The Wug-Plant

September 16, 2016

‘Precious Artifact’ is a short story by Philip K. Dick that I read recently in the collection The Golden Man (Methuen, 1981). I won’t get into the story here, or the book, except to lend context to a phrase he coined for it. But if you’re averse to mild spoilers, skip ahead a little.

The phrase is introduced when the protagonist, based on Mars, is preparing to return to Earth, or Terra as it’s called in the story:

philip-k-dick-golden-man-methuen-book-coverMilt Biskle said, “I want you to do something for me. I feel too tired, too—” He gestured. “Or depressed, maybe. Anyhow I’d like you to make arrangements for my gear, including my wug-plant, to be put aboard a transport returning to Terra.”

Milt’s singling out the wug-plant is significant both narratively (for reasons I’ll ignore) and emotionally: he’s attached to it to the point of calling it a pet. Later, on ‘Terra’, he finds it has not prospered in the new climate (‘my wug-plant isn’t thriving’), and soon afterwards ‘he found his Martian wug-plant dead’.

But wug-plant is most significant linguistically. Those of you with a background or interest in linguistics will know why, but for the benefit of other readers I’ll explain briefly.

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Language acquisition and the ‘wild child’ Genie

August 23, 2016

An area of language acquisition that has attracted considerable scholarly (and lay) interest is the so-called critical period hypothesis. This proposes a critical period in childhood during which people need to acquire a language in order to become fully proficient in it.

Abby Kaplan’s new book Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained has a helpful chapter on this, investigating whether the ability to acquire a language falls sharply or gradually after a certain age, whether the progressive difficulty in acquiring a second language is universal or admits exceptions, and so on.

In examining whether early childhood exposure to language is vital for its acquisition, Kaplan writes that one source of evidence is ‘the very sad cases of people who weren’t exposed to a language as children, usually due to extreme abuse or neglect’.

A famous example is Genie, who was found in 1970 aged 13 having spent most of her life until then in isolation.

Genie - Secret of the Wild Child documentary PBS Nova

Image of Genie from the Nova documentary ‘Secret of the Wild Child’

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Anaïs Nin on learning a new language

July 31, 2014

Despite their Whorfian tang I enjoyed these reflections on language learning from Anaïs Nin. They’re from A Woman Speaks: The Lectures, Seminars and Interviews of Anaïs Nin, edited by Evelyn J. Hinz (1975):

Language to me is like the discovery of a new world, really a new state of consciousness. A new word to me was a new sensation. Reading the dictionary, anything at all, can add not only to your knowledge but also to your perceptions.

Do new languages bestow new states of consciousness? The idea that bilingual (and multilingual) people inhabit different personalities in different languages has much anecdotal evidence to support it – many bilinguals report feeling like different people when they speak different tongues.

Researchers who have studied the phenomenon are equivocal about its implications – it probably has far less to do with grammar than with the environments and cultures associated with the languages.

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Children’s awareness of irregular verbs

August 13, 2012

I’ve been enjoying Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999). More technical and focused than his popular bestseller The Language Instinct, it is effectively a monograph on linguistic irregularity, examining in particular how we inflect verbs for past tense and plurality, and what the exceptions can tell us about the structure of language and our minds.

In chapter 7, ‘Kids Say the Darnedest Things’, Pinker points out that children sometimes know that the mistakes they make are mistakes. He cites Dan Slobin and Tom Bever, psycholinguists who inserted their children’s speech errors into their own speech and recorded the results:

TOM: Where’s Mommy?
CHILD: Mommy goed to the store.
TOM: Mommy goed to the store?
CHILD: NO! (annoyed) Daddy, I say it that way, not you.

CHILD: You readed some of it too . . . she readed all the rest.
DAN: She read the whole thing to you, huh?
CHILD: Nu-uh, you read some.
DAN: Oh, that’s right, yeah, I readed the beginning of it.
CHILD: Readed? (annoyed surprise) Read! (pronounced rĕd)
DAN: Oh yeah, read.
CHILD: Will you stop that, Papa?

Pinker infers from this, and from the evidence of more controlled studies, that children know irregular forms better than we might suppose; as they progressively master these forms, their errors are ‘slip-ups in which they cannot slot an irregular form into a sentence in real time’. Adults make similar slips, though nowhere near as often.

The main points of Words and Rules are set out in a short lecture (PDF) of the same name, while the London Review of Books has a critical review by Charles Yang.

Memory of syntax and semantics

October 2, 2011

Jean Aitchison’s The Articulate Mammal describes and evaluates many interesting psycholinguistic experiments, one of which I want to draw attention to here:

a number of psychologists have found that all memory of syntax and vocabulary normally fades very fast indeed, unless subjects are specifically told that they will be asked to recall the sentence. Memory for syntax of any kind is near to chance approximately half a minute after a sentence has been spoken (Sachs 1967). In normal circumstances, it seems, people remember only the gist of what has been said, and they often confuse this with a number of extra beliefs and expectations about the topic under discussion (Fillenbaum 1973).

Jacqueline Strunk Sachs, speaking subsequently (PDF) about her experiment, said it showed that we forget “the specific wording of an utterance . . . within seconds”, though we might retain its meaning for a very long time.

Her 1967 paper (“Recognition memory for syntactic and semantic aspects of connected discourse”) was based on her doctoral dissertation and can be downloaded here.* It’s a short and clear account of a smartly designed study, well worth reading if you’re into this sort of thing and you don’t mind the Chomskyan terminology.

The abstract concludes:

The results suggest that the original form of the sentence is stored only for the short time necessary for comprehension to occur. When a semantic interpretation has been made, the meaning is stored. Thus the memory of the meaning is not dependent on memory of the original form of the sentence.

I imagine this rings true for most people. What say you? Have you noticed the rapid divergence between memory of what is said and memory of exactly how it is said?

* Typo fans will enjoy SpringerLink’s mangled paper title, “Recopition memory”, and the suggestion that some of the data were presented at a meeting held in April, 1066.