On the Concept of Shaping Thought with Language

Posted in artificial intelligence on February 24th, 2013 by Samuel Kenyon

Psychologist Lera Boroditsky says she’s “interested in how the languages we speak shape the way we think” [1].

This statement seems so innocent, and yet it implies that language definitely does shape thought1. It also leads us to use a metaphor with “shape.”

Causes and Dependencies

Does language cause thought? Or at least in part? Or is it the other direction—thought causes language?

Is language even capable of being a cause of thought, even if it isn’t in practice?

Or in an architectural sense, is one dependent on the other? Is thought built on top of language?

Or is language built on top of thought?

Does language influence thought at all, even if one is not dependent on the other?

When people talk about language causing thought or vice versa, are they talking about language as a mental module (or distributed functionality) or the interactive act of using language?

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Recursion and the Human Mind

Posted in artificial intelligence on December 5th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

It’s certainly not new to propose recursion as a key element of the human mind—for instance Douglas Hofstadter has been writing about that since the 1970s.

nested recursion

Michael C. Corballis, a former professor of psychology, came out with a new book this year called The Recursive Mind. It explains his specific theory that I will attempt to outline here.

The Recursive Mind

As I understand it, his theory is composed of these parts:

  1. The ability of the human mind to generate concepts recursively is what causes the main differences between homo sapiens and other animals.
  2. A Chomskian internal language is the basis for all external languages and other recursive abilities. (See this blog post by Corballis for a summary of an internal language as a universal grammar).
  3. External languages evolved on top of the recursive abilities primarily for storytelling and social cohesion.
  4. External languages started with gestures, and most likely were followed by mouth clicking languages before vocal languages emerged.

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A Dreadful Fine Title Page: Or, A Vast Amount of Absolutely Necessary Information

Posted in culture, humor on August 17th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

This is the title page of an 1879 dictionary I have:

THE AMERICAN POPULAR DICTIONARY: CONTAINING EVERY USEFUL WORD TO BE FOUND IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE WITH ITS TRUE MEANING, DERIVATION, SPELLING, AND PRONUNCIATION. ALSO, A VAST AMOUNT OF ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY INFORMATION UPON SCIENCE, MYTHOLOGY, BIOGRAPHY, AMERICAN HISTORY, INDIANS, LAND TITLES, CONSTITUTIONS, LAWS, CITIES, COLLEGES, ARMY AND NAVY, DEBTS, RATE OF MORTALITY, GROWTH OF CITIES, RATES OF INTEREST, INSOLVENT AND ASSIGNMENT LAWS, ETC. BEING A PERFECT LIBRARY OF REFERENCE, IN ONE HANDY VOLUME.

The full title is 506 characters. That’s 3.61 tweets!

And it’s quite the self-marketing title–in a single 512-page book they have amassed every useful word and a vast amount of absolutely necessary information. It reminds me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a bit.

SLANG AND VULGAR PHRASES

The title of this post is taken from the absolutely necessary section of the book called “SLANG AND VULGAR PHRASES” which informs us that “dreadful fine” is a contradiction. Here are few interesting quotes from that section:

At loggerheads is uncouth.
Bad box.—“He is in a bad box” has a vulgar air. Say bad predicament, or unpleasant situation.
Comeatable, for approachable; as, “European monarchs are not easily comeatable.”
Fizzle should be applied only to inglorious failures.
Full chisel.—“He went full chisel” is an absurd expression. Say “as fast as he could,” or “he ran his best.”
“How’s yourself, this morning,” savors of the familiarity that breeds contempt.
Otherguess, for otherguise, very different from, or superior to
A precious mess, a pretty kettle of fish, mean nothing.
Crank, for pert, saucy; as, “He was so crank that he was little respected.” New England.

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