👓 Steven Pinker Explains the Neuroscience of Swearing | Open Culture

Steven Pinker Explains the Neuroscience of Swearing by Matthias Rascher (Open Culture)
Pinker talking about his then new book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, and doing what he does best: combining psychology and neuroscience with linguistics. The result is as entertaining as it is insightful.

Continue reading “👓 Steven Pinker Explains the Neuroscience of Swearing | Open Culture”

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Installing Google’s IME so I can type Japanese hiragana on my keyboard more easily https://www.google.co.jp/ime/

Installing Google’s IME so I can type Japanese hiragana on my keyboard more easily https://www.google.co.jp/ime/

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🔖 Green’s Dictionary of Slang

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (greensdictofslang.com)

h/t The Largest Historical Dictionary of English Slang Now Free Online: Covers 500 Years of the “Vulgar Tongue” | Open Culture.


“The three volumes of Green’s Dictionary of Slang demonstrate the sheer scope of a lifetime of research by Jonathon Green, the leading slang lexicographer of our time. A remarkable collection of this often reviled but endlessly fascinating area of the English language, it covers slang from the past five centuries right up to the present day, from all the different English-speaking countries and regions. Totaling 10.3 million words and over 53,000 entries, the collection provides the definitions of 100,000 words and over 413,000 citations. Every word and phrase is authenticated by genuine and fully-referenced citations of its use, giving the work a level of authority and scholarship unmatched by any other publication in this field.”

If you head over to Amazon.com, that’s how you will find Green’s Dictionary of Slang pitched to consumers. The dictionary is an attractive three-volume, hard-bound set. But it comes at a price. $264 for a used edition. $600 for a new one.

Now comes the good news. In October, Green’s Dictionary of Slang became available as a free website, giving you access to an even more updated version of the dictionary. Collectively, the website lets you trace the development of slang over the past 500 years. And, as Mental Floss notes, the site “allows lookups of word definitions and etymologies for free, and, for a well-worth-it subscription fee, it offers citations and more extensive search options.” If you’ve ever wondered about the meaning of words like kidlywink, gollier, and linthead, you now know where to begin.

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The Language Of Falconry

The Language of Falconry | The Use of Falconry Terms by Wingspan: National Bird of Prey Centre (wingspan.co.nz)

You probably don’t realise – we all talk the language of falconry!

Having such a long and rich history around the world, the practice of falconry has developed an extensive vocabulary to describe it. Over time many of these words and phrases have become part of everyday life without many of us realising the original meaning behind the term.

For example:

“I’m just so fed up with all this work.”
The term to be ‘fed up’ comes from the falconry term for when a trained hawk has eaten its fill. When a bird is ‘fed up’ it is unwilling to fly and hunt for the falconer. Hence today, to be ‘fed up’ means you are no longer interested in doing something.

“That guy is so under her thumb!”
To be under the thumb, comes from the action of a falconer holding the leash of the hawk under their thumb to maintain a tight control of the bird. Today the term under the thumb is generally used in a derogatory manner to describe a partners overbearing control over the other partners actions.

“Ha ha – he’s been hoodwinked!”
Falconers use a leather ‘hood’ to cover a hawks eyes and keep them calm. Hence the term hoodwinked came about to describe somebody being fooled or tricked into doing something.

“Noel has been working too hard – he’s looking a bit haggard!”
A haggard falcon was traditionally a bird that was caught from the wild while on migration. Typically a bird caught at this time would be thin and tired from its journey. Hence the term for somebody looking ‘haggard’ means that they look a bit rough around the edges, a bit worn out.

“She’s been waiting with bated breath all day”
Falcons, when they want to fly, bate from the block, meaning they try to fly but are held short of leaving the area around their perch by their leash. When doing this they can become short of breath – and hence are waiting for the falconer to come to release them from their tether with ‘bated breath’. The term “at the end of my tether” similarly comes from the action of a falcon, particularly an un-trained young falcon, bating from the perch and being held up by their tether – hence they are at the end of their tether i.e. extremely frustrated.

“Ok, I will cadge a lift off Tom.”
A cadge was what falconers called a portable perch. Falcons were carried to the hunting grounds on a cadge. Thus the term to ‘cadge a lift’ came about, meaning to get a free lift. Phrases based on the words cadge don’t end there. ‘Codger’ is a derivative of the word ‘cadger’. Cadgers were usually old falconers (who carried the falcons on the cadge) hence today the term has come to be used to refer to an elderly person, as in the affectionate term – ‘the old codger’. Interestingly, a caddy today is somebody who carries golf clubs for somebody – and normally the person carrying the clubs is considerably younger than the person playing the game!

“I’m off down the boozer.”
When raptors drink, it is called bowsing. A bird that drinks heavily is called a boozer. The same term is used to describe the same tendency in humans – hence a ‘boozer’ is someone who drinks a lot and the ‘boozer’ is where people that drink beer like to go for a drink (or two).

Source: Falconry | The Language of Falconry | The Use of Falconry Terms

Reading Katumuwa

Reading Katumuwa by Dennis Pardee, The Oriental Institute from YouTube
Video published on Apr 18, 2014.

This video by Travis Saul features a digital rendering of the Stele of Katumuwa. The ancient stele was discovered by University of Chicago archaeologists at Zincirli, Turkey in 2008. The inscription on the stele, written in a local dialect of Aramaic, is dated to around 735 BC. In word and image, Katumuwa asks his descendants to remember and honor him in his mortuary chapel at an annual sacrificial feast for his soul, which inhabited not his bodily remains, but the stone itself.

This reading of the Aramaic inscription and its English translation is kindly provided by Dennis Pardee, Henry Crown Professor of Hebrew Studies, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. For more detailed information about the inscription, read his chapter featured in this Oriental Institute Museum Publication:

Pardee, Dennis. “The Katumuwa Inscription” in, In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East, edited by V.R. Hermann and J.D. Schloen, pp.45-48. Oriental Institute Museum Publication 37. 2014. Chicago: The Oriental Institute.


The reading is also featured in the video “Remembering Katumuwa” featured in the Special Exhibit “In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East” at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, April 8 2014–January 4 2015.

In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East.

Virginia Rimmer Herrmann and J. David Schloen, eds., In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2014.
Download the free e-book: http://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/oimp37.pdf

Remembering Katumuwa

Additional context for the stele

h/t to my friend Dave Harris for sending this along to me.

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Complexity isn’t a Vice: 10 Word Answers and Doubletalk in Election 2016

How Donald Trump is leveraging an old Vaudeville trick to heavily contest the presidential election

A Problem with Transcripts

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen dozens of news outlets publish multi-paragraph excerpts of speeches from Donald Trump and have been appalled that I was unable to read them in any coherent way. I could not honestly follow or discern any coherent thought or argument in the majority of them. I was a bit shocked because in listening to him, he often sounds like he has some kind of point, though he seems to be spouting variations on one of ten one-liners he’s been using for over a year now. There’s apparently a flaw in our primal reptilian brains that seems to be tricking us into thinking that there’s some sort of substance in his speech when there honestly is none. I’m going to have to spend some time reading more on linguistics and cognitive neuroscience. Maybe Stephen Pinker knows of an answer?

The situation got worse this week as I turned to news sources for fact-checking of the recent presidential debate. While it’s nice to have web-based annotation tools like Genius[1] and Hypothes.is[2] to mark up these debates, it becomes another thing altogether to understand the meaning of what’s being said in order to actually attempt to annotate it. I’ve included some links so that readers can attempt the exercise for themselves.

Recent transcripts (some with highlights/annotations):

Doubletalk and Doublespeech

It’s been a while since Americans were broadly exposed to actual doubletalk. For the most part our national experience with it has been a passing curiosity highlighted by comedians.

a deliberately unintelligible form of speech in which inappropriate, invented or nonsense syllables are combined with actual words. This type of speech is commonly used to give the appearance of knowledge and thereby confuse, amuse, or entertain the speaker’s audience.
another term for doublespeak
see also n. doubletalk [3]

Since the days of vaudeville (and likely before), comedians have used doubletalk to great effect on stage, in film, and on television. Some comedians who have historically used the technique as part of their acts include Al Kelly, Cliff Nazarro, Danny Kaye, Gary Owens, Irwin Corey, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Stanley Unwin, and Reggie Watts. I’m including some short video clips below as examples.

A well-known, but foreshortened, form of it was used by Dana Carvey in his Saturday Night Live performances caricaturizing George H.W. Bush by using a few standard catch phrases with pablum in between: “Not gonna do it…”, “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture”, and “Thousand Points of Light…”. These snippets in combination with some creative hand gestures (pointing, lacing fingers together), along with a voice melding of Mr. Rogers and John Wayne were the simple constructs that largely transformed a diminutive comedian convincingly into a president.

Doubletalk also has a more “educated” sibling known as technobabble. Engineers are sure to recall a famous (and still very humorous) example of both doubletalk and technobabble in the famed description of the Turboencabulator.[4] (See also, the short videos below.)

Doubletalk comedy examples

Al Kelly on Ernie Kovaks

Sid Caesar

Technobabble examples


Rockwell Turbo Encabulator Version 2


And of course doubletalk and technobabble have closely related cousins named doublespeak and politicobabble. These are far more dangerous than the others because they move over the line of comedy into seriousness and are used by people who make decisions effecting hundreds of thousands to millions, if not billions, of people on the planet. I’m sure an archeo-linguist might be able to discern where exactly politicobabble emerged and managed to evolve into a non-comedic form of speech which people manage to take far more seriously than its close ancestors. One surely suspects some heavy influence from George Orwell’s corpus of work:

The term “doublespeak” probably has its roots in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four.[5] Although the term is not used in the book, it is a close relative of one of the book’s central concepts, “doublethink”. Another variant, “doubletalk”, also referring to deliberately ambiguous speech, did exist at the time Orwell wrote his book, but the usage of “doublespeak” as well as of “doubletalk” in the sense emphasizing ambiguity clearly postdates the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Parallels have also been drawn between doublespeak and Orwell’s classic essay Politics and the English Language [6] , which discusses the distortion of language for political purposes.

in Wikipedia.com [7]


While politicobabble is nothing new, I did find a very elucidating passage from the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election cycle which seems to be a major part of the Trump campaign playbook:

Repetition of a meaningless mantra is supposed to empty the mind, clearing the way for meditation on more profound matters. This campaign has achieved the first part. I’m not sure about the second.

Candidates are now told to pick a theme, and keep repeating it-until polls show it’s not working, at which point the theme vanishes and another takes its place.

The mantra-style repetition of the theme of the week, however, leaves the impression that Teen Talk Barbie has acquired some life-size Campaign Talk Ken dolls. Pull the string and you get: ‘Congress is tough,’ ‘worst economic performance since the Depression,’ or ‘a giant sucking sound south of the border.’

A number of words and phrases, once used to express meaningful concepts, are becoming as useful as ‘ommm’ in the political discourse. Still, these words and phrases have meanings, just not the ones the dictionary originally intended.

Joanne Jacobs
in A Handy Guide To Politico-babble in the Chicago Tribune on


In the continuation of the article, Jacobs goes on to give a variety of examples of the term as well as a “translation” guide for some of the common politicobabble words from that particular election. I’ll leave it to the capable hands of others (perhaps in the comments, below?) to come up with the translation guide for our current political climate.

The interesting evolutionary change I’ll note for the current election cycle is that Trump hasn’t delved into any depth on any of his themes to offend anyone significantly enough. This has allowed him to stay with the dozen or so themes he started out using and therefore hasn’t needed to change them as in campaigns of old.

Filling in the Blanks

These forms of pseudo-speech area all meant to fool us into thinking that something of substance is being discussed and that a conversation is happening, when in fact, nothing is really being communicated at all. Most of the intended meaning and reaction to such speech seems to stem from the demeanor of the speaker as well as, in some part, to the reaction of the surrounding interlocutor and audience. In reading Donald Trump transcripts, an entirely different meaning (or lack thereof) is more quickly realized as the surrounding elements which prop up the narrative have been completely stripped away. In a transcript version, gone is the hypnotizing element of the crowd which is vehemently sure that the emperor is truly wearing clothes.

In many of these transcripts, in fact, I find so little is being said that the listener is actually being forced to piece together the larger story in their head. Being forced to fill in the blanks in this way leaves too much of the communication up to the listener who isn’t necessarily engaged at a high level. Without more detail or context to understand what is being communicated, the listener is far more likely to fill in the blanks to fit a story that doesn’t create any cognitive dissonance for themselves — in part because Trump is usually smiling and welcoming towards his adoring audiences.

One will surely recall that Trump even wanted Secretary Clinton to be happy during the debate when he said, “Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.” (This question also doubles as an example of a standard psychological sales tactic of attempting to get the purchaser to start by saying ‘yes’ as a means to keep them saying yes while moving them towards making a purchase.)

His method of communicating by leaving large holes in his meaning reminds me of the way our brain smooths out information as indicated in this old internet meme [9]:

I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arpppoiatrely cllaed typoglycemia.


I’m also reminded of the biases and heuristics research carried out in part (and the remainder cited) by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow [10] in which he discusses the mechanics of how system 1 and system 2 work in our brains. Is Trump taking advantage of the deficits of language processing in our brains in something akin to system 1 biases to win large blocks of votes? Is he creating a virtual real-time Choose-Your-Own-Adventure to subvert the laziness of the electorate? Kahneman would suggest the the combination of what Trump does say and what he doesn’t leaves it up to every individual listener to create their own story. Their system 1 is going to default to the easiest and most palatable one available to them: a happy story that fits their own worldview and is likely to encourage them to support Trump.

Ten Word Answers

As an information theorist, I know all too well that there must be a ‘linguistic Shannon limit’ to the amount of semantic meaning one can compress into a single word. [11] One is ultimately forced to attempt to form sentences to convey more meaning. But usually the less politicians say, the less trouble they can get into — a lesson hard won through generations of political fighting.

I’m reminded of a scene from The West Wing television series. In season 4, episode 6 which aired on October 30, 2002 on NBC, Game On had a poignant moment (video clip below) which is germane to our subject: [12]

Moderator: Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is the centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?
Governor Ritchie, R-FL: You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.
President Bartlet: There it is…
That’s the 10 word answer my staff’s been looking for for 2 weeks. There it is.
10 word answers can kill you in political campaigns — they’re the tip of the sword.
Here’s my question: What are the next 10 words of your answer?
“Your taxes are too high?” So are mine…
Give me the next 10 words: How are we going to do it?
Give me 10 after that — I’ll drop out of the race right now.
Every once in a while — every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for 10 words.
I’m the President of the United States, not the president of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.

As someone who studies information theory and complexity theory and even delves into sub-topics like complexity and economics, I can agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Though again, here I can also see the massive gaps between system 1 and 2 that force us to want to simplify things down to such a base level that we don’t have to do the work to puzzle them out.

(And yes, that is Jennifer Anniston’s father playing the moderator.)

One can’t but wonder why Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to have ever gone past the first ten words? Is it because he isn’t capable? interested? Or does he instinctively know better? It would seem that he’s been doing business by using the uncertainty inherent in his speech for decades, but always operating by using what he meant (or thought he wanted to mean) than what the other party heard and thought they understood. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Idiocracy or Something Worse?

In our increasingly specialized world, people eventually have to give in and quit doing some tasks that everyone used to do for themselves. Yesterday I saw a lifeworn woman in her 70s pushing a wheeled wire basket with a 5 gallon container of water from the store to her home. As she shuffled along, I contemplated Thracian people from fourth century BCE doing the same thing except they likely carried amphorae possibly with a yoke and without the benefit of the $10 manufactured custom shopping cart. 20,000 years before that people were still carrying their own water, but possibly without even the benefit of earthenware containers. Things in human history have changed very slowly for the most part, but as we continually sub-specialize further and further, we need to remember that we can’t give up one of the primary functions that makes us human: the ability to think deeply and analytically for ourselves.

I suspect that far too many people are too wrapped up in their own lives and problems to listen to more than the ten word answers our politicians are advertising to us. We need to remember to ask for the next ten words and the ten after that.

Otherwise there are two extreme possible outcomes:

We’re either at the beginning of what Mike Judge would term Idiocracy[13]

Or we’re headed to what Michiko Kakutani is “subtweeting” about in her recent review In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue [14] of Volker Ulrich’s new book Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939[15] 

Here, one is tempted to quote George Santayana’s famous line (from The Life of Reason, 1905), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, I far prefer the following as more apropos to our present national situation:

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (), a British statesman, historian, writer and artist,
in House of Commons, 2 May 1935, after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed—futilely—to maintain the independence of Austria.



If Cliff Navarro comes back to run for president, I hope no one falls for his joke just because he wasn’t laughing as he acted it out. If his instructions for fixing the wagon (America) are any indication, the voters who are listening and making the repairs will be in severe pain.

Cliff Navarro


“Genius | Song Lyrics & Knowledge,” Genius, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://genius.com. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
“Hypothesis | The Internet, peer reviewed. | Hypothesis,” hypothes.is, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://hypothes.is/. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
“Double-talk – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-talk. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
“Turboencabulator – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turboencabulator. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four, 1st ed. London: Harvill Secker & Warburg, 1949.
G. Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon, vol. 13, no. 76, pp. 252–265, Apr. 1946 [Online]. Available: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/
“Doublespeak – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 29-Sep-2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublespeak. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
J. Jacobs, “A Handy Guide To Politico-babble,” Chicago Tribune, 31-Oct-1992. [Online]. Available: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-10-31/news/9204080638_1_family-values-trickle-bill-clinton. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
M. Davis, “cmabridge | Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit,” mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk, 2012. [Online]. Available: https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/cmabridge/. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
D. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan, 2011.
C. Shanon E., “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 379–423, Jul. 1948. [Source]
A. Sorkin, J. Wells, and T. Schlamme , “Game On,” The West Wing, NBC, 30-Oct-2002.
M. Judge, Idiocracy. Twentieth Century Fox, 2006.
M. Katutani, “In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue,” New York Times, p. 1, 27-Sep-2016 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/28/books/hitler-ascent-volker-ullrich.html?_r=0. [Accessed: 28-Sep-2016] [Source]
V. Ullrich, Adolf Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, 1st ed. Knopf Publishing Group, 2016.
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The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes

The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes by Andrew J. Reagan, Lewis Mitchell, Dilan Kiley, Christopher M. Danforth, Peter Sheridan Dodds (arxiv.org)
Advances in computing power, natural language processing, and digitization of text now make it possible to study our a culture's evolution through its texts using a "big data" lens. Our ability to communicate relies in part upon a shared emotional experience, with stories often following distinct emotional trajectories, forming patterns that are meaningful to us. Here, by classifying the emotional arcs for a filtered subset of 1,737 stories from Project Gutenberg's fiction collection, we find a set of six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives. We strengthen our findings by separately applying optimization, linear decomposition, supervised learning, and unsupervised learning. For each of these six core emotional arcs, we examine the closest characteristic stories in publication today and find that particular emotional arcs enjoy greater success, as measured by downloads.
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Global Language Networks

Recent research on global language networks has interesting relations to big history, complexity economics, and current politics.

Yesterday I ran across this nice little video explaining some recent research on global language networks. It’s not only interesting in its own right, but is a fantastic example of science communication as well.

I’m interested in some of the information theoretic aspects of this as well as the relation of this to the area of corpus linguistics. I’m also curious if one could build worthwhile datasets like this for the ancient world (cross reference some of the sources I touch on in relation to the Dickinson College Commentaries within Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities) to see what influences different language cultures have had on each other. Perhaps the historical record could help to validate some of the predictions made in relation to the future?

The paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” indicates that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

This research also has some interesting relation to the concept of “Collective Learning” within the realm of a Big History framework via David Christian, Fred Spier, et al.  I’m curious to revisit my hypothesis: Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language some of which was informed by the work of Jared Diamond.

Some of the discussion in the video is reminiscent to me of some of the work Stuart Kauffman lays out in At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (Oxford, 1995). Particularly in chapter 3 in which Kauffman discusses the networks of life.  The analogy of this to the networks of language here indicate to me that some of Cesar Hidalgo’s recent work in Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, From Atoms to Economies (MIT Press, 2015) is even more interesting in helping to show the true value of links between people and firms (information sources which he measures as personbytes and firmbytes) within economies.

Finally, I can also only think about how this research may help to temper some of the xenophobic discussion that occurs in American political life with respect to fears relating to Mexican immigration issues as well as the position of China in the world economy.

Those intrigued by the video may find the website set up by the researchers very interesting. It contains links to the full paper as well as visualizations and links to the data used.


Languages vary enormously in global importance because of historical, demographic, political, and technological forces. However, beyond simple measures of population and economic power, there has been no rigorous quantitative way to define the global influence of languages. Here we use the structure of the networks connecting multilingual speakers and translated texts, as expressed in book translations, multiple language editions of Wikipedia, and Twitter, to provide a concept of language importance that goes beyond simple economic or demographic measures. We find that the structure of these three global language networks (GLNs) is centered on English as a global hub and around a handful of intermediate hub languages, which include Spanish, German, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Chinese. We validate the measure of a language’s centrality in the three GLNs by showing that it exhibits a strong correlation with two independent measures of the number of famous people born in the countries associated with that language. These results suggest that the position of a language in the GLN contributes to the visibility of its speakers and the global popularity of the cultural content they produce.

Citation: Ronen S, Goncalves B, Hu KZ, Vespignani A, Pinker S, Hidalgo CA
Links that speak: the global language network and its association with global fame, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (2014), 10.1073/pnas.1410931111

Related posts:

“A language like Dutch — spoken by 27 million people — can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers,” Science reports. “This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online.”

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The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA — NOVA Next | PBS

The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA by Alex RileyAlex Riley (NOVA Next | PBS)
How a mathematical breakthrough from the 1960s now powers everything from spacecraft to cell phones.

Concurrent with the recent Pluto fly by, Alex Riley has a great popular science article on PBS that helps put the application of information theory and biology into perspective for the common person. Like a science version of “The Princess Bride”, this story has a little bit of everything that could be good and entertaining: information theory, biology, DNA, Reed-Solomon codes, fossils, interplanetary exploration, mathematics, music, genetics, computers, and even paleontology. Fans of Big History are sure to love the interconnections presented here.

Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Microscopic view of glass DNA storage beads
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Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language

Big History may indicate why we're losing diversity in the number of languages on Earth.

Yesterday, I saw an interesting linguistic exercise:

Short activity to show how flexible our language is and how difficult collective learning would have been for our non sapiens ancestors.

Step 1: As a class, choose 200 random words. (I had 15 kids choose 14 words each)

Step 2: Answer the following questions using only the words listed:

  1. How should we try to kill that mammoth?
  2. Explain why you should marry me.
  3. Give directions for a simple task.
  4. Come up with a plan to improve our cave.
  5. Describe a physical landscape.
  6. Come up with your own question!
Chris Scaturo
on February 3 at 8:44am in Yammer Group on Big History: Unit 6 – Early Humans Group

I have to imagine that once the conceptualization of language and some basic grammar existed, word generation was a much more common thing than it is now. It’s only been since the time of Noah Webster that humans have been actively standardizing things like spelling. If we can use Papua New Guinea as a model of pre-agrarian society and consider that almost 12% of extant languages on the Earth are spoken in an area about the size of Texas (and with about 1/5th the population of Texas too), then modern societies are actually severely limiting language (creation, growth, diversity, creativity, etc.) [cross reference: A World of Languages – and How Many Speak Them (Infographic)]

Consider that the current extinction of languages is about one every 14 weeks, which puts us on a course to loose about half of the 7,100 languages on the planet right now before the end of the century. Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language! In the paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” the authors indicate that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

To help put this exercise into perspective, we can look at the corpus of extant written Latin (a technically dead language):

“It is a truly impressive fact that, simply by knowing that if one can memorize and master about 250 words in Latin, it will allow them to read and understand 50% of most written Latin. Further, knowledge of 1,500 Latin words will put one at the 80% level of vocabulary mastery for most texts. Mastering even a very small list of vocabulary allows one to read a large variety of texts very comfortably.”

with data from Dickinson College Commentaries

These numbers become even smaller when considering ancient Greek texts.

Another interesting measurement is the vocabulary of a modern 2 year old who typically has a 50-75 word vocabulary while a 4 year old has 250-500 words, which is about the level of the exercise.

As a contrast, consider the message in this TED Youth Talk from last year by Erin McKean, which students should be able to relate to:

And of course, there’s the dog Chaser, which 60 minutes recently reported has a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. (Are we now destroying variants of “dog language” for English too?!)

Hopefully the evolutionary value of the loss of the multiple languages will be more than balanced out by the power of collective learning in the long run.

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A world of languages – and how many speak them (Infographic)

An infographic from the South China Morning Post has some interesting statistics about which many modern people don’t know (or remember). It’s very interesting to see the distribution of languages and where they’re spoken. Of particular note that most will miss, even from this infographic, is that 839 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea (11.8% of all known languages on Earth). Given the effects of history and modernity, imagine how many languages there might have been without them.


A World of Languages

Source: INFOGRAPHIC: A world of languages – and how many speak them

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