

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 his 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.

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.

Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: Babel

September 26, 2011

A new documentary about language, Fry’s Planet Word, began on BBC2 yesterday with an episode about linguistic origins and evolution. Its host, Stephen Fry, looked into evolutionary-linguistic concerns such as how languages are related, how they are acquired (the Wug test was demonstrated), the significance of the FOXP2 gene, and why other primates haven’t developed language.

One sequence looked at sign languages: how they work and how they differ from speech and from each other. Fry watched a drama group sign (and reinterpret) Little Red Riding Hood, then asked them what signs are used for famous people like Obama, Hitler, and Madonna, noting how expressive and humorous a form it can be. The theatrical theme continued with Fry participating in a Klingon performance of Hamlet, hurting his throat on its harsh phonology.

The episode’s title, Babel, struck its final symbolic note at a UN session where Fry met a translator who sang the praises of linguistic variety. You could say “Well, she would”, but her sincere delight in the beauty of languages was obvious, and was music to Fry’s ears. Mine too.

Each of the areas touched upon would have benefited from a dedicated show, or even a series, rather than the few minutes allotted before we were whisked off to the next location on the whistle-stop tour. But language is a dauntingly broad and complex subject, and the show seems designed as an introductory guide; on that basis it did fine.

The programme featured interviews with the likes of Wolfgang Klein (see par. 1, second link), Jean Berko Gleason, Stephen Pinker, and Michael Tomasello, who proposed that language emerged in functional tandem with group coordination, perhaps in hunting. Their contributions were regrettably too brief to convey much more than generalities.

All in all, though, it was an enjoyable programme, and I plan to keep watching it if I can. As you might expect, Fry stressed the importance of creativity and pleasure in our linguistic gift, but he didn’t overdo it. His geniality and enthusiasm will attract and retain the interest of viewers who might not otherwise wonder about some of the marvels and mysteries of language.

Here he is talking about language and Fry’s Planet Word:



On an unrelated note, Sentence first has been nominated for a grammar blog contest at Since it depends wholly on votes, it is in effect a contest of popularity and self-promotion.

Though I’m honoured to be included, I do not aspire to compete. But I won’t object if you want to do me (or someone else) the honour of a vote, and you might enjoy browsing the list of language blogs.

Book review: ‘Evolving English’ by David Crystal

September 20, 2011

Earlier this year, ELT Journal kindly sent me a copy of Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices, a new book by the eminent linguist and author David Crystal.

Published by the British Library, Evolving English is an illustrated history of the language, and it is a fine and fascinating work. My review has now been published and is available online. Here’s an excerpt:

The relationship between language and culture is a theme that runs throughout Evolving English. As its subtitle One Language, Many Voices indicates, the emphasis is on the great variety of English. . . . Everyone who speaks or writes does so in a unique idiolect. Our language overlaps with the shapes it assumes in the particular circles and cultures we move in, but English would not have become a global lingua franca were it not flexible enough to accommodate so much regional variation. (I find Irish English a particular joy, but again I could be biased!)

Crystal’s book celebrates this diversity and the infinite ways it gives life to language. . . . [It] offers not just a snapshot of English as we know it but a panoply of snapshots throughout history, some familiar, some obscure. It presents them in the context of their times and cultures and shows skilfully and entertainingly how they bring to bear on the language we revel in today.

You can read the full review at ELT Journal. At about 2000 words it is quite detailed – but it will, I hope, appeal to anyone with an interest in language and the history and evolution of English.

A note on the publisher: ELT Journal, originally named English Language Teaching, has been in continual publication since 1946 and gave its name to the field of study often called ELT. The website has a large archive of articles, but – my review excepted – you’ll need to subscribe or pay to read more than an extract or abstract.

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 »

Link love: language (29)

April 18, 2011

Some language-related articles and links that caught my eye recently:

Writers and kitties.
The rules for long S.
Is conversate a word?
Why we need hyphens.
Varieties of final element -s.
Aitch dropping and restoring.
The field of linguistics (diagram).
Can you “fall between the cracks”?
The, um, usefulness of, uh, disfluencies.*
Gender stereotypes in toy ad vocabulary.
How long should we cling to a word’s meaning?
Listening to rap for the first time, with a book critic.
The language of food: macaroons, macarons, and macaroni.
Hypophora, chiasmus, and isocolon – you hear them all the time.
More like St. Smellmo: derogatory nicknames for places: one, two.
Words are food & weapons, words are a liquid, language is a tongue.
Dan Everett on linguistic fieldwork & the Pirahã language (PDF, 327KB).

Finally, two recent publications generated a lot of discussion (So I might add more links):

New findings in word-order universals: summaryreport from the Max Planck Institute; paper; discussion.

Phonemic diversity and language origins: abstract; discussion and criticism from Language LogRichard Sproat, Language Hat, The Economist, and Nicholas Wade.

* See also: Well, you know, it’s how we talk.

[archived language links]

Link love: language (28)

March 27, 2011

All hat and no cattle: a selection of Texan expressions.

The great language land grab.

International Dialects of English Archive.

How language eats brains, and why it matters to language evolution.

Typography in 8 bits.

On the asymmetry of language in the brain.

Is the Associated Press hoping to create a hyphen shortage?

What’s going on with suspended hyphens?

An overview of English in the 20th century.

Brian Dettmer’s book sculptures.

We speak X”, where x = fish, human, tennis, methadone…

The secret life of the pilcrow (¶), parts one, two, and three.

Cartoon cussing in Country & Western.

Dictionary of Newfoundland English (via The Other Side of Sixty).

Spontaneous written narratives by a child with autism (PDF, 1.35 MB).

[links archive]