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Archive for the 'Linguistics' Category

Friday, January 9th, 2015

The Evolution of Signals

The Domestication of Language

This week our featured book is The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud. Throughout the week, we will be posting content from and about the book and it’s author. In today’s post, the final post of the book’s feature, we have an excerpt from the third chapter of The Domestication of Language, in which Cloud looks at different accounts of how meaning and language conventions remain stable in human communities over time, and wonders why more animals don’t have similarly complex communication systems.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for The Domestication of Language!

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

But if I try to explain it…

The Domestication of Language

This week our featured book is The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud. Throughout the week, we will be posting content from and about the book and it’s author. In today’s post, Daniel Cloud explains how the meanings of words in ordinary language come about, and why it’s worth paying attention to the ordinary, everyday meanings of words.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for The Domestication of Language!

But if I try to explain it…
By Daniel Cloud

“What, then, is time?” Saint Augustine asks in the Confessions. “If no one asks me, I know, but if I try to explain it, I don’t know.” It’s a keen observation, because we’ve all had this experience. Still, it’s a rather peculiar state of affairs that’s being described. Did Augustine know what time is, or didn’t he? If he did know, why couldn’t he say what it is? If he didn’t, how could he go around using the word?

But the oddest thing of all is that Augustine then does go on to produce a philosophical analysis of his own concept of time that’s incredibly revealing, one that has been very influential ever since. If he knew all that just by knowing the meaning of the word, why couldn’t he say it in the beginning, why did he have to do so much work to know what he’d meant by the word all along? How can this procedure, the careful analysis of our own culturally acquired notions about the meaning of some word in ordinary language, possibly produce knowledge about the real universe, about a physical thing like time?

And yet… the process of lifting ourselves by our own bootstraps had to start somewhere. Historically, it really does look as if the philosophical analysis of ordinary language and ordinary ideas about time and space and causation and chance and knowledge and logic and evidence has played a role. It really looks as if Empedocles and Plato and Aristotle made some sort of contribution to making the existence of Euclid and Ptolemy and Newton and Darwin possible, though it’s very unclear what that contribution was. (more…)

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Two interviews with Daniel Cloud on “The Domestication of Language”

The Domestication of Language

This week our featured book is The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud. Throughout the week, we will be posting content from and about the book and it’s author. Today, we are happy to present two podcast interviews with Daniel Cloud, one from the New Books In network and one from the Smart People Podcast.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for The Domestication of Language!

First, Cloud spoke with the New Books in Big Ideas podcast about the puzzles raised by looking at prehistoric linguistics through an evolutionary eye, in particular: “why is human language and culture so astoundingly complex?” (more…)

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Humans Aren’t Influenced by Culture–We Create It

The Domestication of Language

This week our featured book is The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud. Throughout the week, we will be posting content from and about the book and it’s author. Today, we have excerpted parts of “Humans Aren’t Influenced by Culture–We Create It,” an interview with Daniel Cloud that appeared in Quartz. You can read the interview in its entirety here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for The Domestication of Language!

Quartz: The first chapter of your book discusses the origin of words. If we were to ask the average person, “Where do words come from?” what do you think would be the most common answer?

Daniel Cloud: They’ll think about it carefully for a minute or two and they’ll report out some version of behaviorism. They’ll say, “Well, there must have been two monkeys sitting around, one of the monkeys made a noise every time it did some action, other monkeys came to associate that noise with the action, and then we went on from there.” I think that’s the cultural myth about this. That’s the image of the origin of language that’s been dominant since the Greeks.

Quartz: So according to this idea, the development of language is completely out of our control.

Cloud: Well, that’s one thing that’s wrong with it. It’s not faithful to psychological reality or everyday life. I guess I would call it science fiction. It’s a theory about some events that happened in the distant past, which nobody ever observed, but that seem plausible. Things like that are inevitably just some old bit of philosophy that somebody dredged up. (more…)

Monday, January 5th, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud

The Domestication of Language

“A superbly original book and an exciting piece of philosophy. Cloud builds a serious account of the evolution of language that recognizes the long and complex process that links the prior state (nothing like language at all) to the end state (language of the kinds now in existence) and that responds to the points of greatest difficulty in that process.” — Philip Kitcher

This week our featured book is The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, by Daniel Cloud. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Domestication of Language. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, January 9th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Boris Gasparov: The “Genuine” Saussure

“What made Saussure’s critique stand out amidst many similar events in contemporary philosophy and science is his keen sensibility for the principle of creative freedom in language, which renders language volatile and fragmented, to a point that renders moot all attempts at its categorization.” — Boris Gasparov

Beyond Pure ReasonBoris Gasparov is professor of Russian, cochair and founder of the University Seminar on Romanticism, and a member of the Seminars on Linguistics and Slavic History and Culture at Columbia University, and the author of Beyond Pure Reason: Ferdinand de Saussure’s Philosophy of Language and Its Early Romantic Antecedents. In today’s post, he discusses the fascinating history of the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) belongs to those towering figures from the turn of the twentieth century—such as Freud, Einstein, or Weber—whose contribution not only radically transformed their respective disciplines but played the decisive role in shaping the entire culture and consciousness of modernism. Almost a hundred years since the posthumous publication of Saussure’s Course in general linguistics (1916), its presence—first as the major source of inspiration, later as a prime target of critique—remains ubiquitous in all domains of cultural studies, including linguistics and philosopy of language, literary criticism, semiotics and cultural anthropology.

At the center of the book stood Saussure’s definition of language as an ideational construct (Saussure called it la langue), not identical to operational skills needed for “speech” (la parole). Popular consciousness perceives linguistic signs (words) as the means of expressing various phenomena of the world, whose content is derived directly from those phenomena. In contradistinction to this, Saussure envisioned la langue as a pure structure whose elements are defined negatively, solely by their mutual relations. A sign as such is devoid of any positive substantial content; it occupies as much of the semantic space as is left to it by the presence of other signs. One can try to explain to a speaker of English the meaning of German words kennen and wissen (both translating into English as know) by pointing to particular kinds of ‘knowledge’ associated with either of them; but all such positive explanations would remain tentative at best. In the last count, what determines the usage of either sign is the awareness of the border that divides it from the other—in other words, the awareness of what makes kennen ‘not wissen’, and wissen ‘not kennen’.
(more…)