A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘languages

[BLOG] Some Saturday links

  • Architectuul features a photo essay made by Evan Panagopoulos in the course of a hurried three-hour visit to the Socialist Modernist and modern highlights of 20th century Kiev architecture.
  • Bad Astrronomer Phil Plait notes how the latest planet found in the Kepler-47 circumbinary system evokes Tatooine.
  • Centauri Dreams looks at tide and radiation, and their impacts on potential habitability, in the TRAPPIST-1 system.
  • Citizen Science Salon looks at how the TV show Cyberchase can help get young people interested in science and math.
  • Crooked Timber mourns historian David Brion Davis.
  • The Crux looks at how the HMS Challenger pioneered the study of the deeps of the oceans, with that ship’s survey of the Mariana Trench.
  • D-Brief looks at how a snowball chamber using supercooled water can be used to hunt for dark matter.
  • Earther shares photos of the heartbreaking and artificial devastation of the Amazonian rainforest of Brazil.
  • Gizmodo shares a beautiful Hubble photograph of the southern Crab Nebula.
  • Information is Beautiful shares a reworked version of the Julia Galef illustration of the San Francisco area meme space.
  • io9 notes that, fresh from being Thor, Jane Foster is set to become a Valkyrie in a new comic.
  • JSTOR Daily explains the Victorian fondness for leeches, in medicine and in popular culture.
  • Language Hat links to an interview with linguist Amina Mettouchi, a specialist in Berber languages.
  • Language Log shares the report of a one-time Jewish refugee on changing language use in Shanghai, in the 1940s and now.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money reports on the horror of self-appointed militias capturing supposed undocumented migrants in the southwestern US.
  • Marginal Revolution reports on the circumstances in which volunteer militaries can outperform conscript militaries.
  • At the NYR Daily, Christopher Benfey reports on the surprisingly intense connection between bees and mourning.
  • Personal Reflections’ Jim Belshaw, responding to Israel Folau, considers free expression and employment.
  • The Planetary Society Blog shares a guest post from Barney Magrath on the surprisingly cheap adaptations needed to make an iPhone suitable for astrophotography.
  • Peter Rukavina reports on the hotly-contested PEI provincial election of 1966.
  • Starts With A Bang’s Ethan Siegel explains what the discovery of helium hydride actually means.
  • Understanding Society’s Daniel Little praises the Jill Lepore US history These Truths for its comprehensiveness.
  • Window on Eurasia reports on the growing divergences in demographics between different post-Soviet countries.
  • Arnold Zwicky starts with another Peeps creation and moves on from there.

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • Crooked Timber continues its immigration and open borders symposium, wondering about the European Union.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper suggesting that brown dwarfs will also form planets out of their discs.
  • The Dragon’s Tales tracks the Ukrainian conflict.
  • Eastern Approaches notes that, despite continued warm feelings for the United States, Poland is now becoming concerned with its affairs as a European power.
  • Language Hat notes how for many Russians in the 19th century, Francophilia was seen as a shame, a betrayal.
  • At Language of the World, Asya Perelstvaig notes efforts among some local Christian Arabs to revive the Aramaic language.
  • James Nicoll of More Words, Deeper Hole reviews fondly the Joan Vinge classic novel Psion.
  • At the Planetary Society Blog, Bill Dunford shares photos of the tracks of Mars rovers taken by the rovers themselves.
  • Steve Munro links to John Lorinc’s series of articles at Spacing on the neglect of transit to the benefit of talking in Scarborough.
  • Towleroad notes a recent meeting held in Vienna, funded by a Russian oligarch, aimed at fighting gays.
  • Window on Eurasia notes the role played by Facebook in coordinating recent anti-government protests in Abkhazia and observes fears for the Crimean Tatars among scholars.

[NEWS] Some Tuesday links

  • MacLean’s has a pleasantly thoughtful front-page article describing transgenderism among teenagers and even younger children.
  • CBC notes that Toronto is experiencing record numbers of potholes owing to extreme temperatures.
  • The comments in Al Jazeera‘s article on Nigeria’s anti-gay legislation are as interesting as the article itself.
  • Open Democracy notes Papua’s skepticism of Indonesia’s latest offer of autonomy.
  • Shared on Facebook, this 2008 chart illustrating graphically the lexical distance between Europe’s major languages is insightful and fun to look at.
  • NPR notes a study suggesting that American viewings of the MTV show 16 and Pregnant actually lower the teen birth rate in that country.
  • The Atlantic notes that one sign of China’s real estate boom-turned-bubble is the number of European-themed towns and neighbourhoods built by realtors.

[LINK] “Reading without understanding: baboons can tell real English words from fake ones”

I’m not sure about the exact import of Ed Yong’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science. The ability of other primates–primates which do not make use of language, at least not human-style spoken language–to determine the deep patterns of phonemes and syllables in specific languages does imply both rather impressive levels of intelligence among baboons in at least the domain of pattern recognition and another instance of humans’ over-estimating their capabilities relative their peers.

‘Wasp’ is an English word, but ‘telk’ is not. You and I know this because we speak English. But in a French laboratory, six baboons have also learned to tell the difference between genuine English words, and nonsense ones. They can sort their wasps from their telks, even though they have no idea that the former means a stinging insect and the latter means nothing. They don’t understand the language, but can ‘read’ nonetheless.

At its most basic level, reading is about recognising patterns. We look at letters (or other symbols) and identify them based on their number, position and angles of lines. This is a trivial task, and one that doesn’t require any language. Letters are no different to any other object in our environment that we can recognise. A pigeon can be trained to do discriminate between letters.

The next step is harder. We unite letters into words by looking at their positions relative to one another. This is called “orthographic processing”. It’s the stage where, according to general consensus, language kicks in. As we see clusters of letters, we think about the sounds they represent and we read the word aloud in our heads. But Jonathan Grainger from Aix-Marseille University has shown that orthographic processing can happen without any knowledge of language, or how words are meant to sound.

Grainger trained baboons to recognise English words, and tell them apart from very similar nonsense words. The monkeys learned quickly, and could even categorise words they had never seen before. They weren’t anglophiles by any stretch. Instead, their abilities suggest that the act of reading words is just a more advanced version of the pattern-recognition skill that lets us identify letters. It’s a skill that was there long before the first human had scrawled the first letter.

[. . .]

None of the six baboons had seen words or letters before. But over a month and a half, and thousands of trials, all of them learned to distinguish words from non-words with around 75 per cent accuracy (50 per cent would be pure guesswork). The most successful of them – Dan – built up a vocabulary of 308 words.

Their achievement is remarkable, not least because the non-words were very similar to the actual ones. Rather than obvious fakes like ‘qzxc’, they all contained pairs of letters that occur in real words, although they veered towards rarer combinations. And the monkeys weren’t just memorising the words. They were still more likely to pick a set of letters they had never seen before, if it was an actual English word.

Grainger thinks that the baboons learned to tell the real words from the fakes by using the frequencies of letter combinations within them. They learned which combinations were most likely to be found in real words, and made their choices accordingly. They had gleaned the stats of English, without any knowledge of the language itself.

Stanislas Deheane, one of the leading figures in the science of reading, thinks that the study is “extraordinarily exciting”. He says, “It fits very nicely with my own research, which suggests that reading relies, in part, on learning the purely visual statistics of letters and their combinations.”

Written by Randy McDonald

April 17, 2012 at 10:57 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] “The Cascajal Block”

I wanted to devote an entry to a recent entry by pauldrye at Passing Strangeness, examining the Cascajal Block, a millennias-old stone tablet that may well be the oldest evidence of writing ever found in the Americas.

The first Mesoamerican civilization was the Olmec, and it’s far from clear that they knew how to write. On the other hand, the Zapotec flourished not long after the heyday of the Olmec, and they had a fairly developed script. This has troubled archaeologists for a while, for the reason that one would expect writing to start out crudely and develop over time. As it happens, this theory had been challenged by better understanding of Sumerian writing, which went from quite crude to quite complex in just a few hundred years. Even so, archaeologists specializing in Central America have kept a close eye out for Olmec artifacts that suggest that the Zapotec learned the trick from their predecessors.

The centre of Olmec civilization was Veracruz state, particularly San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán—unfortunately named because it’s not the Tenochtitlan, AKA pre-Columbian Mexico City (its Olmec name is unknown, so it’s named after two nearby towns, one of which was in turn named after the chief Aztec city by modern-day Mexicans). The centre is there because of the Coatzacoalcos River, which isn’t very long but was to San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán what the Thames is to London or the Tiber was to Rome. About 25 kilometers downstream from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is the tiny village of Lomas de Tacamichapa, which contains a road-building quarry named El Cascajal. In 1999 two archaeologists, the husband-and-wife team María del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez and Ponciano Ortíz Ceballos, realized that the quarry was actually an Olmec site. In a pile of rubble left by a bulldozer they turned up many Olmec artifacts, the gem of which was an eleven kilogram block of serpentine stone. The block was incised with various symbols—62 in all, with 28 different ones—and, based on analysis of the other archaeological bits and pieces in the pile, it was anywhere from 2800 to 3000 years old: centuries older than any other writing found to date in the New World.

The news of the discovery, along with an in-depth study of it, was only formally announced in September of 2006; Rodríguez Martínez and Ortíz Ceballos spent six years trying to find any other similar artifacts and, when they found nothing else, they brought in several other notable experts on Mesoamerica. Altogether they came to the conclusion that the sigils weren’t just decoration, which seems a bit surprising given that no-one knows how to read it. Several techniques developed during the decipherment of other unknown texts were used instead and, while not definitive, produced clues that the signs have an underlying meaning.

This Joel Skidmore report (PDF format) goes into more detail. The problem, as Paul points out, is that there are some curious problems relating to the interpretation of the symbols on the stone, some even suggesting it might be a fake. Determining the meaning of the stone’s symbols would be hugely complicated, given that no one has any idea what language they spoke, and it would also be next to impossible to reconstruct a language three thousand years before the present. Assuming, of course, that the stone does have writing. Regardless, as I wrote in my June review of Robinson’s Lost Languages, I can’t help but wish archeologists and linguists and anyone else who could help would have good luck: so much has been lost, in the world and in the disease-devastated post-Columbian Americas, that having some comprehensible text from so far in the past would be quite nice indeed.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 16, 2009 at 4:26 pm

[LINK] Some Friday links

  • The Bloor-Lansdowne blog covers the celebration surrounding the reopening of the Bloor-Lansdowne Library.
  • Centauri Dreams covers the possibility that life in the Galaxy might emerge in great, irregular waves as punctuated evolution would hold, reports more signs that water may exist on/inside Enceladus, and suggests that the threat from comets to Earth may be quite exaggerated.
  • Demography Matters co-blogger Aslak Berg points out that better metrics indicate that European fertility is substantially higher than TFRs would indicate.
  • The Dragon’s Tales links to Venus exploration proposals and the discovery of evidence of an asteroidal collision with Earth 129 thousand years ago.
  • Edward Lucas reviews a new book by the admittedly problematic Andrew Roberts that makes the point that Germany’s loss of the Second World War has everything to do with Naziism and Hitler’s erratic nature.
  • A Fistful of Euros covers the news about the expansion of new liberal visa rules to only some Yugoslav successor states, and reports on the growing irrelevance of Kosovar Albanians and Serbians to each other.
  • Language Hat reports on recent neurological discoveries suggesting that brain damage is more likely to damage knowledge of a second language than of a first.
  • Marginal Revolution links to an article claiming that China’s also suffering a bubble economy, with commenters disputing the accuracy of foreign reports.
  • Spacing Toronto’s Jake Schabas reports about a charming secret garden on Eglinton Street and touches on the history of market gardens.
  • Slap Upside the Head lets us know that a Saskatchewan public marriage commissioner who claimed that he didn’t have to perform gay marriages because of his religion lost his case.
  • Torontoist blogs about Hamilton’s image-changing efforts, vintage ads about a defunct store chance, and the Bloor-Gladstone Library’s revival.
  • Towleroad reports, rather surprisingly, that Albania’s president says he wants to push for gay marriage in his country.

[LINK] Some Saturday links

  • Boing Boing and Centauri Dreams both react to the very recent gamma ray burst GRB 080319B, an explosion so bright that it would have been briefly visible to the naked eye despite the fact that it occurred 7.5 billion light years away.
  • Crooked Timber’s John Holbo links to his sprightly new edition of Edward E. Hale’s 1869 classic short story “The Brick Moon”. (Yes, I think Holbo is the person who came up with the word “brickpunk.”)
  • Douglas Muir at Halfway Down the Danube describes the various problems with Armenia’s genocide museum.
  • Language Hat covers a recent report that linguists have found links between Siberian and North American language families, with many of the linguists involved popping in to comment on their own or on others’ theories.
  • Finally, James Nicoll has linked to an interesting report about a collection of science fiction writers including Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and David Brin who are offering their services to the government of the United States as freelance advisors. Among their ideas is Niven’s that “a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.”

Written by Randy McDonald

March 22, 2008 at 11:10 pm

[LINK] Some Friday links

  • Phil Hunt at Amused Cynicism wonders if the European Union, free from the United States’ baggage and much closer than China, could give a post-Castro Cuba some sort of protectorate status.
  • The Lounsbury at ‘Aqoul observes that al-Jazeerah’s coverage of the Kosovo independence celebrations included more than a few pairings of Kosovar and American flags. Good public relations?
  • At Crooked Timber, Christ Bertram’s celebratory post on Castro and John Quiggin’s more measured consideration of dictatorship might both have generated more heat than light, but there’s still enough of the latter there. If you page past the flamewars, that is.
  • Ken MacLeod speculates that Technocracy and science fiction are too close for comfort.
  • Joel at Far Outliers has had a few good Timothy Garton Ash excerpts, including one on Belgrade in 1997, one in Sarajevo in 1995, and one in Kosovo in 1998, one on Bosnia in 1998, and finally, a personal view of Yugoslavia’s murder.
  • At Joe. My. God, Rupert Everett is quoted as saying that pride marches have become depoliticized. The blogger and many commenters disagree.
  • In the aftermath of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to Australian Aborigines, Language Log has its own take on the situation, touching upon Australian Aborigine languages.
  • normblog blogs about Castro’s unsurprisingly long period in office and his appropriation of the word “amor.”
  • Strange Maps describes the Republic of New Netherlands, population 31.2 million.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 22, 2008 at 10:46 am

[URBAN NOTE] Toronto’s language quilt

Toronto’s Language Quilt
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

I’ve been meaning for a while to blog about Catherine Farley and Damien Listar’s maps of languages in Toronto, derived from the recent census. Published by the Toronto Star on the 30th of December, 2007, this map shows the most important languages ranking after English in the thousand or so census tracts in the Greater Toronto Area. In all, 56% of the Greater Toronto Area‘s population of 5.4 million claims English as a mother tongue, with Chinese languages ranking second at 6% of the population. Further behind are Italian, Punjabi, Portuguese, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu, Tamil, Polish, and Tamil, with speakers of French accounting for only 1.2% of the city’s population.

In only three areas do speakers of languages other than English outnumber Anglophones: Punjabi-speakers in the satellite city of Brampton, Italian-speakers in suburban Woodbridge, and Chinese-speakers in the Scarborough community of Agincourt and neighbouring Markham just to that community’s north. Other notable relatively concentrated language enclaves include speakers of Polish in southwestern Toronto and Mississauga, speakers of Portuguese to their east, speakers of Greek along the Danforth, Tamils in eastern Scarborough, Tagalog-speakers in the Regional Municipality of Durham, and Russophones along the Bathurst Corridor. The tract coloured light green in northern Pickering represents a relatively high concentration of Estonians–a quick googling does reveal an Estonian credit union in that city.

A twenty-megabyte downloadable PDF that contains a high-resolution version of the map is available here

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2008 at 3:20 pm

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[LINK] Some Friday links

  • In the light of Mike Huckabee‘s recent victory in Iowa’s Republican caucuses, the criticism of 1948’s Richard that Huckabee’s refusal to accept evolution should be seen as a hallmark of non-rational intellectually should be heeded. Elect the right person, guys.
  • Over at ‘Aqoul, The Lounsbury examines the badly-structured housing market for lower- and middle-class Egyptians.
  • Claus Vistesen predicts that some of the more prominent economics-related news stories in 2008 will include slow Japanese growth, a patchwork of performances in Europe, the impact of the declining value of the US dollar on international capital flows, and the risk of stagflation.
  • Joe. My. God links to disturbing reports that the incidence of HIV infection among young MSM in New York City is rising. Canadian statistics seem to suggest that this trend hasn’t manifested north of the border, but it may be only a matter of time.
  • Mark Liberman at Language Log blogs about how the use of two different scripts for Hindustani helped produce separate Hindu and Urdu languages by the time of Partition, despite the languages’ continued mutual intelligibility at the popular level.
  • Norman Geras’ essay “Criticism and Cleanliness” is an interesting meditation on the circumstances under which citizens of imperfect democracies can criticize faults elsewhere in the world.
  • The Pagan Prattle has a roundup of fundamentalists’ predictions of apocalypse in the year 2008.
  • Strange Maps hosts Charles Joseph MInard‘s famous statistical map showing the horrific casualties resulting from Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 4, 2008 at 4:10 pm