How Universal Is The Mind?

One expression of the misguided nature vs nurture debate is the understanding of our humanity. In wondering about the universality of Western views, we have already framed the issue in terms of Western dualism. The moment we begin speaking in specific terms, from mind to psyche, we’ve already smuggled in cultural preconceptions and biases.

Sabrina Golonka discusses several other linguistic cultures (Korean, Japanese, and Russian) in comparison to English. She suggests that dualism, even if variously articulated, underlies each conceptual tradition — a general distinction between visible and invisible. But all of those are highly modernized societies built on millennia of civilizational projects, from imperialism to industrialization. It would be even more interesting and insightful to look into the linguistic worldviews of indigenous cultures.

The Piraha, for example, are linguistically limited in only speaking about what they directly experience or about what those they personally know have directly experienced. They don’t talk about what is ‘invisible’, whether within the human sphere or beyond in the world, and as such they aren’t prone to theoretical speculations.

What is clear is that the Piraha’s mode of perception and description is far different, even to the point that what they see is sometimes invisible to those who aren’t Piraha. There is an anecdote shared by Daniel Everett. The Piraha crowded on the riverbank pointing to the spirit they saw on the other side, but Everett and his family saw nothing. That brings doubt to the framework of visible vs invisible. The Piraha were fascinated by what becomes invisible such as a person disappearing around the bend of a trail, although their fascination ended at that liminal point at the edge of the visible, not extending beyond it.

Another useful example would be the Australian Aborigine. The Songlines were traditionally integrated with their sense of identity and reality, signifying an experience that is invisible within the reality tunnel of WEIRD society (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Prior to contact, individualism as we know it may have been entirely unknown for Songlines express a profoundly collective sense of being in the world.

If any kind of dualism between visible and invisible did exist within the Aboriginal worldview, it more likely would have been on a communal level of experience. In their culture, ritual songs are learned and then what they represent becomes visible to the initiated, however this process might be made sense of within Aboriginal language. A song makes some aspect of the world visible, which is to invoke a particular reality and the beings that inhabit that reality. This is what Westerners would interpret as states of mind, but that is clearly an inadequate understanding of the fully immersive and embodied experience.

Western psychology has made non-Western experience invisible to most Westerners. There is the invisible we talk about within our own cultural worldview, what we perceive as known and familiar, no matter how intangible. But even more important is the unknown and unfamiliar that is so fundamentally invisible that we are incapable of talking about it. This doesn’t merely limit our understanding. Entire ways of being in the world are precluded by the words and concepts we use. Our sense of our own humanity is lesser for it and, as cultural languages go extinct, this state of affairs worsens with the near complete monocultural destruction of the very alternatives that most powerfully challenge our assumptions.

* * *

How Universal Is The Mind?
by Sabrina Golonka

So, back to the mind and our current view of cognition. Cross-linguistic research shows that, generally speaking, every culture has a folk model of a person consisting of visible and invisible (psychological) aspects (Wierzbicka, 2005). While there is agreement that the visible part of the person refers to the body, there is considerable variation in how different cultures think about the invisible (psychological) part. In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of “the mind” and the modern view of cognition. But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood? […]

In a larger sense, the fact that there seems to be a universal belief that people consist of visible and invisible aspects explains much of the appeal of cognitive psychology over behaviourism. Cognitive psychology allows us to invoke invisible, internal states as causes of behaviour, which fits nicely with the broad, cultural assumption that the mind causes us to act in certain ways.

To the extent that you agree that the modern conception of “cognition” is strongly related to the Western, English-speaking view of “the mind”, it is worth asking what cognitive psychology would look like if it had developed in Japan or Russia. Would text-books have chapter headings on the ability to connect with other people (kokoro) or feelings or morality (dusa) instead of on decision-making and memory? This possibility highlights the potential arbitrariness of how we’ve carved up the psychological realm – what we take for objective reality is revealed to be shaped by culture and language.

I recently wrote a blog about a related topic. In Pāli and Sanskrit – ancient Indian languages – there is no collective term for emotions. They do have words for all of the basic emotions and some others, but they do not think of them as a category distinct from thought. I have yet to think through all of the implications of this observation but clearly the ancient Indian view on psychology must have been very different to ours.

Han 21 December 2011 at 17:06

Very interesting post. Have you looked into Julian Jaynes’s strange and marvelous book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”? Even if you regard bicameralism as iffy, there’s an interesting section on the creation of metaphorical spaces — body-words that become “containers” for feelings, thoughts, attributes etc. The culturally distinct descriptors of the “invisible” may be related to historical accidents that vary from place to place.

Simon 9 January 2012 at 06:33

Also relevant might be Lakoff and Johnson’s “Philosophy in the Flesh” looking at, in their formulation, the inevitably metaphorical nature of thought and speech and the ultimate grounding of (almost) all metaphors in our physical experience from embodiment in the world.

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Wordplay Schmordplay

What Do You Call Words Like Wishy-Washy or Mumbo Jumbo?

Words like wishy-washy or mumbo-jumbo, or any words that contain two identical or similar parts (a segment, syllable, or morpheme), are called reduplicative words or tautonyms. The process of forming such words is known as reduplication. In many cases, the first word is a real word, while the second part (sometimes nonsensical) is invented to create a rhyme and to create emphasis. Most reduplicative begin as hyphenated words, and through very common usage, eventually lose the hype to become single words. Regardless of their hyphenation, they underscore the playfulness of the English language.

Reduplication isn’t just jibber-jabber

There are several kinds of reduplication. One type replaces a vowel while keeping the initial consonant, as in “flip-flop,” “pish-posh,” and “ping-pong.” Another type keeps the vowel but replaces that first sound, as in “namby-pamby,” “hanky-panky,” “razzle-dazzle,” and “timey-wimey,” a word used by Dr. Who fans for time-travel shenanigans. Reduplication doesn’t get any simpler than when the whole word is repeated, like when you pooh-pooh a couple’s attempt to dress matchy-matchy. My favorite type is “schm” reduplication, though some might say “Favorite, schmavorite!” All the types show that redundancy isn’t a problem in word-making. Grant Barrett, host of the public radio show “A Way with Words,” notes via e-mail that even the word “reduplication” has an unnecessary frill: “I’ve always liked the ‘re’ in ‘reduplicate.’ We’re doing it again! It’s right there in the word!”

Reduplication

Reduplication in linguistics is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word (or part of it) or even the whole word is repeated exactly or with a slight change.

Reduplication is used in inflections to convey a grammatical function, such as plurality, intensification, etc., and in lexical derivation to create new words. It is often used when a speaker adopts a tone more “expressive” or figurative than ordinary speech and is also often, but not exclusively, iconic in meaning. Reduplication is found in a wide range of languages and language groups, though its level of linguistic productivity varies.

Reduplication is the standard term for this phenomenon in the linguistics literature. Other terms that are occasionally used include cloningdoublingduplicationrepetition, and tautonym when it is used in biological taxonomies, such as “Bison bison”.

The origin of this usage of tautonym is uncertain, but it has been suggested that it is of relatively recent derivation.

Reduplication

The coinage of new words and phrases into English has been greatly enhanced by the pleasure we get from playing with words. There are numerous alliterative and rhyming idioms, which are a significant feature of the language. These aren’t restricted to poets and Cockneys; everyone uses them. We start in the nursery with choo-choos, move on in adult life to hanky-panky and end up in the nursing home having a sing-song.

The repeating of parts of words to make new forms is called reduplication. There are various categories of this: rhyming, exact and ablaut (vowel substitution). Examples, are respectively, okey-dokey, wee-wee and zig-zag. The impetus for the coining of these seems to be nothing more than the enjoyment of wordplay. The words that make up these reduplicated idioms often have little meaning in themselves and only appear as part of a pair. In other cases, one word will allude to some existing meaning and the other half of the pair is added for effect or emphasis.

New coinages have often appeared at times of national confidence, when an outgoing and playful nature is expressed in language; for example, during the 1920s, following the First World War, when many nonsense word pairs were coined – the bee’s knees, heebie-jeebies etc. That said, the introduction of such terms begin with Old English and continues today. Willy-nilly is over a thousand years old. Riff-raff dates from the 1400s and helter-skelter, arsy-versy (a form of vice-versa), and hocus-pocus all date from the 16th century. Coming up to date we have bling-bling, boob-tube and hip-hop. I’ve not yet recorded a 21st century reduplication. Bling-bling comes very close but is 20th century. ‘Bieber Fever’ is certainly 21st century, but isn’t quite a reduplication.

A hotchpotch of reduplication

Argy-bargy and lovey-dovey lie on opposite ends of the interpersonal scale, but they have something obvious in common: both are reduplicatives.

Reduplication is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-ayemishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit.

Reduplicatives emerge early in our language-learning lives. As infants in the babbling phase we reduplicate syllables to utter mama, dada, nana and papa, which is where these pet names come from. Later we use moo-moo, choo-choo, wee-wee and bow-wow (or similar) to refer to familiar things. The repetition, as well as being fun, might help children develop and practise the pronunciation of sounds.

As childhood progresses, reduplicatives remain popular, popping up in children’s books, songs and rhymes. Many characters in children’s stories have reduplicated names: Humpty Dumpty, Chicken Licken and Handy Andy, to name a few.

The language rule we know – but don’t know we know

Ding dong King Kong

Well, in fact, the Big Bad Wolf is just obeying another great linguistic law that every native English speaker knows, but doesn’t know that they know. And it’s the same reason that you’ve never listened to hop-hip music.

You are utterly familiar with the rule of ablaut reduplication. You’ve been using it all your life. It’s just that you’ve never heard of it. But if somebody said the words zag-zig, or ‘cross-criss you would know, deep down in your loins, that they were breaking a sacred rule of language. You just wouldn’t know which one.

All four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound. But we always, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip. Every second your watch (or the grandfather clock in the hall makes the same sound) but we say tick-tock, never tock-tick. You will never eat a Kat Kit bar. The bells in Frère Jaques will forever chime ‘ding dang dong’.

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

Why this should be is a subject of endless debate among linguists, it might be to do with the movement of your tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. It doesn’t matter. It’s the law, and, as with the adjectives, you knew it even if you didn’t know you knew it. And the law is so important that you just can’t have a Bad Big Wolf.

Jibber Jabber: The Unwritten Ablaut Reduplication Rule

In all these ablaut reduplication word pairs, the key vowels appear in a specific order: either i before a, or i before o.

In linguistic terms, you could say that a high vowel comes before a low vowel. The i sound is considered a high vowel because of the location of the tongue relative to the mouth in American speech. The a and o sounds are low vowels.

See-saw doesn’t use the letter i, but the high-vowel-before-low-vowel pattern still applies.

This Weird Grammar Rule is Why We Say “Flip Flop” Instead of “Flop Flip”

As to why this I-A-O pattern has such a firm hold in our linguistic history, nobody can say. Forsyth calls it a topic of “endless debate” among linguists that may originate in the arcane movements of the human tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. Whatever the case, the world’s English speakers are on-board, and you will never catch Lucy accusing Charlie Brown of being washy-wishy.

Reduplicative Words

Ricochet Word

wishy-washy, hanky panky – name for this type of word-formation?

argle-bargle

Easy-Peasy

Double Trouble

English Ryming Compound Words

Rhyming Compounds

Reduplicates

REDUPLICATION

English gitaigo: Flip-Flop Words

Development of Language and Music

Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning
by Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello

All of this leads ineluctably to the view that the notion of universal grammar is plain wrong. Of course, scientists never give up on their favorite theory, even in the face of contradictory evidence, until a reasonable alternative appears. Such an alternative, called usage-based linguistics, has now arrived. The theory, which takes a number of forms, proposes that grammatical structure is not in­­nate. Instead grammar is the product of history (the processes that shape how languages are passed from one generation to the next) and human psychology (the set of social and cognitive capacities that allow generations to learn a language in the first place). More important, this theory proposes that language recruits brain systems that may not have evolved specifically for that purpose and so is a different idea to Chomsky’s single-gene mutation for recursion.

In the new usage-based approach (which includes ideas from functional linguistics, cognitive linguistics and construction grammar), children are not born with a universal, dedicated tool for learning grammar. Instead they inherit the mental equivalent of a Swiss Army knife: a set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.

Broca and Wernicke are dead – it’s time to rewrite the neurobiology of language
by Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest

Yet the continued dominance of the Classic Model means that neuropsychology and neurology students are often learning outmoded ideas, without getting up to date with the latest findings in the area. Medics too are likely to struggle to account for language-related symptoms caused by brain damage or illness in areas outside of the Classic Model, but which are relevant to language function, such as the cerebellum.

Tremblay and Dick call for a “clean break” from the Classic Model and a new approach that rejects the “language centric” perspective of the past (that saw the language system as highly specialised and clearly defined), and that embraces a more distributed perspective that recognises how much of language function is overlaid on cognitive systems that originally evolved for other purposes.

Signing, Singing, Speaking: How Language Evolved
by Jon Hamilton, NPR

There’s no single module in our brain that produces language. Instead, language seems to come from lots of different circuits. And many of those circuits also exist in other species.

For example, some birds can imitate human speech. Some monkeys use specific calls to tell one another whether a predator is a leopard, a snake or an eagle. And dogs are very good at reading our gestures and tone of voice. Take all of those bits and you get “exactly the right ingredients for making language possible,” Elman says.

We are not the only species to develop speech impediments
by Moheb Costandi, BBC

Jarvis now thinks vocal learning is not an all-or-nothing function. Instead there is a continuum of skill – just as you would expect from something produced by evolution, and which therefore was assembled slowly, piece by piece.

The music of language: exploring grammar, prosody and rhythm perception in zebra finches and budgerigars
by Michelle Spierings, Institute of Biology Leiden

Language is a uniquely human trait. All animals have ways to communicate, but these systems do not bear the same complexity as human language. However, this does not mean that all aspects of human language are specifically human. By studying the language perception abilities of other species, we can discover which parts of language are shared. It are these parts that might have been at the roots of our language evolution. In this thesis I have studied language and music perception in two bird species, zebra finches and budgerigars. For example, zebra finches can perceive the prosodic (intonation) patterns of human language. The budgerigars can learn to discriminate between different abstract (grammar) patterns and generalize these patterns to new sounds. These and other results give us insight in the cognitive abilities that might have been at the very basis of the evolution of human language.

How Music and Language Mimicked Nature to Evolve Us
by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Curiously, in the majority of our interaction with the world, we seem to mimic the sounds of events among solid objects. Solid-object events are comprised of hits, slides and rings, producing periodic vibrations. Every time we speak, we find the same three fundamental auditory constituents in speech: plosives (hit-sounds like t, d and p), fricatives (slide-sounds like f, v and sh), and sonorants (ring-sounds like a, u, w, r and y). Changizi demonstrates that solid-object events have distinct “grammar” recurring in speech patterns across different languages and time periods.

But it gets even more interesting with music, a phenomenon perceived as a quintessential human invention — Changizi draws on a wealth of evidence indicating that music is actually based on natural sounds and sound patterns dating back to the beginning of time. Bonus points for convincingly debunking Steven Pinker’s now-legendary proclamation that music is nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.”

Ultimately, Harnessed shows that both speech and music evolved in culture to be simulacra of nature, making our brains’ penchant for these skills appear intuitive.

The sounds of movement
by Bob Holmes, New Scientist

It is this subliminal processing that spoken language taps into, says Changizi. Most of the natural sounds our ancestors would have processed fall into one of three categories: things hitting one another, things sliding over one another, and things resonating after being struck. The three classes of phonemes found in speech – plosives such as p and k, fricatives such as sh and f, and sonorants such as r, m and the vowels – closely resemble these categories of natural sound.

The same nature-mimicry guides how phonemes are assembled into syllables, and syllables into words, as Changizi shows with many examples. This explains why we acquire language so easily: the subconscious auditory processing involved is no different to what our ancestors have done for millions of years.

The hold that music has on us can also be explained by this kind of mimicry – but where speech imitates the sounds of everyday objects, music mimics the sound of people moving, Changizi argues. Primitive humans would have needed to know four things about someone moving nearby: their distance, speed, intent and whether they are coming nearer or going away. They would have judged distance from loudness, speed from the rate of footfalls, intent from gait, and direction from subtle Doppler shifts. Voila: we have volume, tempo, rhythm and pitch, four of the main components of music.

Scientists recorded two dolphins ‘talking’ to each other
by Maria Gallucci, Mashable

While marine biologists have long understood that dolphins communicate within their pods, the new research, which was conducted on two captive dolphins, is the first to link isolated signals to particular dolphins. The findings reveal that dolphins can string together “sentences” using a handful of “words.”

“Essentially, this exchange of [pulses] resembles a conversation between two people,” Vyacheslav Ryabov, the study’s lead researcher, told Mashable.

“The dolphins took turns in producing ‘sentences’ and did not interrupt each other, which gives reason to believe that each of the dolphins listened to the other’s pulses before producing its own,” he said in an email.

“Whistled Languages” Reveal How the Brain Processes Information
by Julien Meyer, Scientific American

Earlier studies had shown that the left hemisphere is, in fact, the dominant language center for both tonal and atonal tongues as well as for nonvocalized click and sign languages. Güntürkün was interested in learning how much the right hemisphere—associated with the processing of melody and pitch—would also be recruited for a whistled language. He and his colleagues reported in 2015 in Current Biology that townspeople from Kuşköy, who were given simple hearing tests, used both hemispheres almost equally when listening to whistled syllables but mostly the left one when they heard vocalized spoken syllables.

Did Music Evolve Before Language?
by Hank Campbell, Science 2.0

Gottfriend Schlaug of Harvard Medical School does something a little more direct that may be circumstantial but is a powerful exclamation point for a ‘music came first’ argument. His work with patients who have suffered severe lesions on the left side of their brain showed that while they could not speak – no language skill as we might define it – they were able to sing phrases like “I am thirsty”, sometimes within two minutes of having the phrase mapped to a melody.

Chopin, Bach used human speech ‘cues’ to express emotion in music
by Andrew Baulcomb, Science Daily

“What we found was, I believe, new evidence that individual composers tend to use cues in their music paralleling the use of these cues in emotional speech.” For example, major key or “happy” pieces are higher and faster than minor key or “sad” pieces.

Theory: Music underlies language acquisition
by B.J. Almond, Rice University

Contrary to the prevailing theories that music and language are cognitively separate or that music is a byproduct of language, theorists at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) advocate that music underlies the ability to acquire language.

“Spoken language is a special type of music,” said Anthony Brandt, co-author of a theory paper published online this month in the journal Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience. “Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language. But from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music.”

– See more at: http://news.rice.edu/2012/09/18/theory-music-underlies-language-acquisition/#sthash.kQbEBqnh.dpuf

How Brains See Music as Language
by Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic

What researchers found: The brains of jazz musicians who are engaged with other musicians in spontaneous improvisation show robust activation in the same brain areas traditionally associated with spoken language and syntax. In other words, improvisational jazz conversations “take root in the brain as a language,” Limb said.

“It makes perfect sense,” said Ken Schaphorst, chair of the Jazz Studies Department at the New England Conservatory in Boston. “I improvise with words all the time—like I am right now—and jazz improvisation is really identical in terms of the way it feels. Though it’s difficult to get to the point where you’re comfortable enough with music as a language where you can speak freely.”

Along with the limitations of musical ability, there’s another key difference between jazz conversation and spoken conversation that emerged in Limb’s experiment. During a spoken conversation, the brain is busy processing the structure and syntax of language, as well the semantics or meaning of the words. But Limb and his colleagues found that brain areas linked to meaning shut down during improvisational jazz interactions. In other words, this kind of music is syntactic but it’s not semantic.

“Music communication, we know it means something to the listener, but that meaning can’t really be described,” Limb said. “It doesn’t have propositional elements or specificity of meaning in the same way a word does. So a famous bit of music—Beethoven’s dun dun dun duuuun—we might hear that and think it means something but nobody could agree what it means.”

 

Dark Matter of the Mind

The past half year has been spent in anticipation. Daniel Everett has a new book that finally came out the other day: Dark Matter of the Mind. I was so curious to read it because Everett is the newest and most well known challenger to mainstream linguistics theory. This is only an interest to me because it so happens to directly touch upon every aspect of our humanity: human nature (vs nurture), self-identity, consciousness, cognition, perception, behavior, culture, philosophy, etc.

The leading opponent to Everett’s theory is Noam Chomsky, a well-known and well-respected public intellectual. Chomsky is the founder of the so-called cognitive revolution — not that Everett sees it as all that revolutionary: “it was not a revolution in any sense, however popular that narrative has become” (Kindle Location 306). That brings into the conflict issues of personality, academia, politics, and funding. It’s two paradigms clashing, one of the paradigms having been dominant for more than a half century.

Now that I’ve been reading the book, I find my response to be mixed. Everett is running headlong into difficult terrain and I must admit he does so competently. He is doing the tough scholarly work that needs to be done. As Bill Benzon explained (at 3 Quarks Daily):

“While the intellectual world is rife with specialized argumentation arrayed around culture and associated concepts (nature, nurture, instinct, learning) these concepts themselves do not have well-defined technical meanings. In fact, I often feel they are destined to go the way of phlogiston, except that, alas, we’ve not yet discovered the oxygen that will allow us to replace them [4]. These concepts are foundational, but the foundation is crumbling. Everett is attempting to clear away the rubble and start anew on cleared ground. That’s what dark matter is, the cleared ground that becomes visible once the rubble has been pushed to the side. Just what we’ll build on it, and how, that’s another question.”

This explanation points to a fundamental problem, if we are to consider it a problem. Earlier in the piece, Benzon wrote that, “OK, I get it, I think, you say, but this dark matter stuff is so vague and metaphorical. You’re right. And it remains that way to the end of the book. And that, I suppose, is my major criticism, though it’s a minor one. “Dark matter” does a lot of conceptual work for Everett, but he discusses it indirectly.” Basically, Everett struggles with a limited framework of terminology and concepts. But that isn’t entirely his fault. It’s not exactly new territory that Everett discovered, just not yet fully explored and mapped out. The main thing he did, in his earliest work, was to bring up evidence that simply did not fit into prevailing theories. And now in a book like this he is trying to make sense of what that evidence indicates and what theory better explains it.

It would have been useful if Everett had been able to give a fuller survey of the relevant scholarship. But if he had, it would have been a larger and more academic book. It is already difficult enough for most readers not familiar with the topic. Besides, I suspect that Everett was pushing against the boundaries of his own knowledge and readings. It was easy for me to see everything that was left out, in relation to numerous other fields beyond his focus of linguistics and anthropology — such as: neurocognitive research, consciousness studies, classical studies of ancient texts, voice-hearing and mental health, etc.

The book sometimes felt like reinventing the wheel. Everett’s expertise is in linguistics, and apparently that has has been an insular field of study defended by a powerful and entrenched academic establishment. My sense is that linguistics is far behind in development, compared to many other fields. The paradigm shift that is just now happening in linguistics has been for decades creating seismic shifts elsewhere in academia. Some argue that this is because linguistics became enmeshed in Pentagon-funded computer research and so has had a hard time disentangling itself in order to become an independent field once again. Chomsky as leader of the cognitive revolution has effectively dissuaded a generation of linguists from doing social science, instead promoting the hard sciences, a problematic position to hold about a rather soft field like linguistics. As anthropologist Chris Knight explains it, in Decoding Chomsky (Chapter 1):

“[O]ne bedrock assumption underlies his work. If you want to be a scientist, Chomsky advises, restrict your efforts to natural science. Social science is mostly fraud. In fact, there is no such thing as social science.[49] As Chomsky asks: ‘Is there anything in the social sciences that even merits the term “theory”? That is, some explanatory system involving hidden structures with non-trivial principles that provide understanding of phenomena? If so, I’ve missed it.’[50]

“So how is it that Chomsky himself is able to break the mould? What special factor permits him to develop insights which do merit the term ‘theory’? In his view, ‘the area of human language . . . is one of the very few areas of complex human functioning’ in which theoretical work is possible.[51] The explanation is simple: language as he defines it is neither social nor cultural, but purely individual and natural. Provided you acknowledge this, you can develop theories about hidden structures – proceeding as in any other natural science. Whatever else has changed over the years, this fundamental assumption has not.”

This makes Everett’s job harder than it should be, in breaking new ground in linguistics and in trying to connect it to the work already done elsewhere, most often in the social sciences. As humans are complex social animals living in a complex world, it is bizarre and plain counterproductive to study humans in the way one studies a hard science like geology. Humans aren’t isolated biological computers that can operate outside of the larger context of specific cultures and environments. But Chomsky simply assumes all of that is irrelevant on principle. Field research of actual functioning languages, as Everett has done, can be dismissed because it is mere social science. One can sense how difficult it is for Everett in struggling against this dominant paradigm.

Still, even with these limitations of the linguistics field, the book remains a more than worthy read. His using Plato and Aristotle to frame the issue was helpful to an extent, although it also added another variety of limitation. I got a better sense of the conflict of worldviews and how they relate to the larger history of ideas. But in doing so, I became more aware of the problems of that frame, very closely related to the problems of the nature vs nurture debate (for, in reality, nature and nurture are inseparable). He describes linguistic theoreticians like Chomsky as being in the Platonic school of thought. Chomsky surely would agree, as he has already made that connection in his own writings, what he discusses as Plato’s problem and Plato’s answer. Chomsky’s universal grammar are Platonic in nature, for as he has written such “knowledge is ‘remembered’” (“Linguistics, a personal view” from The Chomskyan Turn). This is Plato’s ananmesis and alethia, an unforgetting of what is true, based on the belief that humans are born with certain kinds of innate knowledge.

That is interesting to think about. But in the end I felt that something was being oversimplified or entirely left out. Everett is arguing against nativism, that there is an inborn predetermined human nature. It’s not so much that he is arguing for a blank slate as he is trying to explain the immense diversity and potential that exists across cultures. But the duality of nativism vs non-nativism lacks the nuance to wrestle down complex realities.

I’m sympathetic to Everett’s view and to his criticisms of the nativist view. But there are cross-cultural patterns that need to be made sense of, even with the exceptions that deviate from those patterns. Dismissing evidence is never satisfying. Along with Chomsky, he throws in the likes of Carl Jung. But the difference between Chomsky and Jung is that the former is an academic devoted to pure theory unsullied by field research while the latter was a practicing psychotherapist who began with the particulars of individual cases. Everett is arguing for a focus on the particulars, upon which to build theory, but that is what Jung did. The criticisms of Chomsky can’t be shifted over to Jung, no matter what one thinks of Jung’s theories.

Part of the problem is that the kind of evidence Jung dealt with remains to be explained. It’s simply a fact that certain repeating patterns are found in human experience, across place and time. That is evidence to be considered, not dismissed, however one wishes to interpret it. Not even most respectable nativist thinkers want to confront this kind of evidence that challenges conventional understandings on all sides. Maybe Jungian theories of archetypes, personality types, etc are incorrect. But how do we study and test such things, going from direct observation to scientific research? And how is the frame of nativism/non-nativism helpful at all?

Maybe there are patterns, not unlike gravity and other natural laws, that are simply native to the world humans inhabit and so might not be entirely or at all native to the human mind, which is to say not in the way that Chomsky makes nativist claims about universal grammar. Rather, these patterns would be native to to humans in the way and to the extent humans are native to the world. This could be made to fit into Everett’s own theorizing, as he is attempting to situate the human within larger contexts of culture, environment, and such.

Consider an example from psychedelic studies. It has been found that people under the influence of particular psychedelics often have similar experiences. This is why shamanic cultures speak of psychedelic plants as having spirits that reside within or are expressed through them.

Let me be more specific. DMT is the most common psychedelic in the world, it being found in numerous plants and even is produced in small quantities by the human brain. It’s an example of interspecies co-evolution, plants and humans having chemicals in common. Plants are chemistry factories and they use chemicals for various purposes, including communication with other plants (e.g., chemically telling nearby plants that something is nibbling on its leaves and so put up your chemical defenses) and communicating with non-plants (e.g., sending out bitter chemicals to help inform the nibbler that they might want to eat elsewhere). Animals didn’t just co-evolve with edible plants but also psychedelic plants. And humans aren’t the only species to imbibe. Maybe chemicals like DMT serve a purpose. And maybe there is a reason so many humans tripping on DMT experience what some describe as self-replicating machine elves or self-transforming fractal elves. Humans have been tripping on DMT for longer than civilization has existed.

DMT is far from being the only psychedelic plant like this. It’s just one of the more common. The reason plant psychedelics do what they do to our brains is because our brains were shaped by evolution to interact with chemicals like this. These chemicals almost seem designed for animal brains, especially DMT which our own brains produce.

That brings up some issues about the whole nativism/non-nativism conflict. Is a common experience many humans have with a psychedelic plant native to humans, native to the plant, or native to the inter-species relationship between human and plant? Where do the machine/fractal elves live, in the plant or in our brain? My tendency is to say that they in some sense ‘exist’ in the relationship between plants and humans, an experiential expression of that relationship, as immaterial and ephemeral as the love felt by two humans. These weird psychedelic beings are a plant-human hybrid, a shared creation of our shared evolution. They are native to our humanity to the extent that we are native to the ecosystems we share with those psychedelic plants.

Other areas of human experience lead down similar strange avenues. Take as another example the observations of Jacques Vallée. When he was a practicing astronomer, he became interested in UFOs as some of his fellow astronomers would destroy rather than investigate anomalous observational data. This led him to look into the UFO field and that led to his studying those claiming alien abduction experiences. What he noted was that the stories told were quite similar to fairy abduction folktales and shamanic accounts of initiation. There seemed to be a shared pattern of experience that was interpreted differently according to culture but that in a large number of cases the basic pattern held.

Or take yet another example. Judith Weissman has noted patterns among the stated experiences of voice-hearers. Another researcher on voice-hearing, Tanya Luhrmann, has studied how voice-hearing both has commonalities and differences across cultures. John Geiger has shown how common voice-hearing can be, even if for most people it is usually only elicited during times of stress. Based on this and the work of others, it is obvious that voice-hearing is a normal capacity existing within all humans. It is actually quite common among children and some theorize it was more common for adults in other societies. Is pointing out the surprisingly common experience of voice-hearing an argument for nativism?

These aspects of our humanity are plain weird. It was the kind of thing that always fascinated Jung. But what do we do with such evidence? It doesn’t prove a universal human nature that is inborn and predetermined. Not everyone has these experiences. But it appears everyone is capable of having these experiences.

This is where mainstream thinking in the field of linguistics shows its limitations. Going by Everett’s descriptions of the Pirahã, it seems likely that voice-hearing is common among them, although they wouldn’t interpret it that way. For them, voice-hearing appears to manifest as full possession and what, to Western outsiders, seems like a shared state of dissociation. It’s odd that as a linguist it didn’t occur to Everett to study the way of speaking of those who were possessed or to think more deeply about the experiential significance of the use of language indicating dissociation. Maybe it was too far outside of his own cultural biases, the same cultural biases that causes many Western voice-hearers to be medicated and institutionalized.

And if we’re going to talk about voice-hearing, we have to bring up Julian Jaynes. Everett probably doesn’t realize it, but his views seem to be in line with the bicameral theory or at least not in explicit contradiction with it on conceptual grounds. He seems to be coming out of the cultural school of thought within anthropology, the same influence on Jaynes. It is precisely Everett’s anthropological field research that distinguishes him from a theoretical linguist like Chomsky who has never formally studied any foreign language nor gone out into the field to test his theories. It was from studying the Pirahã firsthand over many years that the power of culture was impressed upon him. Maybe that is a commonality with Jaynes who began his career doing scientific research, not theorizing.

As I was reading the book, I kept being reminded of Jaynes, despite Everett never mentioning him or related thinkers. It’s largely how he talks about individuals situated in a world and worldview, along with his mentioning of Bordieu’s habitus. This fits into his emphasis on the culture and nurture side of influences, arguing that people (and languages) are products of their environments. Also, when Everett wrote that his view was there is “nothing to an individual but one’s body” (Kindle Location 328), it occurred to me how this fit into the proposed experience of hypothetical ancient bicameral humans. My thought was confirmed when he stated that his own understanding was most in line with the Buddhist anatnam, ‘non-self’. Just a week ago, I wrote the following in reference to Jaynes’ bicameral theory:

“We modern Westerners identify ourselves with our thoughts, the internalized voice of egoic consciousness. And we see this as the greatest prize of civilization, the hard-won rights and freedoms of the heroic individual. It’s the story we tell. But in other societies, such as in the East, there are traditions that teach the self is distinct from thought. From the Buddhist perspective of dependent (co-)origination, it is a much less radical notion that the self arises out of thought, instead of the other way around, and that thought itself simply arises. A Buddhist would have a much easier time intuitively grasping the theory of bicameralism, that thoughts are greater than and precede the self.”

Jaynes considered self-consciousness and self-identity to be products of thought, rather than the other way around. Like Everett, this is an argument against the old Western belief in a human soul that is eternal and immortal, that Platonically precedes individual corporality. But notions like Chomsky’s universal grammar feel like an attempt to revamp the soul for a scientific era, a universal human nature that precedes any individual, a soul as the spark of God and the divine expressed as a language imprinted on the soul. If I must believe in something existing within me that pre-exists me, then I’d rather go with alien-fairy-elves hiding out in the tangled undergrowth of my neurons.

Anyway, how might Everett’s views of nativism/non-nativism been different if he had been more familiar with the work of these other researchers and thinkers? The problem is that the nativism/non-nativism framework is itself culturally biased. It’s related to the problem of anthropologists who try to test the color perception of other cultures using tests that are based on Western color perception. Everett’s observations of the Pirahã, by the way, have also challenged that field of study — as he has made the claim that the Pirahã have no color terms and no particular use in discriminating colors. That deals with the relationship of language to cognition and perception. Does language limit our minds? If so, how and to what extent? If not, are we to assume that such things as ‘colors’ are native to how the human brain functions? Would an individual born into and raised in a completely dark room still ‘see’ colors in their mind’s eye?

Maybe the fractal elves produce the colors, consuming the DMT and defecating rainbows. Maybe the alien-fairies abduct us in our sleep and use advanced technology to implant the colors into our brains. Maybe without the fractal elves and alien-fairies, we would finally all be colorblind and our society would be free from racism. Just some alternative theories to consider.

Talking about cultural biases, I was fascinated by some of the details he threw out about the Pirahã, the tribe he had spent the most years studying. He wrote that (Kindle Locations 147-148), “Looking back, I can identify many of the hidden problems it took me years to recognize, problems based in contrasting sets of tacit assumptions held by the Pirahãs and me.” He then lists some of the tacit assumptions held by these people he came to know.

They don’t appear to have any concepts, language, or interest in God or gods, in religion, or anything spiritual/supernatural that wasn’t personally experienced by them or someone they personally know. Their language is very direct and precise about all experience and the source of claims. But they don’t feel like they’re spiritually lost or somehow lacking anything. In fact, Everett describes them as being extremely happy and easygoing, except on the rare occasion when a trader gives them alcohol.

They don’t have any concern or fear about nor do they seek out and talk about death, the dead, ancestral spirits, or the afterlife. They apparently are entirely focused on present experience. They don’t speculate, worry, or even have curiosity about what is outside their experience. Foreign cultures are irrelevant to them, this being an indifference and not hatred of foreigners. It’s just that foreign cultures is thought of as good for foreigners, as Pirahã culture is good for Pirahã. Generally, they seem to lack the standard anxiety that is typical of our society, despite living in and walking around barefoot in one of the most dangerous environments on the planet surrounded by poisonous and deadly creatures. It’s actually malaria that tends to cut their lives short. But they don’t much comparison in thinking that their lives are cut short.

Their society is based on personal relationships and “do not like for any individual to tell another individual how to live” (Kindle Locations 149-150). They don’t have governments or, as far as I know, governing councils. They don’t practice social coercion, community-mandated punishments, and enforced norms. They are very small tribe living in isolation with a way of life that has likely remained basically the same for millennia. Their culture and lifestyle is well-adapted to their environmental niche, and so they don’t tend to encounter many new problems that require them to act differently than in the past. They also don’t practice or comprehend incarceration, torture, capital punishment, mass war, genocide, etc. It’s not that violence never happens in their society, but I get the sense that it’s rare.

In the early years of life, infants and young toddlers live in near constant proximity to their mothers and other adults. They are given near ownership rights of their mothers’ bodies, freely suckling whenever they want without asking permission or being denied. But once weaned, Pirahã are the opposite of coddled. Their mothers simply cut them off from their bodies and the toddlers go through a tantrum period that is ignored by adults. They learn from experience and get little supervision in the process. They quickly become extremely knowledgeable and capable about living in and navigating the world around them. The parents have little fear about their children and it seems to be well-founded, as the children prove themselves able to easily learn self-sufficiency and a willingness to contribute. It reminded me of Jean Liedloff’s continuum concept.

Then, once they become teenagers, they don’t go through a rebellious phase. It seems a smooth transition into adulthood. As he described it in his first book (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, p. 99-100):

“I did not see Pirahã teenagers moping, sleeping in late, refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions, or trying out what they considered to be radically new approaches to life. They in fact are highly productive and conformist members of their community in the Pirahã sense of productivity (good fishermen, contributing generally to the security, food needs, and o ther aspects of the physical survival of the community). One gets no sense of teenage angst, depression, or insecurity among the Pirahã youth. They do not seem to be searching for answers. They have them. And new questions rarely arise.

“Of course, this homeostasis can stifle creativity and individuality, two important Western values. If one considers cultural evolution to be a good thing, then this may not be something to emulate, since cultural evolution likely requires conflict, angst, and challenge. But if your life is unthreatened (so far as you know) and everyone in your society is satisfied, why would you desire change? How could things be improved? Especially if the outsiders you came into contact with seemed more irritable and less satisfied with life than you. I asked the Pirahãs once during my early missionary years if they knew why I was there. “You are here because this is a beautiful place. The water is pretty. There are good things to eat here. The Pirahãs are nice people.” That was and is the Pirahãs’ perspective. Life is good. Their upbringing, everyone learning early on to pull their own weight, produces a society of satisfied members. That is hard to argue against.”

The most strange and even shocking aspect of Pirahã life is their sexuality. Kids quickly learn about sex. It’s not that people have sex out in the open. But it’s a lifestyle that provides limited privacy. Sexual activity isn’t considered a mere adult activity and children aren’t protected from it. Quite the opposite (Kindle Locations 2736-2745):

“Sexual behavior is another behavior distinguishing Pirahãs from most middle-class Westerners early on. A young Pirahã girl of about five years came up to me once many years ago as I was working and made crude sexual gestures, holding her genitalia and thrusting them at me repeatedly, laughing hysterically the whole time. The people who saw this behavior gave no sign that they were bothered. Just child behavior, like picking your nose or farting. Not worth commenting about.

“But the lesson is not that a child acted in a way that a Western adult might find vulgar. Rather, the lesson, as I looked into this, is that Pirahã children learn a lot more about sex early on, by observation, than most American children. Moreover, their acquisition of carnal knowledge early on is not limited to observation. A man once introduced me to a nine- or ten-year-old girl and presented her as his wife. “But just to play,” he quickly added. Pirahã young people begin to engage sexually, though apparently not in full intercourse, from early on. Touching and being touched seem to be common for Pirahã boys and girls from about seven years of age on. They are all sexually active by puberty, with older men and women frequently initiating younger girls and boys, respectively. There is no evidence that the children then or as adults find this pedophilia the least bit traumatic.”

This seems plain wrong to most Westerners. Then again, to the Pirahã, much of what Westerners do would seem plain wrong or simply incomprehensible. Which is worse, Pirahã pedophilia or Western mass violence and systematic oppression?

What is most odd is that, like death for adults, sexuality for children isn’t considered a traumatizing experience and they don’t act traumatized. It’s apparently not part of their culture to be traumatized. They aren’t a society based on and enmeshed in a worldview of violence, fear, and anxiety. That isn’t how they think about any aspect of their lifeworld. I would assume that, like most tribal people, they don’t have high rates of depression and other mental illnesses. Everett pointed out that in the thirty years he knew the Pirahã there never was a suicide. And when he told them about his stepmother killing herself, they burst out in laughter because it made absolutely no sense to them that someone would take their own life.

That demonstrates the power of culture, environment, and lifestyle. According to Everett, it also demonstrates the power of language, inseparable from the society that shapes and is shaped by it, and demonstrates how little we understand the dark matter of the mind.

* * *

The Amazon’s Pirahã People’s Secret to Happiness: Never Talk of the Past or Future
by Dominique Godrèche, Indian Country

Being Pirahã Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
by Christopher Ryan, Psychology Today

The Myth of Teenage Rebellion
by Suzanne Calulu, Patheos

The Suicide Paradox: Full Transcript
from Freakonomics

The Chomsky Problem

Somehow I’ve ended up reading books on linguistics.

It started years ago with my reading books by such thinkers as E. R. Dodds and Julian Jaynes. Their main focus was on language usage of the ancient world. For entirely different reasons, I ended up interested in Daniel L. Everett who became famous for his study of the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe with a unique culture and language. A major figure I have had an interest in for a long time, Noam Chomsky, is also in the linguistics field, but I had never previously been interested in his linguistic writings.

It turns out that Everett and Chomsky are on two sides of the central debate within linguistics. That debate has overshadowed all other issues in the field since what is known as the cognitive revolution. I was peripherally aware of this, but some recent books have forced me to try to make sense of it. Two books I read, though, come at the debate from an entirely different angle.

The first book I read isn’t one I’d recommend. It is The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe. I’ve never looked at much of his writings, despite having seen his books around for decades. The only prior book I even opened was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a catchy title if there ever was one. Maybe he is getting old enough that he isn’t as great of a writer as he once was. I don’t know. This latest publication wasn’t that impressive, even as I think I understood and agreed with the central conclusion of his argument posed as a confused angry rant.

It’s possible that such a book might serve a purpose, if reading it led one to read better books on the topic. Tom Wolfe does have a journalistic flair about him that makes the debate seem entertaining to those who might otherwise find it boring — a melodramatic clashing of minds and ideas, sometimes a battle of wills with charisma winning the day. His portrayal of Chomsky definitely gets one thinking, but I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. Fortunately, another book by an entirely different kind of author, Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky, takes on a similar understanding to Chomsky’s linguistics career and does so with more scholarly care.

Both books helped me put my finger on something that has been bothering me about Chomsky. Like Knight, I highly respect Chomsky’s political activism and his being a voice for truth and justice. Yet there was a disconnect I sensed. I remember being disappointed by a video I saw of him being asked by someone about what should be done and his response was that he couldn’t tell anyone what to do and that everyone had to figure it out for themself. The problem is that no one has ever figured out any major problem by themselves in all of human existence. Chomsky knows full well the challenges we face and still, when push comes to shove, the best he has to offer is to tell people to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate once again. That is plain depressing.

Knight gives one possible explanation for why that disconnection exists and why it matters. It’s not just a disconnection. After reading Knight’s book, I came to the conclusion that there is a dissociation involved, a near complete divide within Chomsky’s psyche. Because of his career and his activism, he felt compelled to split himself in two. He admits that this is what he has done and states that he has a remarkable talent in being able to do so, but he doesn’t seem grasp the potentially severe consequences. Knight shows that Chomsky should understand this, as it relates to key social problems Chomsky has written about involving the disconnect of the knowing mind — between what we know, what we think we know, what don’t know, and what we don’t know we know. It relates to what Knight discussion of Orwell’s problem and Plato’s problem:

He shows no appetite for dwelling on contradictions: ‘Plato’s problem . . . is to explain how we know so much, given that the evidence available to us is so sparse. Orwell’s problem is to explain why we know and understand so little, even though the evidence available to us is so rich.’[36]

How do we know so little? That’s Orwell’s problem. How do we know so much? That’s Plato’s. Chomsky makes no attempt to reconcile these two problems, leaving the contradiction between their flatly opposed assumptions unresolved. Which problem is chosen depends on who is speaking, whether activist or scientist. Chomsky’s ‘two problems’ seem not only different but utterly unconnected with one another, as if to deliberately illustrate the gulf between the two compartments of his brain.

I’m not sure I fully understand what this division is and what the fundamental issue might be. I do sense how this goes far beyond Chomsky and linguistics. Knight points out that this kind of splitting is common in academia. I’d go further. It is common throughout our society.

Dissociation is not an unusual response, but when taken to extremes the results can be problematic. An even more extreme example than that of Chomsky, as used by Derrick Jensen, is the Nazi doctors who experimented on children and then went home to play with their own children. The two parts of their lives never crossed, neither in their experience nor in their minds. This is something most people learn to do, if never to such a demented degree. Our lives become splintered in endless ways, a near inevitability in such a large complex society as this. Our society maybe couldn’t operate without such dissociation, a possibility that concerns me.

This brings my mind back around to the more basic problem of linguistics itself. What is linguistics a study of and what is the purpose toward what end? That relates to a point Knight makes, arguing that Chomsky has split theory from meaning, science from humanity. Between the Pentagon-funded researcher and the anti-Pentagon anarchist, the twain shall never meet. Two people live in Chomsky’s mind and they are fundamentally opposed, according to Knight. Maybe there is something to this.

Considering the larger-than-life impact Chomsky has had on the linguistics field, what does this mean for our understanding of our own humanity? Why has the Pentagon backed Chomsky’s side and what do they get for their money?