Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Watch Your Language

Over at Nautilus, Claire Cameron writes about five languages that not only express information in different ways than we may be used to, but might also shape how people think about the world they live in.

The whole thing is worth the read, but the really interesting part is a study of the language of the Pirahã people of South America, whose language lacks a word for "two" or even for general concepts of groups of items. Instead of word-equivalents to "many" or "few," their expressions seem to be more related to "big" and "little."

Cognition studies of the Pirahã suggest that they have trouble sorting or arranging objects in groups of more than two or three -- they're not stupid, but they don't have the language referents for those ideas and can't reproduce them just from seeing pictures. The Pirahã, in turn, apparently distrust outsider languages, choose not to use them and label them with a word that literally translates "crooked head."

Obviously if we didn't know about, say, airplanes, for example, then we would have a hard time naming one when we saw it for the first time. But the studies suggest that the Pirahã may have actual trouble even perceiving the things their language doesn't name -- it would be like our folks who first encounter an airplane aren't just mystified by it, but they have trouble even perceiving it when it enters their physical field of vision.

On the one hand, I am sure a language in which counting consists of no concepts other than "one" and "nothing" would be fascinating not just to anthropologists but also to computer programmers. Most computers use "binary" numbers, or base two, counting, in order to take advantage of being able to set a circuit to on or off. Sort of like a old Morse code, the series of ons and offs is translated into a string of ones and zeros and from there translated into regular base 10 numbers: 10 is 2, 11 is 3, 100 is 4, 101 is 5, and so on. The reverse method is used to write computer code -- the base 10 numbers are converted to base 2, and are then set up as the series of ons and offs.

Would it be easier for folks like the Pirahã, who think only in terms that computers would call "on" and "off," to write computer code and read it? Might be -- I bet someone is designing that experiment, if they can convince the Pirahã that they don't really have crooked heads. Coders may not be the best bet for that move.

In any event, we can now understand the basic political press conference much more easily. Folks have frequently remarked that many times, a straightforward admission of error or wrongdoing might make a crisis or scandal go away much more quickly, but politicians caught with hand or other body part where it ain't s'posed to be never seem to just 'fess up. Former President Bill Clinton earned endless mockery when he admitted to smoking marijuana as a young man but claimed he didn't inhale. Had he just confessed to something a significant number of his contemporaries had done during the 1960s and 1970s and moved on -- and while we're at it, come clean on a couple of other topics -- how much more rapidly the whole mess would have faded from our minds. President Clinton's wife does not seem to have learned this lesson at all. But then, in a phrase you may have heard before, however many his faults, Bill Clinton is a great politician. Hillary Clinton is married to a great politician.

In any event, we now see that obscuring the truth is not a choice for politicians -- after years and years of lying almost every time they see a microphone, recorder or notebook, they no longer recognize truth and simply can't get their minds to form the concepts any more. And so whenever an elected official opens his or her mouth you clutch your wallet, spouse, children and important personal papers as untruth follows untruth in an endless monotonous stream. But it's not their fault.

They're not bad. They just drone that way.

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