Thursday, December 15, 2011

Language as a virus

Reading The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language - an overview on the current theories of language evolution - and felt very amused to find the model of language as a virus now having some currency among 'serious researchers' - given that the title of this blog comes from such a disreputable source as William S. Burroughs, based on his studies with Korzybski.

Perhaps his texts full of taboo subjects, grotesque and diseased images elicited an ugly association of the word 'virus' which hid the fact that he meant to indicate the method by which language appeared to replicate itself (something like what we now call 'memes').

You can find WSB discussing it in one of his less scary texts - The Job: interviews with William S. Burroughs - in the section called Playback from Eden to Watergate.
WSB and the Word Virus collection

"My basic theory is that the written word was actually a virus that made the spoken word possible. The word has not been recognised as a virus because it has achieved a state of symbiosis with the host, though this symbiotic realationship is now breaking down, for reasons I will suggest later."

So anyway, without getting too technical, I flipped open p. 234 of the paperback edition of The First Word, to read:

"Kirby and a number of other researcers find one metaphor especiallly useful for thinking about language: imagine that it is a virus, a nonconscious life-form that evolves independently of the animals infected by it. Just as a standard virus adapts to survival in its physical environment, the language virus adapts to survival in its environment - a complicated landscape that includes the semi-linguistic mind of the infant, the individual mind of the speaking adult, and the collective mind of communicating humans.

According to Terence Deacon, language and its human host are parasitic upon each other. 'Modern humans need the language parasite in order to flourish and reproduce just as much as it needs humans to reproduce.' "

Indeed do artists get there first.

So anyway, Korzysbski had lots to say about 'language hygiene' (or thinking clearly) just as Burroughs adopted the cut-up method to reveal underlying assumptions, prejudices and styles.

Count Alfred Koyrzybski - a marginalized, ignored or forgotten person in the main - offered a set of tools for eliminating sources of error in thinking and speaking, which would have not made him popular with the kind of people who fund research, or politicians and leaders, or advertising execs, or religious types, or... Well, you get the idea. I happen to think he had a point, and quite a few of his tools have become adopted by people without awareness of the source (perhaps).

We use 'air quotes' for dubiously used words; many scientific studies now have started to merge with the use of the hyphen (neuro-linguistic studies, socio-biological) etc, etc. The whole area of study now called NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) - whatever your reaction to those words - remains a study of how words affect us and our belief systems, and how we might need to change the words we use to think about things, to produce real change in the world. And so does the movement called Political Correctness.

Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain Terence Deacon

This review on Language Miniatures had a useful brief summary:
Copyright © 2001 by William Z. Shetter

"But is this perception really all that wide of the mark? Suppose we compare a language with something that really does have animate existence. Let's choose viruses:

  1. Like a virus, a language is an adaptive entity evolving with respect to its human hosts.

  2. Modern humans need this language parasite in order to flourish and reproduce.

  3. Humans ensure that languages, like viruses, are successfully replicated and passed on from host to host.

  4. The earlier the age at which a language or virus is acquired, the more success it will have (given the simple fact of human mortality) in reproducing from generation to generation. So language infects young children.

  5. Languages/viruses are highly organized and passed on as a complete, integrated working system, not as a collection of words/genes."
And here - at On Memetics - you will find a brief commentary on a video by Simon Kirby

“Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.” AK

Too many words, too little time. In terms of 'mental hygiene', of course, most forms of meditation seem aimed at quietening the chattering monkey mind - because when that compulsive inner voice stops we might just catch a glimpse of the world...

“Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word. “ WSB

Monday, December 12, 2011

Maps and Models and Meta-languages

I just read a quirky and entertaining book about maps and how they affect how we perceive the world around us - by a self-confessed "Map Addict"- Mike Parker.

It's an excellent read, and very stimulating to thought and further exploraration. He has a particular fondness for Ordnance Survey maps of the UK, but also covers local maps, rude street names, etc - and all the way out to world maps.

I felt sorry that in discussing world maps, where he pointed out the limitations of both the Mercator projection (with which we all feel familiar, in spite of its distortions of land size) and the Peters projection (which gets areas right, but appears downright ugly, and distorts the shapes of the landmasses - terribly PC and all that, but horrible). We traditionally draw these with The Atlantic in the middle, which emphasises the apparent importance of Europe and the USA, and with North at the 'top', which also has political implications. The Upside Down map created by someone from OZ certainly exercises the mind.

Upside Down World
Of course, it perpetuates the misleading idea of 'up and down' which Bucky so disliked (in Cosmos you only find 'in' (coming in to land on a planet) and 'out' (he suggests you should think of looking out at the stars, not 'up').

Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion map may look very unfamiliar (and seeing things afresh might prove important in itself) but it does not distort landmass area or shape, it does not have any up or down, north, south, east or west, and it can actually be folded to make a good simulation of a globe (unlike any other flat map).

As Bucky disliked the idea of nation states, he preferred that his map of Spaceship Earth not get divided with national or political lines, and so, for all its value, it has not been adopted by the United Nations...or many people, indeed, who still prefer the misleading map they grew up with.

Similar discussions could follow, on how resistant we can all prove to any kind of change to the models and maps we use to simplify and understand the world. Changes in language can perhaps align us better with the world out there, as Bucky suggested (teaching your children about sunrise and sunset continues the incorrect perception of the sun going around the Earth, for instance, so he suggested sunsight and sunclipse...and how about 'going outstairs' and 'instairs'! :-)
Not sure if animated GIFs work in Blogger, so here you will find the link to bring this pic alive!

However weird some of his suggestions, they seem clearer than people in the Northern Hemisphere thinking of Australians as 'being upside down'. But hey, I don't hold my breath waiting for such quirky uses of language to catch on. Not until we have spent some time in space stations, at least.

Bucky artefacts at Artsy   [updated Oct 2016]

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