Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Language, generalized

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I was reading this passage from The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, by Frank R. Wilson:

While I was in San Diego in 1973 I ran into Ursula Bellugi, a psycholinguist whom I had met before. She took me to her lab, where there were some deaf people signing. While I watched, she translated into English what they were saying. It took me some time to absorb what she had shown me; Ursula explained that sign language is not a code on English—she said, “It seems to be a language. There are rules for making up words and rules for making sentences out of the words, but the rules have to do with space and shape—it’s an entirely different way of doing language.” I was really stunned. It was like being told there’s another ocean that you had never heard of. After a few days of looking into it and digesting it, I began to realize that this meant that language was not about speaking and hearing, which had always been my assumption. It meant that the brain had the capacity for language, and if you can’t put it out through the mouth, you put it out through the hands.

It struck me that language is simple one example of how the brain engages the body to communicate. Take, for example, fencing. Initially one must learn positions, basic movements, simple attacks, just as one in learning language must initially learn to make the right sounds, and to form words, and to string words together into sentences that communicate.

But once the basics are internalized, a conversation can ensue. Two fencers are not thinking in words but are directly expressing their brain activity (“thoughts” in the most general sense) into movement: attacks, parries, sequences of exchanges. They are doing something that each can follow and to which each responds, just as with a conversation in language. The same holds for the play of two experts in Go or chess: they no longer are thinking so much of individual moves as of the flow of the game and the ideas — the specific Go or chess ideas — being expressed in the game. They are playing the game as a language.

And the same in many other fields: in jazz one first must master the instrument and the scale and the way to respond to others, but then there is a kind of conversation of music ideas and conversation. They play as a language is spoken, though the ideas are music not words.

And the same with fashion, and with cooking, and with dance: first learn the basics, and then you no longer think of those but use them to express ideas that inhabit that particular sphere (of fashion or cooking or dance).

The brain has evolved this ability to create a communicative structure within any medium, and use that medium as we use (say) words and language. This is the power of memes: once the meme is taught, it becomes fodder for the brain’s ability to use memes to make new patterns that communicate. All memes can perhaps be used like this: once a person has been taught how to use a hammer and chisel, the possibility of creating sculpture arises.

Written by Leisureguy

30 October 2019 at 10:36 am

Posted in Daily life, Memes

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