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Is human language a result of our brain becoming 'digital'?


Genady
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I assume that words in a language represent concepts in the brain. The concepts seem to be discrete categories made up by the brain from a continuous experience, more or less arbitrarily. Here are some examples:

  • the English concepts 'shade' and 'shadow' correspond to one concept in Russian, represented by the word 'tien'
  • the English concepts 'table' and 'desk' correspond to one concept in Russian, 'stol'
  • the English basic color 'blue' doesn't have a corresponding concept in Russian, but is rather covered by two distinct basic color concepts, 'sinij' and 'goluboj'

I hypothesize that other animals perceive and process outside world as a continuous signal, while our brain evolved an ability to 'digitize' the continuous signal and to process it in discrete categories. This ability became a basis for our ability to use language.

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1 hour ago, Genady said:

The concepts seem to be discrete categories made up by the brain from a continuous experience, more or less arbitrarily.

I'm not clear on how that works. Experience is continuous, whether you choose to segment and label it or not, but that continuity is naturally segmented into significant events that stand out from the mundane (which is why we recall them). It's the same for dogs and cats and so presumably for other animals. This selection is not arbitrary; the events are remembered for a reason: they taught us something valuable. We narrowly escaped a bad consequence, or we learned something useful, or we met someone important or won a victory.  In the same way, crows learn to recognize a rifle in a man's hand, as horses recognize a carrot or a rope - because something once happened to make these items significant through a human's action. Before humans were invented, crows had to know the difference between a hawk and woodpecker and horses had to distinguish wolves from shrubbery. The experiences of perilous life on this planet are not arbitrary.

1 hour ago, Genady said:

the English concepts 'shade' and 'shadow' correspond to one concept in Russian, represented by the word 'tien'

Quote
Old English scead(u)we (noun), oblique case of sceadu (see shade), sceadwian ‘screen or shield from attack’, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch schaduw and German Schatten (nouns), from an Indo-European root shared by Greek skotos ‘darkness’.- Oxford

the long version : https://www.etymonline.com/word/shadow  That's an excellent resource for matters linguistic. See also https://topdocumentaryfilms.com/story-of-english/ an outstanding documentary series. But that's BTW.

English is not the first language - not by a long chalk. It's made up of fragments of at least six previous, fully developed languages. That's why it has so many words, including several for the same concept, because it's retained both the Norman French and the Celtic, both the Latin derivation and the Germanic. 

If you want to study the origin and evolution of human language, you'd have to start with something as nearly pure as possible - Icelandic, say, or Tamil - one that has the fewest possible foreign influences. Ideally, you should find an isolated tribe in the Andes or on some island, but I doubt there are many left. Some of the North American native languages could be useful, though they have, of course, influenced one another as well as European occupation. 

1 hour ago, Genady said:

I hypothesize that other animals perceive and process outside world as a continuous signal, while our brain evolved an ability to 'digitize' the continuous signal

I'm curious what led you to this conjecture. Why do you think we alone have language? Why do you think a caribou doesn't categorize such concepts as 'rival', 'foal' 'predator' 'water' and respond to the perception of these items appropriately, it doesn't retain abstract ideas like 'spring - northward' 'my territory - defend' and 'wolf scent - danger'. Me, I don't believe there is anything unique in the human body - no radical departure from the mammalian standard, just adaptation, specialization and complexity on top of complexity. (That's also what happened to make English so easy to sell and difficult to spell.)  

The concept of 'digital' is a very new one. Even human civilization is very young. What you see now in human behaviour is not how humans evolved - it's a veneer of artifice overlaid on a core of advanced ape nature. Every now and then, it crack and shatters and the trapped, frustrated animal beneath runs amok.

Edited by Peterkin
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13 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

Experience is continuous, whether you choose to segment and label it or not, but that continuity is naturally segmented into significant events that stand out from the mundane (which is why we recall them). It's the same for dogs and cats and so presumably for other animals. 

I think so as well. I just don't see concepts behind this ability, but rather memory, recognition, association, learning, which even a worm with 300 neurons can do.

17 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

This selection is not arbitrary; the events are remembered for a reason: they taught us something valuable. We narrowly escaped a bad consequence, or we learned something useful, or we met someone important or won a victory.  In the same way, crows learn to recognize a rifle in a man's hand, as horses recognize a carrot or a rope - because something once happened to make these items significant through a human's action. Before humans were invented, crows had to know the difference between a hawk and woodpecker and horses had to distinguish wolves from shrubbery. The experiences of perilous life on this planet are not arbitrary.

Perhaps, 'arbitrary' is a wrong word. What I meant is that this categorization is not universal ("objective"), but rather individual, cultural, temporal, conditional, etc. 

21 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

English is not the first language - not by a long chalk. It's made up of fragments of at least six previous, fully developed languages. That's why it has so many words, including several for the same concept, because it's retained both the Norman French and the Celtic, both the Latin derivation and the Germanic. 

If you want to study the origin and evolution of human language, you'd have to start with something as nearly pure as possible - Icelandic, say, or Tamil - one that has the fewest possible foreign influences. Ideally, you should find an isolated tribe in the Andes or on some island, but I doubt there are many left. Some of the North American native languages could be useful, though they have, of course, influenced one another as well as European occupation. 

It is not about evolution of a language or languages, but rather about evolution of brain that allowed a language. There is nothing special about English in this respect. All languages have differences in how they categorize outside world.

English is a first language for a child growing up in an English speaking environment, etc. Later they might learn other languages, and they will have to adjust some concepts because these other languages segment world differently. 

31 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

I'm curious what led you to this conjecture. Why do you think we alone have language? Why do you think a caribou doesn't categorize such concepts as 'rival', 'foal' 'predator' 'water' and respond to the perception of these items appropriately, it doesn't retain abstract ideas like 'spring - northward' 'my territory - defend' and 'wolf scent - danger'.

There are many aspects to 'language'. Most obvious is a communication tool. Surely other animals have this. Plants and bacteria have it too. However, communication is not the only characteristic feature of a human language. Among others are:

  • Displacement; animals seem to communicate only about a given environment at hand; we can refer to past and future times, removed or even not existing places, things, and events
  • Cultural transmission; dogs speak dog language and cats speak cat language, but we speak a language that we acquire from the culture we grow up in, i.e. we don't inherit any language, only an ability for a language (I know that some birds and whales learn their songs from others; but without the others, they will sing anyway, just not that good; humans growing without others don't produce any language)
  • Productivity; human language is continuously changing, adding new words and structures, is "open-ended", potentially infinite; communication systems of other creatures are essentially pre-set, they have fixed references, they apply the same repertoire in the new situations 

There are no indications that other animals have a language with such characteristics.

1 hour ago, Peterkin said:

Me, I don't believe there is anything unique in the human body - no radical departure from the mammalian standard, just adaptation, specialization and complexity on top of complexity.

OK, this is a different hypothesis.

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1 hour ago, Genady said:

just don't see concepts behind this ability

Why would you need to? Concepts do not precede experience; they proceed from experience.

 

1 hour ago, Genady said:

What I meant is that this categorization is not universal ("objective"), but rather individual, cultural, temporal, conditional,

Why? I think the fact of categorization is near universal, right down to the earthworm that prefers loam to clay. The individual, as well as species, refine the categories according to their own needs, mores, habits and desires. 

 

1 hour ago, Genady said:

All languages have differences in how they categorize outside world.

Exactly! All languages, not just the human ones.

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They found that the animals make distinctive calls that can distinguish between a wide variety of animals, including coyotes, domestic dogs and humans. The patterns are so distinct, Slobodchikoff said, that human visitors that he brings to a prairie dog colony can typically learn them within two hours.https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/prairie-dogs-language-decoded-by-scientists-1.1322230

 

1 hour ago, Genady said:

Displacement; animals seem to communicate only about a given environment at hand; we can refer to past and future times, removed or even not existing places, things, and events

You've never had a dog come and nag you about having missed dinner-time by a whole seven minutes? Or that he really, really needs to go outside, or else? Or run around in ecstatic circles when you start packing the camping gear? Or ask plaintively when Sally's coming back?

1 hour ago, Genady said:

Cultural transmission; dogs speak dog language and cats speak cat language,

And they - dogs more readily than cats, because they're more emotionally connected - learn to communicate with humans and each other and with other pets and livestock.  They originally make noises, just like human babies: sad noises for discomfort, happy ones for comfort. The mother responds, and talks to them. They learn her language, just as human babies do. Later in life, they learn to communicate with other living things they encounter with whom they need to exchange information - with their own kind, or whatever other animals are in their environment. https://www.rover.com/blog/animals-think-theyre-dogs/ 

 

1 hour ago, Genady said:

humans growing without others don't produce any language

Humans can't grow up without others. You leave a human baby alone, it dies, just like any other warm-blooded baby. It's cared-for by another animal, it learns the language of that animal.

https://www.treehugger.com/children-who-were-raised-by-animals-4869172

1 hour ago, Genady said:

Productivity; human language is continuously changing, adding new words and structures, is "open-ended", potentially infinite; communication systems of other creatures are essentially pre-set, they have fixed references, they apply the same repertoire in the new situations 

Again, what makes you think so? We had a German Shepherd once adopted from a home where they spoke only Greek, and he had to re-learn all the commands and signals, as well as how to communicate with two other dogs brought up in our home. He was fluent in six months.

I think this is not a difference of kind but of degree. Yes, humans affect vast changes in their own environment, and the environments of other species in relative short time-spans, so our language has to adapt quickly to new applications. Since we have a bigger vocabulary than any of the other species we know enough about to compare, it' also more flexible. For the same reason, we also make a lot more mistakes in the use of our languages.

For about 6000 years, it was a generally accepted tenet of faith that we are a whole different kind of creature, at least half divine. That's a convenient belief when you destroy, torture and exploit others - just as we've done with others of our own species. I see quite a lot of hopeful signs in the approach to scientific study of non-humans now, as compared to 50 years ago. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/guide-to-ethology-exploring-the-study-of-animal-behavior 

Edited by Peterkin
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18 hours ago, Peterkin said:

We had a German Shepherd once adopted from a home where they spoke only Greek, and he had to re-learn all the commands and signals, as well as how to communicate with two other dogs brought up in our home. He was fluent in six months.

This is surprising. We once had adopted a rottweiler from a foreign speaking family and she had to do the same, except one other dog rather than two. She was fluent in a couple of weeks. She was 2 yo, maybe that was a factor, if your shepherd was older.

It was interesting to observe how the other dog taught her the rules of the house.

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4 hours ago, Genady said:

She was 2 yo, maybe that was a factor, if your shepherd was older.

I think his biggest problem was my father - a very demanding, impatient, punitive man, who issued a lot of ambiguous commands and administered arbitrary punishments. He confused and scared the hell out of his kids - never mind a sensitive dog who had been used to an indulgent family. 

Point still being, of course, that not only are dogs not limited to their native canine language, but that language is not static and fixed, but they can also learn one or more human languages, howbeit with a limited vocabulary (like news copy writers). Moreover, they can master quite abstruse communications, like "Here is a shirt to sniff. Go find its owner under all that rubble."    

and, not but

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55 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

Point still being, of course, that not only are dogs not limited to their native canine language, but that language is not static and fixed, but they can also learn one or more human languages, howbeit with a limited vocabulary (like news copy writers). Moreover, they can master quite abstruse communications, like "Here is a shirt to sniff. Go find its owner under all that rubble."    

and, not but

This is right. Dogs learn, similarly, humans learn and become multilingual. Perhaps, it is wrong to characterize their language as fix /static. So, I'll try to focus my argument.

I focus on first languages. Dogs grown in the US understand a language of dogs grown in China. Human languages are not like that / don't work that way. We find other ways to communicate if we don't know each other's language, but not linguistically. I bring it only as a difference between human and not-human languages. Nothing about intelligence, learning abilities and such.

 

On 1/15/2022 at 2:36 PM, Peterkin said:

Humans can't grow up without others. You leave a human baby alone, it dies, just like any other warm-blooded baby. It's cared-for by another animal, it learns the language of that animal.

Regarding babies, I am referring to documented cases when children were found being locked after birth for years in attics or basements. They were fed, but were not talked to. They didn't have or use any language for communication, after being rescued. Some of them learned some limited language later, others did not.

On 1/15/2022 at 2:36 PM, Peterkin said:

I think this is not a difference of kind but of degree.

I think it is like a difference between three levels of a network depth vs. four levels. Is it kind or degree? Doesn't matter.

I think that what happened in our evolution is, our brain got an ability to make new 'hubs' connected to other networks, which were acquired from experience. These hubs function as entities themselves, which allows to make new relations between them, such as, 'oak is a tree, tree is a plant', where 'oak', 'tree', 'plant' are hubs or "concepts", as I referred to them elsewhere.

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19 minutes ago, Genady said:

Human languages are not like that / don't work that way.

Agreed. Although an American and a Chinese baby could probably understand each other quite well through sound, and both mothers could understand the other's baby, once articulated language has been acquired, it's no longer interchangeable, but specialized by culture. The children of deaf-mute parents learn signing as a first language.

21 minutes ago, Genady said:

Regarding babies, I am referring to documented cases when children were found being locked after birth for years in attics or basements.

Yes, like the Romanian orphans. (this one is a personal story, for interest.) Actually, there is more to abandonment in infancy than lack of language. The people who would lock an infant in an attic, are doing a lot more harm than just not talking to it. The emotional and social development, often also the physical development, is severely hampered. Neural connections that are supposed to form during the most intense growing phase of the brain lack the input they require. Much of that early growth, if missed, can never be compensated. I don't think it's possible to tell (without an unconscionably cruel experiment) whether a baby who had adequate stimulation and affection, medical attention and nourishment, who lacked only language, would have difficulty learning it later in life. Many of those severely neglected, deprived, malnourished and abused children have recovered physically, have gained linguistic and other forms of self-expression, but none seem fully to recover emotionally.   

Quote

For kids who were moved into foster care, the picture was brighter. These children showed improvements in language, IQ and social-emotional functioning. They were able to form secure attachment relationships with their caregivers and made dramatic gains in their ability to express emotions.

While foster care produced notable improvements, though, children in foster homes still lagged behind the control group of children who had never been institutionalized. And some foster children fared much better than others. Those removed from the institutions before age 2 made the biggest gains. "There's a bit of plasticity in the system," Fox says. But to reverse the effects of neglect, he adds, "the earlier, the better."https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/06/neglect

 

42 minutes ago, Genady said:

I think that what happened in our evolution is, our brain got an ability to make new 'hubs' connected to other networks, which were acquired from experience. These hubs function as entities themselves, which allows to make new relations between them, such as, 'oak is a tree, tree is a plant', where 'oak', 'tree', 'plant' are hubs or "concepts", as I referred to them elsewhere.

Okay. Brain got bigger, more convoluted, more segmented, with more storage space for data and connections. That was never in doubt. What I question is whether the tree-structure of conceptual categorization is unique to humans, or just more readily expressed in human language. A horse-cart-horse situation, if you will.

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7 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

What I question is whether the tree-structure of conceptual categorization is unique to humans, or just more readily expressed in human language. A horse-cart-horse situation, if you will.

That is my question, too, and that's why I called this a 'hypothesis.' I didn't put it in a Speculations forum because if this: I don't have any speculative or, even worth, a pseudoscientific theory. I have a question which I have formulated as a statement of hypothesis. A hypothesis, ideally, is either supported or refuted.

Somebody has moved my post into the Speculations forum, which to me personally is offending. I do base my hypothesis on some knowledge of cognitive science and it does not deviate from the science. It is an open question in the mainstream science, and my hypothesis does not contradict any established and tested theory.

I don't like to see my name as an OP of a speculative thread and would ask an admin to remove this thread completely, or move it to a Lounge, Amateur Science, Other Science, something like that rather than leaving it in Speculations.

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17 minutes ago, Genady said:

That is my question, too, and that's why I called this a 'hypothesis.' I didn't put it in a Speculations forum because if this: I don't have any speculative or, even worth, a pseudoscientific theory. I have a question which I have formulated as a statement of hypothesis. A hypothesis, ideally, is either supported or refuted.

Somebody has moved my post into the Speculations forum, which to me personally is offending. I do base my hypothesis on some knowledge of cognitive science and it does not deviate from the science. It is an open question in the mainstream science, and my hypothesis does not contradict any established and tested theory.

I don't like to see my name as an OP of a speculative thread and would ask an admin to remove this thread completely, or move it to a Lounge, Amateur Science, Other Science, something like that rather than leaving it in Speculations.

It doesn't automatically mean your thread is crap. If a mod thought a thread of mine was speculative, I wouldn't mind. This is done for less experienced readers, so that the difference between hard/standard/conventional science ideas and someone's hypothesis is clearly distinguished for their benefit. No need to be offended. We  regulars don't see your threead as being relegated in any way.... the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and not where it is served.

Do we appear to be digital because that is the current state of our technology. Will we think of ourselves in some other technologically analogous way in the future?

Edited by StringJunky
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I find speculation more interesting than hard science, precisely because it allows a wider-ranging discussion, and more facets to be examined. 

In this instance, I have one - and just the one - problem with the hypothesis.  I can't envision the very specific mutation that enables this one sudden jump in brain function, nor the complex animal environment that didn't require conceptual chains of categories. I'm missing the uniqueness.

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12 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

In this instance, I have one - and just the one - problem with the hypothesis.  I can't envision the very specific mutation that enables this one sudden jump in brain function, nor the complex animal environment that didn't require conceptual chains of categories. I'm missing the uniqueness.

Many, or most, of the mutations leading to a new structure are repurposing some other structures. E.g. a brain grew, some structure became bigger than necessary, or duplicated, and then a duplicate or a part of it gets repurposed. Unfortunately, so few details are known about cognitive functional, as opposed to anatomical, structures in the brain, that there is no way to guess what mutation it could be.

Regarding the environmental requirement, I don't know if this specific solution or any specific solution is ever required. There are many ways to be fit. 

So yes, these aspects are difficult. I don't see any of this questions being answered soon. My impression of cognitive science is, a lot of factual knowledge and missing theoretical core. Akin biology before Darwin, genetics before Crick and Watson, electrodynamics before Maxwell, astronomy before Newton, geometry before Euclid, chemistry before atoms... what did I miss? :)

I am in the middle of the Romanian orphans story. Horrible. In what way is it personal, if I may ask?

And, thank you, and thank you @StringJunky.

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1 hour ago, Genady said:

Regarding the environmental requirement, I don't know if this specific solution or any specific solution is ever required.

Exactly my point. If the odd trait doesn't have a distinct advantage for the first very few possessors of it, how does it become the norm for an entire species?

But as to the categorization thingie - I think it's the wrong way around. I think all sentient life-forms categorize, beginning with the paramecium differentiating inside from outside of it its membrane. You work up from there to more complex differentiations, and recognizable concept-chains according to the value system of the animal. Humans are able to verbalize their thinking process, because humans are predominantly visual perceivers and verbal communicators. They suck at high frequency sound and are hopeless on smell.

 

1 hour ago, Genady said:

In what way is it personal, if I may ask?

The Atlantic article has a man - the one in the picture - at the center of it. He's a survivor. The second is a report on a scientific study of children who are not named.

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2 hours ago, Genady said:

Somebody has moved my post into the Speculations forum, which to me personally is offending. I do base my hypothesis on some knowledge of cognitive science and it does not deviate from the science. It is an open question in the mainstream science, and my hypothesis does not contradict any established and tested theory.

!

Moderator Note

That is on my, apologies, I thought I had posted a mod-note, but apparently did not. The reason why it is moved to speculations is because it appears that in OP some original assumptions were made that do not seem to relate to existing literature (or if so, no references were given). As such it seems to be original speculation, which can be further developed in the speculations thread as outlined in the guidelines. Speculations do not need to contradict established mainstream, but (as the name implies) allows for speculations in areas where the science is not established.

However, if the hypothesis is grounded in mainstream science, it would be great if either references can be given or at least the context is outlined with respect to mainstream science. Some questions could be related to whether how categorization in the brain works and whether it is uniquely related to language? How does it relate to category learning in animals, for example?

 
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@Peterkin. I see the weaknesses of this hypothesis. Back to the drawing board then. 

Thanks a lot for the discussion!

50 minutes ago, CharonY said:
!

Moderator Note

That is on my, apologies, I thought I had posted a mod-note, but apparently did not. The reason why it is moved to speculations is because it appears that in OP some original assumptions were made that do not seem to relate to existing literature (or if so, no references were given). As such it seems to be original speculation, which can be further developed in the speculations thread as outlined in the guidelines. Speculations do not need to contradict established mainstream, but (as the name implies) allows for speculations in areas where the science is not established.

However, if the hypothesis is grounded in mainstream science, it would be great if either references can be given or at least the context is outlined with respect to mainstream science. Some questions could be related to whether how categorization in the brain works and whether it is uniquely related to language? How does it relate to category learning in animals, for example?

 

Got it. I will elaborate on the background next time. If I only have received that mod-note... :) Anyway, no problem, moving on.

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Interesting thread, even if in speculation land. When you say 'become', do you mean in evolutionary terms?

I do believe language operates in some kind of discrete version of a continuous experience, but I have to do my homework on this thread yet...

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8 minutes ago, joigus said:

Interesting thread, even if in speculation land. When you say 'become', do you mean in evolutionary terms?

Yes, in the terms of biological evolution.

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What do you think of universal grammar theories, which hold that aspects of our language, like syntax and certain concepts of relation and space, are innate in humans?

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar

 

To me, "abstract" is a better term than digital to describe human language.  We compress things, reduce them to an abstraction, a symbol set, which can convey quite a bit of continuous experience.  We say "I went hiking in the Spring," and that stands for quite a complex and rich experience.  We hear "the postman rang,"   and we immediately grasp that the postman did not turn herself into a bell-like device, but rather that she was making her rounds and stopped at the house, and rang the doorbell, in order to make a special delivery which required a signature.  Abstraction and compression seems to be at the heart of our language.  And the brain that does language is a composite of both analog and digital operations, so it gets confusing if we describe large-scale cognitive activities as being one or the other.  

https://news.yale.edu/2006/04/12/brain-communicates-analog-and-digital-modes-simultaneously

 

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3 hours ago, TheVat said:

What do you think of universal grammar theories, which hold that aspects of our language, like syntax and certain concepts of relation and space, are innate in humans?

I think this approach to linguistics didn't work out. Plus, from my personal experience (speaking 1 Germanic, 1 Semitic, 1 Slavic and understanding 1 Romance and 1 Sign languages) I don't see syntax and grammar rules as a central /critical /defining aspects of human languages. It is a conceptual content of languages that I consider a defining feature, i.e. how they - similarly and differently - slice and dice our experience.

 

3 hours ago, TheVat said:

To me, "abstract" is a better term than digital to describe human language.  We compress things, reduce them to an abstraction, a symbol set, which can convey quite a bit of continuous experience.

Yes, 'digital' was a wrong word. Abstraction and compression seem better. I try to be a bit more technical and tentatively describe language as a "layer of indirection". 

 

4 hours ago, TheVat said:

... the brain that does language is a composite of both analog and digital operations, so it gets confusing if we describe large-scale cognitive activities as being one or the other.  

https://news.yale.edu/2006/04/12/brain-communicates-analog-and-digital-modes-simultaneously

1. It is far from being clear if a mix of digital and analog effects on the neurotransmission level has anything to do with a large-scale cognitive activities.

2. This article was published in 2006. Seemingly, it did not have much effect in the field because now, 16 years later, the signaling between neurons is taught and investigated as being essentially digital.

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I think signal transmission does, yes, have a digital aspect, but the neuron itself is analogue.  While it is true that a neuron generates an action potential or it doesn't, which is the digital aspect, there are subthreshold voltages that seem to play a role...

https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aaj1497

Here is a less technical article on that...

 

https://neurofantastic.com/brain/2017/4/13/brain-computation-is-a-lot-more-analog-than-we-thought

I agree that AI is achieving better digital models of a brain, but just saying we should not rush to any conclusions that analog function is not significant in conscious brain activity.  

This is a good thread.  I will try to get back to this with a little more preparation, as I'm a little rusty.

 

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1 hour ago, Genady said:

It is a conceptual content of languages that I consider a defining feature, i.e. how they - similarly and differently - slice and dice our experience.

I don't know so many languages and was not aware of this. Similarities, yes; not differences. Could you show some conceptual difference in the languages you know? 

 

On 1/16/2022 at 3:39 PM, Peterkin said:

These hubs function as entities themselves, which allows to make new relations between them, such as, 'oak is a tree, tree is a plant', where 'oak', 'tree', 'plant'

For instance, how would this ^^ be different in Germanic language from a Romance one? And if the hub is a conceptual meeting-place for things that have a ?functional relationship to one another, how would it work for the experience of needing a chair to sit on in different languages? Would you, for example ask in a different way? Or would you actually think about the chair in a different way? 

I never really followed up the hub idea before, either. I was thinking in terms of specific-to-general categorization, with increasing degrees of abstraction. But I see that only as a chain or ladder, rather than a cluster. Can you elaborate?

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I've started the OP with three examples of concepts in English and Russian, which don't have mutual correspondence. Since Russian was my native language, even after years of speaking English and not speaking Russian, I have to slow down and to think for a second when I need to say either 'shade' or 'shadow' - they are not clearly different concepts in my mind.

There are myriad examples like this. Say, I read an English sentence, "He was looking for his glass". It is unambiguous to you, I guess. However, it is not translatable into Russian as it is, because there is no such a concept as 'glass' in Russian. There are at least five different concepts that could be 'glass' in different situations, depending on its shape, size, texture, purpose: 'stakan', 'fuzher', 'riumka', 'bokal', 'vaza'. On the other hand, 'stakan' in Russian could be any of 'cup', 'glass', 'mug' in English in different situations. Again, to me it is completely automatic to use the right Russian word out of the five 'glass' choices in any given situation, but it is not so automatic to chose between the three 'stakan' words in English, and perhaps my choice is wrong from time to time.

In describing a motion, English verbs generally emphasize a conceptual component of manner of the motion, e.g. "The bottle floated", while additional information like a path of the motion may be added later, e.g. "The bottle floated into the cave." In Spanish, however, the main description of the motion emphasizes a conceptual component of its path, "La botella entró a la cueva", while its manner is added as an extra information, "La botella entró a la cueva (flotando)."

Accordingly, there are many manner-specific  motion words in English, some very particular, e.g. 'scramble up'. Russian has a corresponding manner-specific verb, 'vskarabkat’sja'. However, Hebrew would have to use a neutral 'letapes' (to climb) and Papiamenu (a Portuguese creole) would use even more generic 'subi' (to ascend), and they will have to add a lot of description to convey the 'scrumble up' concept; e.g. in Papiamentu, 'subi lihe ku man i pia', 'ascend fast with hands and feet'.

Enough for one post, I think. But to answer the last questions above, Yes, I could actually think about a chair in a different way; and, Yes, I could've needed to ask in a different way.

 

Edited by Genady
minor grammar correction
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1 hour ago, Genady said:

I've started the OP with three examples of concepts in English and Russian, which don't have mutual correspondence.

The examples you gave were unconvincing: shadow and shade are of the same root, conceptually similar, with English having an extra little more nuance. Desk and table are the same species of furniture, where Russians probably add the specific function with an extra word, such as writing table, dining table, dressing table, cutting table (which is what desk apparently was in Latin) and you can say it that way in English, too.  'Blue' is an imprecise collective term for part of the spectrum which includes two dozen named shades. If Russian has two words, I would guess they refer to tints and tones - light and dark blues. But if the words refer to a colour range in that same portion of the spectrum, it's not a different concept - and I suspect they, too have more words to describe different shades and mixtures of blue. These are minor variations of vocabulary. They give the translator a moment's pause, but the concepts nevertheless correspond closely that an adequate translation is possible. That's where I would draw a conceptual line: not where you have a choice of words to say the same thing, but where you can't find any words to convey the meaning. 

 

1 hour ago, Genady said:

Again, to me it is completely automatic to use the right Russian word out of the five 'glass' choices in any given situation, but it is not so automatic to chose between the three 'stakan' words in English,

An English speaker with a good vocabulary might very well differentiate tumbler from goblet from jigger, from spectacles and windowpanes; otherwise, you might say wineglass, water glass, juice glass, shot glass; eyeglasses; window glass; in common parlance, they're simply using the name of the material it's made from, and I'm sure there is Russian name for that, just as there is in Hungarian, which is 'uveg', but in polite company you drink from a 'pohar', because the thing "glass" is commonly used for is a bottle. You can differentiate drinking vessels in various ways, and differentiate the products made of glass, but the concept for both glass (the material) and drinking vessel is the same. I see variations in vocabulary: one tends to use a general term which needs to be refined if you want the specific item, while the other goes directly to the specific. If you can describe a thing when you don't know its name, the concept is the same.

Again, with the manner and direction of motion, that seems to me a matter of emphasis, and number of words available for detailed description. English is a monster on vocabulary - it has gobbled up so many words from other languages that it can hone in on minute description with a single word where another language would have to use modifiers to achieve the same information-content. But again, I'm not seeing how moving upward quickly with the use of hands and feet is conceptually different in each language, just because one has shorthand for it and another doesn't. 

1 hour ago, Genady said:

Yes, I could actually think about a chair in a different way; and, Yes, I could've need to ask in a different way.

Can you describe how it would be different? My legs are tired. I need to sit down. Where is a furniture with a flat surface on which to place my bum?

 

Edited by Peterkin
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25 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

Can you describe how it would be different? My legs are tired. I need to sit down. Where is a furniture with a flat surface on which to place my bum?

I didn't say that everything is different. This specific example might be similar or same. There are differences and similarities.

Generally, we both say that different languages have different ways to say the same thing. Here what is different in our description:

You emphasize that different languages have different ways to say the same thing.

I emphasize that different languages have different ways to say the same thing.

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