Friday 11 July 2014

First catch your Taniwha

The girl who invented herself lived for awhile with a lad from Denmark.  Although they were both living in the heart of the Kingdom of Anglophonia, she elected to learn a bit of Danish to give parity of esteem to their two native tongues.  From the outside looking in, it didn't go well. One day, when we were passing through when she tried a sentence like "Er det frokosttid nu?" and he came back with a very brusque (had he been there before?) "No no, it's noo not noo".  I couldn't tell the difference, but then I have a tin ear. She clearly couldn't tell the difference either, maybe she couldn't be bothered to learn a language where you are encouraged to purchase books in a boghandel.  They broke up shortly after. You've doubtless heard of the trouble speaking Chinese where two words are identical except for their tones:
Shìyán, jiùshì shīyán.
A promise is a slip of the tongue.

Obviously from all this, how words sound is important for their meaning to be interpreted. But it has long been an article of faith among linguists that the sounds we use to denote objects, actions and ideas are arbitrary.  This was first formally articulated by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) as l'arbitraire du signe.  Saussure helped find enough commonality in Indo-European languages to make headway in the deciphering of a long dead member of the PIE family of tongues called Hittite. I've written about how the connexions can be pretty convoluted with, say, sheep = ewe = ovis. Saussure acknowledged that his l'arbitraire du signe only had exceptions in onomatopoeia; like when you call your dog Wooffer. But there is a growing agreement that this isn't the only place where Saussure's dogma has to be put aside.  Here's a test.  Look at this painting by Wolfgang Köhler and ask which of the two objects is called Bouba and which Kiki:
If you think the blue blobby thing should be Bouba and the jangly yellow star is Kiki, then you are in good company.  At least 95% of US college students and Tamil speakers from India agree with you. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has been dining out on this and other clever bits of experimental psychology for the last 20 years, doing the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures in 2003 but you can track down a TED talk for an executive summary.  Worth checking out.

So maybe the whole field is ready for opening up, deconstructing and re-evaluating?  That's the belief of Trevor Lloyd in his book "How to Find a Taniwha: a deep connection between English and Maori words". Buy now! It will come as no surprise (Maori) to you that Lloyd comes from New Zealand. He is working in a long tradition of hewers at the coal-face of meaning in linguistics and they come from all over the world. The best of them have been famously smart: de Saussure for starters, Champollion and Young who deciphered the Rosetta stone; Michael Ventris who knocked off Linear B for follow-up.  Ventris was an architect by trade, Linear B was just a hobby for him. Lloyd is a retired dairy-farmer who, because of his lack of academic qualifications - his brothers garnered all the PhDs in the family - has been ignored if not positively shunned by the Inner Circle of University Linguists. I find that delightfully empowering - you don't need a PhD to have ideas but having an academic job wins you some time to pursue them - it's your day job. Wondering and wandering in the Groves of Academe after a hard day's work deserves enormous respect, whether it's in Open University or next to some sheep-paddocks.

What Lloyd has done is notice a far wider application of the Bouba/Kiki effect particularly in the initial syllable of words in English and, because there was a Maori dictionary about the place, he tested his hypothesis in a language which is as far as you can get from Indo-European and yet not be Klingon. The reason I led with the story about the aggravated Dane, is that I may have committed some gross misunderstanding of Lloyd's extensive research and theory by comparing it to what might seem to outsiders as an interesting party-trick.

In Taniwha, minor difficulties like the fact that the available phonemes in English do not map exactly on to those in Maori are handled sensibly:  treating P & B and H & G as equivalent is fully in agreement Grimm's Law of consonant shifts in Indo-European languages.  You'll have to read the book to get the Full Monty but I'll try to give you a flavour. Earlier related essays on the interweb may help. It will also help to get a copy of Roget's Thesaurus in it's original C19th structure where he attempts to break down all articulated human knowledge into a hierarchy of classes starting with 1. Existence 2. Inexistence . . . 7. State 8. Circumstance . . . 176. Tendency 177. Liability . . . all the way through to . . . 998. Rite 999. Canonicals 1000. Temple.

Lloyd calls the categories Descriptive Features and takes some of the 1000 key concepts which Roget sought to order our thoughts and hooks them onto certain initial letters:
M: (materiality/substance/magnitude/extensiveness): machine, magic, main, make, man, many, material, master, meal, mean (v), meaning, measure, meat, medicine, melt, mend, merge, metal, meter, middle, milk, mind, mineral, mix, money, mood, month, more, most, mountain, mouth, move, much, muck, mud, music, myth. PLUS a similarly long list of Maori materiality words that begin with M.
P: (specificity, particularity)
Wh/F: (flatness, surfaces, physical, social family, personal intimacy)
N: (contraction, compression, reduction)
I think it's really difficult, working on your own, not to be prey to ascertainment bias. Every time you see an example which agrees with your your hypothesis you tick the box, while the many intervening contrary instances [mandala, meagre, military, moss, mutilate] are not counted in any box. Without the counter-examples it is not possible to do a statistical test to show that/if the M part of the dictionary is significantly top-heavy with material material.  I've culled some numbers from Lloyd's M list, my P = materiality list (below) and an English e-wordlist (N=152,685) I looted from the interweb a decade ago.


large #


For starters you have to control for the fact that the T section of the dictionary is much fatter than the Ms:
English letters ordered by frequency e t a o i n s h r d l c u m w f g y p b v k j x q z
Initial letters ordered by frequency    t a s h w i o b m f c l d p n e g r y u v j k q z x
You can get round some of the bias by engaging a confederate to go independently through a chunk of the dictionary determining what s/he thinks fits each category.  And going through another section looking for cases that fit a Descriptive Feature but appear under the "wrong" letter:
Materiality/substance/magnitude/extensiveness starting with P: package, paddock, palace, pallet, pallisade, palpable, panel, parade, park, particle, passage, pasture etc.
And you'd want to test your hypothesis by picking a third language unrelated to English and Maori (Magyar?) to see if it follows the same rule.

But I'll stop there because I suspect that, as with Alfred Korzybski's talking about the Map not being the Territory it's too profound for me.  Heck, I can't even differentiate two similar Danish phonemes, what can I bring to the table of a deep and comprehensive investigation of the very meaning of language?

Competing interest declaration: Trevor Lloyd is my third cousin: we have 1/128th of our genes identical-by-descent, which is about the genes-in-common level I share with either of my readers in Ukraine.

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