cognitive

Clip show: Links to links part 2

Following on from my last post, here are some more links to some interesting online content that is related to the topics I write about here, along with some commentary from me. First of all, have a look once again at the blogroll in the sidebar — I’ve added some more blogs, including Whats in a brain? which has a recent post on linguistic relativity and time. Now in today’s post I’ve got some longer lecture-type items, mostly by academics but aimed at a broad non-specialist audience. Wherever possible I’ll try to include links to both video and audio versions for you to choose from.

pentangle14

First of all is a talk by James Burke titled “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll” (also available in iTunes). In addition to his usual connections approach, this is an excellent argument for the importance of the interdisciplinary approach. It’s also very witty and entertaining, as usual for Burke.

At the end of the last post I linked to some basic introductory linguistics videos, and here is another very good introduction to the basics of linguistics, “Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain” by Steven Pinker. This lecture is part of the Floating University initiative, and in it Pinker does a pretty good job of not only presenting basic linguistic concepts but also introducing and giving a balanced treatment of some controversial issues such as language universals and linguistic relativity, subjects that he has fairly strong views on. Here is the lecture on YouTube:

Related to the subject of language universals is Daniel Everett‘s Long Now lecture “Endangered languages, lost knowledge and the future” (the audio is also available in iTunes and the video can be watched on Fora.tv). Based on his observations of the Pirahã language, Everett argues against the Chomskyan notion of  an innate universal grammar, and instead suggests that language is a cultural tool invented by humans to serve a social function.

Lera Boroditsky gives an excellent introduction to recent research on the subject of linguistic relativity in her Long Now lecture “How Language Shapes Thought” (the audio is also available in iTunes and the video can be watched on Fora.tv). In particular, Boroditsky many of the language and time issues I’ve written about recently. Here is the lecture on YouTube:

On the subject of time, here is Claudia Hammond‘s RSA talk “Time Warped” based on her book of the same name (the full audio of the talk is also available in iTunes). Hammond discusses many interesting issues about time perception. Here is a YouTube video of the edited highlights of this talk:

Cognitive scientist David Eagleman also works on time perception (as well as a variety of other topics). Here are two lectures of his from The Up Experience. In the first, he gives good summary of his work on how we perceive time and how our sense of time is largely a construction by the brain:

In this second Eagleman talk, he discusses, among other things, the relationship between the present self and the future self, drawing on a story of Odysseus and the sirens from the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey to describe what he calls the Odysseus contract:

Economist M. Keith Chen also draws on the idea of future discounting, which Eagleman refers to in that last video, in his highly controversial connection between how languages handle the future tense and future planning (which I’ve discussed before here and here). Here is his TED talk presenting this theory:

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo talks about our orientation to time, that is being past, present, or future oriented, and what this means to the way we approach life, also touching large scale cultural differences, in his RSA talk “The Secret Powers of Time”. Here are the YouTube videos of both the full lecture and the excellent 10-minute RSA Animate video excerpted from it:

And finally, since I started this post with James Burke’s kind of connections, I’ll end with neuroscientist Sebastian Seung‘s TED talk “I am my connectome”, in which he discusses his connectome project of mapping the brain’s neuronal connections, and related book Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are:

I’ll hopefully be able to get back to more substantive blogging later on in August, but for now good watching/listening!

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Categories: cognitive, culture and thought, General, interconnectivity, Interdisciplinarity, linguistic relativity, linguistics, time | 1 Comment

Clip Show: Links to links part 1

To tide things over for a while until I have more time to write more substantive posts, I thought I’d like to put together a post of some curated links to online content relevant to the sorts of topics I’ve been writing about recently. Think of it as a kind of clip-show approach to keep putting posts up while I’m a little short of time to write. First of all, needless to say, have a browse through the blogroll at the side of the page. It isn’t an exhaustive list of the blogs that I read, but it reflects the kinds of subjects I write about here, as well as the interdisciplinary breadth I’m arguing in favour of. Next, in this post I’m including some podcasts and YouTube channels which regularly touch on issues of language, cognitive science, and in particular issues to do with time. I’ll save some one-off links to longer lectures for the next post.

The Endless Knot

The Endless Knot

First up, there are two excellent language podcasts, Talk the Talk, featuring linguist Daniel Midgely and co-host Ben Ainslie, and Lexicon Valley from Slate magazine, with Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield. For Talk the Talk I’m going to recommend episode #29 “Time in Amondawa”, which looks at the topic of space-time mapping I’ve written about recently, and for Lexicon Valley I recommend episodes #8 “When Nouns Grew Genitals” and #9 “And May He Be a Masculine Bridge”  which look at the question of linguistic relativity, and features the work of, among others, Lera Boroditsky, whom I’ve referred to on several occasions.

If you’re interested in the cognitive stuff, have a listen to The Brain Science Podcast, in which Dr. Virginia Campbell, MD reviews books and interviews scientists on a variety of neuroscience topics, and All in the Mind, in which host Lynne Malcolm covers a variety of topics about psychology and the mind. In particular, for The Brain Science Podcast  I’ll recommend episode #94 “How the Brain Makes Meaning” in which Dr. Campbell interviews linguist Benjamin Bergen about his book Louder Than Words, and for All in the Mind I’ll recommend the episode “How language shapes thought”, which again touches on Boroditsky’s work.

Now for some videos. Brady Haran has a number of educational YouTube channels, mostly on scientific topics, but also including Words of the World, which uses words, their meaning and history, as a jumping off point to examining culture and history through a series of interviews with academics from a variety of disciplines. However, I’m going to recommend three of his videos which deal with the subject of time. First from PsyFile, “Time Perception”, which discusses how the brain perceives and keeps track of time:

Next, from PhilosophyFile, “The Philosophy of Time”, which is a good introduction to some basic concepts such as McTaggart’s ideas about time and the A series (past, present, future) and B series (earlier, later) of time:

And finally, from Sixty Symbols, “Arrow of Time”, which looks at the question of whether or not physics requires directionality in time:

On the channel YouTube channel Vsauce, host Michael Stevens, who has a background in neuropsychology, frequently posts educational science videos, including this one titled “How Old Can We Get?”, which discusses not only biological time, but also issues about time perception:

And finally for today, Tom Scott has recently been posting a number of short video introductions to linguistics topics, including this one, “All The Colours, Including Grue: How Languages See Colours Differently”, which discusses the linguistic relativity question:

So have a browse through these links — they should provide some depth and background to the posts I’ve been writing lately. And coming soon, some longer lectures that have been influencing me lately.

Categories: cognitive, General, linguistic relativity, linguistics, time | Leave a comment

Kalamazoo Time

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. Between end-of-term grading and preparing a conference paper, I haven’t had much time. But speaking about time…

Yggdrasil

Yggdrasil

I’ll be attending the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. It’s the biggest specifically medieval academic conference. I don’t have time to write much more about it now, but here’s a summary of my paper, titled “Linguistic Relativity Revisited: Language and Thought in Old English”:

Ever since Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that there was a connection between language, thought, and culture, the concept of linguistic relativity has been a highly controversial topic. The famous (or notorious) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposed that differences in linguistic categories from one language to the next determine or at least influence the ways in which speakers of those languages think about the world. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, this notion fell out of favour and has been strongly rejected. For instance, Steven Pinker states unequivocally that the theory is “wrong, all wrong”, and instead argues for an underlying language common to all people, which he calls ‘mentalese’. However, in the past decade new evidence has come to light, pioneered in particular by cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, that reopens the debate on linguistic relativity. Boroditsky’s research, bolstered by extensive experimental data, suggests that language differences can have profound differences on the way speakers think about the world.

This paper will explore the implications of this research for the understanding of Old English language and thought. In particular, I will focus on linguistic categories involving time and tense, including the use of spatiotemporal terms for time. Old English speakers were powerfully influenced by the very different language and culture of the Latin speaking Christian missionaries. I argue that exploring the differences between these languages helps explain the development of the language, literature, and culture of the Anglo-Saxons.

In the paper, I’ll not only be drawing on Boroditsky’s work, I’ll also mention the recent controversial paper by M. Keith Chen which I’ve blogged about before (here and here), and looking back at an old book by Ernst Bauschatz on Germanic notions of time. So though short on time, I’ll be speaking mostly about time.

Categories: cognitive, culture and thought, linguistic relativity, linguistics | 3 Comments

Numbers Count: Thought, Culture, and Number Systems

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend an excellent talk by Dr. Geoffrey Saxe titled “Cultural Development of Mathematical Ideas: Papua New Guinea Studies”, part of the Thought and Culture Seminar at Laurentian University. This lecture touched on a number of interests of mine relating to thought, culture, and language. Here’s the abstract for the talk:

Psychological studies of cognitive development are often conducted without regard for the interplay between the cognitive activities of individuals and the cultural histories of communities. In my talk, I illustrate a heuristic research framework that illuminates this interplay through studies drawn from a program of work conducted in a remote Mountain Ok community in Papua New Guinea, the Oksapmin. Traditionally, the Oksapmin like their neighboring groups use a 27-body part counting system to represent quantity. Over three periods of fieldwork that stretch 23 years, I trace the shifting organization of the system and the shifting functions it serves as it is reproduced and altered in collective practices of daily life. Though the focus of the talk is on the Oksapmin case, I point to ways that the framework is useful for understanding the dynamics of culture-cognition relations more generally.

The research page of Dr. Saxe’s website has a good brief summary of the two lines of his research, and the publications page has this more detailed account of his research into the Oksapmin 27-body part counting system.

Geoffrey Saxe and the Oksapmin

Geoffrey Saxe and the Oksapmin

To summarise, Saxe looked at the counting system of the Oksapmin, in which numbers correspond to 27 body parts of the arms and head, as in this illustration taken from the website:

The Oksapmin counting system

The Oksapmin counting system (rollover for detailed caption)

These are cardinal numbers that are used to count, but Saxe found that traditionally they were not used for arithmetical calculation. In this brief video clip, on Saxe’s website, you can see this counting system being demonstrated.

The Oksapmin were first contacted by westerners in 1938, and gradually western culture has influenced Oksapmin society since then. Saxe has made three visits to study the Oksapmin and observe the changes in their traditional counting system, in 1978, 1980, and 2001. Two major influences on change are financial transaction, as the Oksapmin became more and more integrated with western economy, and education, as western-style schools were established in the region. For basic counting tasks, the traditional system could be used for counting out money, but more complex arithmetical calculations novel adaptations of the system began to be developed, many of them quite ingenious workarounds. Unsurprisingly, Saxe found that the more integrated a person was with western culture, the better they would be able to perform such arithmetical tasks, especially without a physical object to count, such as coins. In terms of education, initially the educational policy was to ban the use of any language other than English in the classroom. Saxe reports, therefore, that the traditional use of the body-part system was on the wane by his 2001 visit. However, educational policy had changed, and greater value was attached to traditional culture and practices, and attempts were being made to bridge traditional and western culture, rather than simply suppress the traditional. Thus the body-part system began to be used in the classroom. However, as the body-part system was no longer in much use in traditional contexts, the use in the classroom was somewhat divorced from the older tradition.

I am, of course, summarising and simplifying here, and no doubt I am missing many of the subtleties and complexities of Dr. Saxe’s research, as I only had a chance to briefly look over the article before the presentation, though I look forward to reading it more carefully now. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend you read for yourself the article itself (as well as his other research).

Some particular questions / areas of interest I have about this research include the issue of bilingualism. Greater knowledge of western culture goes along with differences in use of the number system. Do bilingual speakers perform differently when performing the same tasks in different linguistic contexts, and does learning a different number system change the way one uses the traditional one? The evidence here seems to suggest yes. Another small question I have is do the Oksapmin use words for right and left — the counting system outlined above seems to use an expression (‘tan’) meaning “on the other side” — and does this have any bearing on things.

Ultimately Dr. Saxe’s work seeks to develop a framework for dealing with the complex cultural and cognitive interplay at work here, and how this leads to changes in knowledge systems over time. He noted the lack of inclusion of social history in the study of cognitive development, for which he thus tried to develop a working model. Obviously this could have very broad implications and utility to other situations, and is particularly relevant to my own interests in the interplay between culture, cognition, history, and language change, and so I look forward to learning more about his work.

Categories: cognitive, culture and thought | 2 Comments

Cognitive Philology and the History of Linguistics: A Personal View

I’ve been asked before what I mean by cognitive philology. I perhaps mean something slightly different, or at least something more specific, by it than what’s described in the Wikipedia entry. My background training has been largely in literary studies and traditional philology, with some formal training in more theoretical areas of structural linguistics, generative grammar, and so forth, though recently I’ve taken to the cognitive school of linguistics with all the fervor of a new convert. So I thought I’d write a bit of a potted history of linguistics to show where I’m coming from. I must admit this is highly subjective, as I’ve focused on the areas of linguistics that have influenced me the most, and so I’m leaving out all kinds of stuff that is important and influential generally, but just not to me personally, and I’ve chosen often to focus on particular linguists who are interesting and/or influential. I’m also grossly oversimplifying things as it suits my purposes, so take it all with a bit of a grain of salt. This post is mainly intended for those with an interest in language, but not much background knowledge; actual linguists need not read any further.1

from Wikipedia: "Figure illustrating the fields that contributed to the birth of cognitive science, including linguistics, education, neuroscience, artificial Intelligence, philosophy, anthropology, and psychology. Adapted from Miller, George A (2003). "The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective". TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 7."

Cognitive Science Heptagram

In traditional philology one studies the history of languages by looking at old texts. So for instance one studies history of the English language by analysing old texts such as, lets say, medieval poems like Beowulf. By looking at texts from different time periods, from different regions or dialects, and by comparing related languages, such as Old English with various related Germanic languages such as Old Norse or Old Saxon, one can make pronouncements about how the language has changed over time and some of the forces that may have driven these changes. A philologist records and reports on the evidence found in historical texts. This approach to the study of language is a very old one, dating back to the 19th century (and earlier) with such founding fathers as Jacob Grimm (yes that Jacob Grimm of the the Brothers Grimm). In addition to collecting folktales, Grimm pioneered the field of comparative philology, devising Grimm’s Law, which described the relationship between certain consonant sounds in various Indo-European languages and how they came into Germanic languages like English.2 Indeed many scholars of the 19th century and earlier, such as Franz Bopp, Thomas Young, Sir William Jones, theorised about the relationship between the various languages which have now become known as the Indo-European language family, and at least as far back as the 16th century comments had been made about such similarities.3 This interest in Indo-European comparative philology kicked off a whole cottage industry in comparative studies in Indo-European (and other) cultures, such as comparative mythology and folklore, which included Grimm’s other great work, the collection of folktales/fairytales he compiled with his brother Wilhelm. Grimm’s Law was one of the first systematic expressions of this correspondence. As for philology, Grimm and his contemporaries were some of the first to take a truly scientific approach to language, focusing largely on phonology (the sounds of language) and language change. Another term for this sort of study is historical linguistics.4

Jacob Grimm

Jacob Grimm

Incidentally, in addition to Grimm, I could have listed here any number of philologists who were important to the study of Old English in particular and the history of the English language in general. For instance Karl Verner who formulated Verner’s Law which explained the seeming exceptions to Grimm’s Law, or the many lexicographers from Samuel Johnson to James Murray, famed editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, which revolutionized how dictionaries are made and used, and many editors of various early editions, such as those involved in the Early English Text Society. One in particular worthy of at least brief mention is Henry Sweet, who in addition to writing various works on Germanic philology, including A Student’s Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, was the model for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.5 All of these 19th century philologists pushed forward our understanding of language and its history during an explosively productive time.

James Murray

James Murray

Aside from historical linguistics, the study of language throughout the 20th century and into the 21st has become highly theoretical, and often focuses on the spoken language of living speakers, who can be test subjects in the lab. Linguists started to theorise how language worked at some deeper level, rather than just describing it and its history in great detail.6 To a large extent the late 19th and early 20th century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is responsible for the theoretical and structural approach to language. Saussure, for instance, hit upon the distinction between the theoretical system and its actual practice of language, what he termed langue and parole. Saussure is often regarded as the founder of modern linguistics.7

Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure

Perhaps one of the most important and influential linguistic ideas of the 20th century, which comes out of this structural approach, is the idea of the universal grammar, proposed by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky.8 This theory holds that all human languages share a basic universal structure which is hard-wired into the human brain, and the differences between languages are mostly surface level, and not indicative of the deeper structure of language. This also presupposes that there is a special language centre of the brain and that language is a specialised function of the brain. Furthermore, this internal grammar is said to be generative, in that it is a set of basic rules through which a theoretically infinite number of expressions can generated.9 This is the difference between human language and the forms of communication that animals use. While human language is infinitely flexible and can generate new expressions and ideas, animal communication is limited to a certain number of fixed expressions. Animals, as far as we know, have no syntax or generative grammar with which to produce novel expressions. They simply repeat the same few messages as required by the circumstance. Followers of Chomsky have sought to define how this universal and generative grammar works, and how we acquire this ability. This approach to language is often referred to as generative linguistics or formal linguistics.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

There have certainly been alternate opinions, such as the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, associated with Edward Sapir10 and Benjamin Lee Whorf,11 which argues for linguistic relativity, that language difference is indicative of different ways of thinking, and that the language you speak can influence the way you perceive and think about the world.12 Linguistic relativity too has its foundations in Saussure’s ideas, particularly the relationship between thought and language and Saussure’s notions of linguistic signs and the concepts they signify. But the universal grammar model came to be the mainstream of linguistics.13 In the latter half of the 20th century the idea of linguistic relativity has fallen out of favour, and is even now not the mainstream opinion.

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Also quite influential in the 20th century has been the field of sociolinguistics, which examines language in the context of society — how language is used in different social contexts, such as in different social and socioeconomic groups, and how society effects language. A notable linguist in this field is William Labov, who is widely know for his study of Black English Vernacular (BEV). Labov argued that BEV should not be thought of as substandard, but was in fact remarkably expressive and grammatically consistent, and worthy of academic study.14 This is part of a larger trend in linguistics of the 20th century away from prescriptivism (instructing people about the so-called ‘correct’ way to speak and write) and towards descriptivism (studying how language is actually used in the real world rather than in theoretical and abstract grammar books, without value judgement). A related field is pragmatics, which studies context-dependent meaning, and seeks to uncover the elements of meaning that can’t be explained by the study of the structure of language in formal linguistics. Thus for instance the utterance “It’s cold in here” when said to someone sitting next to an open window is a request to close the window. It is the context of the discourse that determines the meaning. William Labov engaged in this kind of discourse analysis, which has led to my own interest in examining discourse markers (such supposedly meaningless, though actually significant and meaningful, filler phrases such as “so”, “you know”, “I mean”, and “actually”) and their use in medieval narrative.15

William Labov

William Labov

More recently, a new branch of linguistics has developed called cognitive linguistics, which attempts to explain language by drawing on more general theories of human cognition developed by cognitive scientists and cognitive psychologists. Simply put, according to the cognitive approach, language is explained with reference to the same basic principles that govern human cognition generally, as illuminated by the research being done by cognitive scientists. Thus cognitive linguistics can often stray into areas of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Instead of seeing language as the product of a specialised language organ in the brain, as per the universal grammar model, in cognitive linguistics language is intricately linked to human conceptualisation generally. It’s almost as if language is a by-product of human cognition. And so general principles of human cognition, as explored by cognitive scientists, must be able to account for the way language works as much as possible. Thus cognitive linguistics is a necessarily interdisciplinary field, just as cognitive science is, incorporating areas such as neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy.16

George Lakoff

George Lakoff

One of the most well-known and influential ideas to come out of the cognitive linguistic approach is the emphasis on metaphor, which George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explore in Metaphors We Live By. The argument is that metaphor is fundamental to all language, and indeed to all thought. We use metaphors as a way of thinking about and talking about abstract things by relating them to more concrete things. Thus when we say we are “in trouble” we are metaphorically conceiving of trouble as a container.17 Or when you say you “spend time” doing something you are drawing on the “time is money” metaphor. Some other significant scholars working in these kinds of areas include Mark Turner and Rafael E. Núñez.

Mark Turner

Mark Turner

Along with the greater focus on the cognition of speech has very recently come a resurgence in interest in the linguistic relativity question. In particular, over the past decade cognitive scientists such as Lera Boroditsky have been exploring the ways in which language shapes thought. No longer holding to the hard-line strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that claimed that language determined thought and thus that language was some kind of limiting factor, the argument now is that language can be a factor in shaping habitual thought.18

Lera Boroditsky

Lera Boroditsky

Thus finally we come back to my use of the term cognitive philology. I suppose what I’m driving at is the literary and philological implications of cognitive linguistics. Of course there are other literary scholars who have sought to apply the ideas of cognitive science, and cognitive linguistics in particular, to the study of literature, and this has led to a field often referred to as cognitive poetics. Frequently, for instance, such scholarship examines the use of conceptual metaphor in literary texts, and how that contributes to the meaning of literature.19 But what I’m aiming at is perhaps somewhat broader than just cognitive poetics, involving the intersection of language, thought, history and culture.20 Language is an entry point into the mind, and a particularly useful one when studying historical periods, as the people themselves are long dead. All human culture is the product of human cognition, and can thus not really be understood without the lens of cognitive science; and if language is intimately linked with cognition, it is an important window into the human cognitive process and therefore human culture. Through the study of language, we can study the history of human thought and culture, and I hope to be able to show, in a small way at least, why this is interesting and important for everyone to understand. Language is the monument of thousands of years of human culture.

Cognitive Science Hexagram

Cognitive Science Hexagram

So writing this post has served a double purpose — it explains some of the theoretical background to what I want to blog about, especially important if you don’t already have a background in languages or linguistics, but it’s also an opportunity for me to think out loud a bit. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! As a reward, here’s a sketch by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie discussing language, which picks up on notions of Saussurian lange and parole, Chomskian generative grammar, the relationship between language and culture, pragmatics, and the formulaic nature of language. See how much funnier it is now that you’ve read all that?21


1 Indeed it might actually infuriate you to read this post if you’re an actual linguist, so you may as well stop now. Still here? Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you! [back]

2 For instance the Germanic f in English words such as foot, father, and fish corresponds predictably with p in other IE languages, such as Latin pes/pedis, pater, and piscis (and also with Greek πούς and πατηρ, for that matter — feel free to find correspondences in other languages, or consider other basic words like numbers (one, two, three, etc.) in as many languages as you know. It’s fun! [back]

3 An interesting side note, the Danish philologist Rasmus Christian Rask more or less came up with the same idea as Grimm, and Grimm initially credited him with this, hence it’s sometimes referred to as Rask’s-Grimm’s Rule. [back]

4 At least that’s what linguists working in linguistics departments would call it. Today, scholars focusing on language in literary fields, such as my own medieval studies, still tend to use the term philology. [back]

5 Sweet, not known for a sweet disposition but instead something of an irascible figure — the prefaces to his various works make for quite entertaining reading — was somewhat embittered that he did not receive a university professorship position as he thought he deserved. I’ve often felt quite a kinship with Sweet, and have often said, though I wouldn’t have wanted to live in the middle ages, I would love to have been a Victorian medieval philologist. [back]

6 This also brings up the distinction between diachronic linguistics, which is another term for historical linguistics (that is the way language changes over time), and synchronic linguistics, the study of language at one point in time. [back]

7 Saussure’s work also kicked off the field of semiotics, which has become significant in the literary critical world. [back]

8 Interestingly, I suspect as many people know of Chomsky for his political commentary as for his linguistics work. I guess politics is more flashy than linguistics. However, in a future post I’d like to explore how politics is really all about language anyway. [back]

9 Chomsky devised the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, demonstrating among other things that the generative grammar can produce a syntactically well-formed sentence even if it was semantically nonsense. Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky” achieves much the same effect. [back]

10 Sapir is known for developing the anthropological approach to linguistics, looking at how language and culture interact, a topic I’m much interested in. As a personal side note, Sapir lived for a time in my hometown Ottawa (Canada), working for the Geological Survey of Canada. That’s a connection I’d really like to look more into. [back]

11 Whorf has often been criticised as a dilettante, as he was originally trained as a chemical engineer, and only came to the study of linguistics later in life. However, the strengths and weaknesses of his work should stand for themselves. [back]

12 Essentially the claim is that language can affect the way you think in very fundamental ways; language differences can lead to differences in cognition. The original strong version of this theory, linguistic determinism, claimed that the language you spoke determined the way you were able to think about the world. The more recent versions of this idea claim that language can have an effect on the way you think but is not an absolute determiner of it. You can read more about linguistic relativity on Wikipedia or even better in this easily approachable and very well explained entry by Lera Boroditsky in the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. [back]

13 Linguistic relativity is a complex topic that I’ve already briefly touched on, and I’ll come back to in more detail in an upcoming post. [back]

14 BEV is now more commonly referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. For an interesting discussion of this topic, have a listen to episode 4 of Slate’s excellent language podcast Lexicon Valley. [back]

15 A number of medievalists, such as Suzanne Fleischman, Laurel J. Brinton, and Peter Richardson,  have focused on pragmatics and discourse markers, and they’ve been big influences on me as well. I’ll probably write a fuller post on this topic in another post, as pragmatics and discourse markers were the focus of my research for the first five years or so after completing my doctorate. [back]

16 This interdisciplinarity is what lies behind the graphics I’ve included at the beginning and end of this post. The graphics use the hexagram and heptagram to show the interrelated nature of these fields in cognitive science, an image which also lies behind the name of this blog — the endless knot is a phrase from the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and refers to the emblem of the pentangle or pentagram which Gawain has emblazoned on his shield. It is an image of the interconnectedness of things. Interconnectivity and interdisciplinarity are at the very heart of what I’m doing, and I’ll be blogging much more about them soon. [back]

17 Children learn the basic conceptual schema of “container” when they spend hours putting things in and then taking them out of a box or other container. It seems to fascinate them endlessly to repeat this simple act, which later becomes fundamental to their thinking about the world in later life. [back]

18 Boroditsky’s work has been particularly influential for me lately. I’ve written a bit about this already, and will post a fuller discussion of linguistic relativity later. In the meantime, have a look at Boroditsky’s website, which includes both her scholarly publications and more popular articles, and check out this public lecture, which is a very approachable and entertaining introduction to the subject of linguistic relativity. [back]

19 That certainly is part of what I’m trying to do on this blog. See for instance my post on the seafaring metaphor. [back]

20 Mark Turner has an interesting article along these lines called “The Cognitive Study of Art, Language, and Literature” Poetics Today 23.1 (2002): 9-20. [back]

21 Yes, this whole post has been in part an attempt to show why this sketch is so funny. [back]

Categories: cognitive, Interdisciplinarity, linguistic relativity, linguistics, metaphor, philology | 9 Comments

Back to the Future

A quick update to my previous post about the correlation between the way languages mark future tim reference and future-oriented behaviour. Kieth Chen has written a guest post on Language Log explaining his working paper, and responding to the critiques by Language Loggers Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman. He specifically addresses two concerns, that there is some linguistic imprecision in the classification of of strong FTR languages, and that the statistical correlation may be due to cultural co-diffusion, and I must say that I find his responses valid and persuasive, though clearly considerably more research needs to be done in this area.

The Ant and the Grasshopper

The Ant and the Grasshopper

In response to Chen’s response, another Language Logger, Julie Sedivy, has written an interesting post. Her main point, that additional linguistic experimentation needs to be conducted to really get at what is going on here, is an excellent suggestion, and I do hope that someone goes about this. However, I’m still troubled by some of the objections Sedivy raises. She again brings up this notion of cultural co-diffusion, that families in the same countries who choose to speak a particular language at home will also choose to hold to certain cultural values that are coincidentally associated with that language group, and that there is no causal relation between language and behaviour. This might explain away the behaviour in any one country, but if I understand correctly, Chen’s data is drawn from a wide range of countries which don’t necessarily have cultural connections. But again, perhaps I’m missing something here.

What really troubles me is the extent to which Chen’s data is being dismissed primarily on the grounds that the prevailing model shouldn’t allow. Surely the data should come first, even if it conflicts with the prevailing models. Certainly experimental evidence will be needed to corroborate Chen’s statistical correlation in order to establish a solid case for a causal relation. But Sedivy’s attitude is that such a result would be surprising (albeit interesting). There is, however, mounting evidence that such causal relationships exist, as demonstrated for instance by the research by Lera Boroditsky. Many linguists get uncomfortable when confronted by such evidence, since it can’t simply be dismissed, and yet it supports the notion of linguistic relativity, to which they do not hold. Perhaps we need Boroditsky to conduct such experimentation which Sedivy describes, and maybe then the notion of linguistic relativity will not be so cavalierly dismissed.

In any case, if you’re interested in the topic, have a look at these two new posts. I am glad that this topic is getting some attention, and I’m quite enjoying this ongoing discussion on Language Log. I will eventually post about my own research on the topic of linguistic relativity, and very soon I’ll post the rather long entry I’ve been working on about philology and cognitive linguistics.

Categories: cognitive, linguistic relativity | 4 Comments

Saving for the Future

Another quick post today relating to a recently reported story about a working paper by M. Keith Chen, an economics prof at Yale, which claims a correlation between tense marking and behaviour.1 I was originally going to hold off for a longer post on the topic of linguistic relativity, but instead I decided to post right away as this topic has been making waves on the web due to Chen’s paper.2

The Ant and the Grasshopper

The Ant and the Grasshopper

Essentially, Chen points out a statistical correlation between languages that do not strongly mark a distinction between present and future time, and people who provision for the future, for instance by saving money or engaging in behaviour that is beneficial to long term health like diet and exercise. The crux of it seems to be that if your language makes a strong distinction between present and future time, you don’t take note of future consequences as much as someone who speaks a language which lumps together present and future — when the future is the present, the future is really a present concern, but if you linguistically isolate the future you can put it out of mind more easily, so the theory goes. Thus on average, speakers of languages without a distinct future tense save more money and live healthier lives than those who speak languages with separate future tenses. The abstract from Chen’s paper summarises his findings and reasoning:

Languages differ dramatically in how much they require their speakers to mark the timing of events when speaking. In this paper I test the hypothesis that being required to speak differently about future events (what linguists call strongly grammaticalized future-time reference) leads speakers to treat the future as more distant, and to take fewer future-oriented actions. Consistent with this hypothesis I find that in every major region of the world, speakers of strong-FTR languages save less per year, hold less retirement wealth, smoke more, are more likely to be obese, and suffer from worse long-run health. This holds true even after extensive controls that compare only demographically similar individuals born and living in the same country. While not dispositive, the evidence does not seem to support the most obvious forms of common causation. Implications of these findings for theories of intertemporal choice are discussed.

I first heard about this research a while ago, and it’s being widely reported on the web in the past few days (see here and here) as the discussion paper (not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal) has recently been made available online. For a rather more negative appraisal of this research see this post, and for a critique of the statistical analysis see this post,5 both at Language Log.

What lies behind this sort of argument is the concept of linguistic relativity, which you can read about on Wikipedia or even better in this easily approachable and very well explained entry by Lera Boroditsky in the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, available along with much other research on the topic on her excellent website.3 Indeed, Boroditsky is doing some of the most compelling and convincing work on the issue of linguistic relativity. Essentially the claim is that language can affect the way you think in very fundamental ways; language differences can lead to differences in cognition. The idea originally came out of the research of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf and is thus also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.4 The original strong version of this theory, linguistic determinism, claimed that the language you spoke determined the way you were able to think about the world. The more recent versions of this idea claim that language can have an effect on the way you think but is not an absolute determiner of it.6

I first encountered the concept of linguistic relativity when working on my dissertation, which examined the development of future tense constructions, such as “I shall” or “you will”, in Old English texts. English did not originally have a future tense in the same way that it had a present and a past tense (“I walk” and “I walked”). You could (and still can in some circumstances) use the present tense with an adverb (“I walk to the doctor’s office tomorrow”) to indicate future time, or you can use some sort of auxiliary with the verb (“I will walk” or “I am going to walk”). Latin, on the other hand, does have a series of simple ending you can tack onto the end of verbs to indicate future time, just like English adds “-ed” to verbs to show past time. I was curious how Old English translators of Latin texts handled these Latin future tense forms when English at that time did not have a regularised system for marking future time. It was a straightforward philological topic. But from there I branched out into all kinds of conceptual areas like anthropology and philosophy, and literary areas, such as the construction of narrative. For instance, particularly relevant is the effect Christianization had on the Anglo-Saxons, Christianity having a well developed notion of the future and Latin, the language that Christianity was transmitted in, having a future tense. It was in the conceptual area that I first encountered cognitive science, how we conceptualise future time. I briefly discussed these issues and the issue of linguistic relativity, and then filed them away for a later date as an interesting topic that might be worth another look, and am now coming back to the issue of linguistic relativity in a conference paper I’m preparing for the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo in May. Chen’s reseach has obvious parallels to all of this. I’ll post a fuller account of these implications later as I continue to work on my conference paper.

Full disclosure: my position on all of this is that I support the notion of linguistic relativity, at least in its weaker formulation. I am convinced by the evidence of Boroditsky and others that language does have a profound and deep influence on the way you think. It is not, however, the only factor, and the more complex the human behaviour you’re looking at, the harder it is to ascribe it to one simple linguistic feature. Other linguistic and non-linguistic factors influencing cognition come into play. That being said, Chen’s methodology would, at first glance, seem to deal with these limitations, as he controls for these variables, and given that he is showing large-scale statistical influences, individual exceptions aren’t a big problem for his conclusions. Future time marking may well be a powerful factor influencing your behaviour, though not the only factor. Other personal and large-scale cultural factors all have a role to play in this complex behaviour, but in the aggregate, your language may well have a profound effect on your long-tem planning. I’ll write more about this research when I’ve had a chance to go over it in more detail, as well as about linguistic relativity, which underlies much of the thinking behind the ideas I’m writing about on this blog.

If you do not think about the future, you cannot have one.
—John Galsworthy, Swan Song


1 Well, it was going to be a brief post, but it ended up as a rather long one. The topic of linguistic relativity is very much on my mind at the moment…[back]
2 I will soon get back to the post I was writing to explain cognitive linguistics and philology, I promise.[back]
3 For a good introduction to her research have a look at the popular press essays, such as the Scientific American article, and the Economist debate with Language Logger Mark Liberman on the topic of linguistic relativity. Also a good introduction is this public lecture given by Boroditsky, which is also available through iTunes.[back]
4 See for instance E. Sapir, Language (1921), Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture, a Study in Method (1926), Culture, Language and Personality (1957); Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought & Reality (1956).[back]
5 I’m a little confused by Mark Liberman’s complaint here. From his comments, he seems to be implying that due to cultural diffusion, any number of factors will be exchanged by geographically adjacent cultures, and so having a linguistic feature and a cultural feature in common doesn’t imply a connection between the two. Fair enough, but isn’t that the point? Germanic and Romance languages are geographically very close together, and yet linguistically different, and strong-FTR languages around the world may happen to have that one linguistic trait in common, in spite of the languages being completely unrelated, and yet Chen is reporting a statistical correlation between this linguistic trait and the economic one. But perhaps I’m missing something here. The Language Loggers frequently complain about the lack of basic statistical knowledge in the general public, and they are no doubt correct; however, given the complexity of the statistical analysis under discussion, one would wish that he could explain it more clearly for someone who doesn’t have that level of statistical knowledge.[back]
6 For counter arguments to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, see for instance the very approachable and well written book The Language Instinct (1994) by Steven Pinker, and various Language Log posts on the topic such as this one.[back]

Categories: cognitive, linguistic relativity | 10 Comments

Doorways, Memory, and Literature

Just a quick post today on a recent Scientific American article. I’m working on a longer post on cognitive science and cognitive linguistics and what I’m doing with this area of research, but for now some off-the-cuff musings on a recent bit of research in cognitive psychology and how it might be relevant to the study of literature.

Brecon Cathedral in Wales (photo credit: Dara Jasumani, http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/145215)

Brecon Cathedral in Wales

The article summarises a research paper (which I haven’t had a chance to look into fully yet) that reports on the effect on memory of a change in location. As the SciAm article points out, this is the common experience of walking into a room and forgetting why you went there. Apparently research suggests that this effect isn’t simply due to a change of associated context or environment nor distance travelled, but the physical act of passing through a doorway. It seems walking through a doorway, or other similar event, purges working memory.

The really surprising thing is that this effect is evident not only in real-world environments, but also virtual environments. Test subjects were given a video game which involved carrying items around unseen in a virtual backpack in a virtual environment and being tested on their memory of the objects. Sure enough the “doorway effect” was present in these virtual experiments as well.

This got me thinking about possible literary applications of this research. If the “doorway effect” is present in a virtual environment, does reading about such boundary-marking events cause similar memory purges or segmentation? And what is the impact of this on narrative structure and episode boundary marking? I myself have worked a bit on episode boundary marking, particularly linguistic markers, but I’ve also noticed things like sea journeys marking narrative divisions.

And what about the memory mansion technique (or method of loci), of memorising things by placing them in the rooms of an imagined building? Does this “doorway effect” have an impact on this mnemonic technique?

No doubt some bright spark will do some research on the literary implications of this “doorway effect”…

Categories: cognitive | 2 Comments

Scip-gefere: Paddle Your Own Canoe*

The following mini essay is kind of the throughput from my old blog. It was originally posted there over four years ago in three installments. As it was sort of going in the direction that I want this new blog to go, and since I want a test post to kick things off, I’ve decided to repost it here. Originally I was thinking of revising and expanding it, but instead I think I’ll leave it pretty much as is — I’ve updated the wording a bit to account for the fact that it was written a few years ago and I’ve added a few explanatory footnotes. Do feel free to let me know in the comments what you think of the format and style, as this may affect how I continue in this blog.1

One last note about the background of some of the ideas expressed here: I’m writing about metaphor, not simply as a literary ornament, but as a way of thinking about the world. This is a much discussed topic of late, especially in the field of cognitive linguistics (a subject I’ll write much more about in future posts). We make sense of the world around us by thinking about it in terms of metaphor. This is something we begin to do from infancy. When a baby spends hours putting a block in a box, taking it out, and repeating these actions endlessly, he is constructing a mental schema of inside and outside, of a container. We later apply this schema to many things in our language and the world around us. When we say we are “in trouble” we are conceiving of “trouble” as a container. This is a metaphor. The centrality of metaphor to our language and our cognition is explored in the groundbreaking book Metaphors We Live By (1980), by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I’ll probably post more on this topic myself later.

Interestingly, the idea of fundamental cultural metaphors was explored earlier by Ernst Robert Curtius in European Literature of the Latin Middle Ages (1948). I first encountered Curtius while writing my doctoral dissertation, and, after constructing the appropriate footnotes, filed him away as something I should come back to later. Well, Curtius and the book by Lakoff and Johnson mentioned in the previous paragraph are occupying my thoughts in particular these days, so you’ll probably hear more about them later too.

One last point, several of the images below are taken from this excellent website on Ancient Sailing and Navigation, which also has an excellently detailed discussion of the history of these techniques and technologies, so do click on through if you’re interested.

And now the original post…

I’ve become interested in the relationship between science and technology on the one hand, and literature and culture on the other, and I’ve been working this into my lectures a bit.2 Here’s an example of a kind of neat idea I came up with for one of my classes. First a little background:

One courses I taught a few years ago was called Narrative. There weren’t many stipulations for this course other than that we were to consider narrative from fairly broad terms. I was quite excited at the prospect of teaching this course, since my own research was moving in this direction, what with my work on discourse analysis and pragmatics,1 and having recently given a paper at the Narrative Matters conference I was full of ideas. I decided to divide the course into two parts. First we would survey the major narrative genres of western literature — myth, folktale, legend, etc.; epic and saga; romance; the novel; the short story — and then we’d spend the rest of our time on thematic units. I wanted to consider narrative broadly speaking as a way human beings tend to organise information and make sense of their world. Starting off with myth was a particularly good way of introducing this idea. We compared parallel stories such as creation myths, destruction myths (like flood myths), and so forth from the Bible, Greek myth, and Norse myth. This also gave us the opportunity to do a bit of comparative mythology and consider the differences in religious beliefs and some of the different world views these reflect, for instance the very personal relationship between humans and God in the Judeo-Christian world and the relationship based on fear in the Greco-Roman world.

I also wanted to spend some time on some of the fundamental narratives of western culture, and the first thematic unit that I settled on was travel and exploration. As I was prepping my lectures on this topic it occurred to me that there was an interesting parallel pattern between the travel and exploration literature and the world views reflected by this imagery on the one hand, and the development of sailing technology on the other. I suggested to the class that the travel and exploration metaphor could be seen as reflective of cultural change from the ancient world to the modern. This narrative metaphor often describes man’s relation to the world in which he lives — the narrative is symbolic of man’s place in the universe. And the use of this narrative metaphor changes over time to reflect different beliefs about man’s place in the world.

In the Odyssey, one of the oldest recorded travel narratives in western literature, we see human beings at the mercy of the elements, and by extension the gods. Odysseus and his crew are constantly driven about against their will by the elements. And as we had already discussed in our mythology section, this reflects a common idea in Greek mythology that humans are at the mercy of capricious gods, a common Greek view of man’s place in the universe. This of course is entirely consistent with ancient sailing technology. The ancients had square sails. Here’s a picture of a square sail:

square sail

square sail

Ships with square sails are not very manoeuvrable. Essentially you go in the direction that the wind blows you. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, you were out of luck, so you’d have to wait for a favourable wind. Sure, you had oars to row, but that wouldn’t take you very fast or very far. If a storm blew up, you’d use the oars to row quickly to shore, as happens at one point in the Odyssey. Thus sailors were at the mercy of the wind, hence the sense of helplessness in the Odyssey.

As a side note, it’s interesting to compare the attitudes towards sea travel in Homer and in Virgil. While Odysseus is certainly trying to get home, he appreciates his journey and learns many things along the way. Aeneas, on the other hand, is much more focussed on the final destination. While the Greeks were a seafaring culture who lived on a peninsula with many small islands and relied on sea travel for their economy, the Romans were a much more land-based culture who hated and feared the sea, though they were practical enough to become proficient at it when required to do so.

It’s also interesting to see what later writers did with the Homeric story of Odysseus. The same story has three different meanings for Homer, Dante, and Tennyson. Homer’s Odysseus is simply at the mercy of the gods. While he does take some interest in the things he sees along the way, his journey is not his will — in fact he’s against it. His journey and his life is determined by the Fates and the prophecies about what will happen to him. In the Greek mythological world, man can’t control his own fate. In the Divine Comedy, in contrast, Dante places Ulysses in hell. For Dante, Ulysses journey was an act of will — Dante wasn’t familiar with Homer first hand. From Dante’s Christian viewpoint willfulness is sinfulness. Man shouldn’t try to control his own fate, as that was up to God. And finally, for Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses”, the hero’s journey is also an act of will, but it is more positive. Tennyson exalts his purposefulness and striving. Man should try to control his own fate. Thus for Dante sailing out into the ocean is bad and Ulysses is placed in hell for it, but for Tennyson it is good and he is lionised for it.

But back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, with relatively little advance in sailing technology over the ancient world, we can see a similar metaphor, only the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the homiletic implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only course to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Man of Law’s Tale, Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her, puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject.

Known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, the Vikings, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment.4 Here’s a picture of a Norse knarr:

Norse knarr

Norse knarr

They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan, and Christian in the Vinland Sagas.

As for the advance in sailing technology, in the late middle ages or early renaissance, the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. Here’s a picture of a lateen sail:

lateen sail

lateen sail

The triangular sail, of course, works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. And so by tacking in a zigzag pattern ships can sail go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is wind, as seen here:

tacking

tacking

(You can read a good explanation of all this here.) Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These along with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery. Here’s a picture of the complete package:

square sails and lateen sail

square sails and lateen sail

Note both the square sails and the triangular lateen sail.5

These advances too are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is of course the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than purely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, perhaps most famously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact learns about his own country in the process. Mankind defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, through its own ability to direct its own course in the world. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

With the 19th century we enter the modern era, and the biggest technological advance which changed seagoing was the steam engine. Suddenly ships were no longer dependent on wind at all. Even if there wasn’t any wind, a steamship could still go. The technological progression of the square sail to the triangular sail is completed with the advent of the steam engine. This is dramatically demonstrated in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in which just such an incident happens. When the winds die down, the steam engines are fired up, and at one point Phileas Fogg nearly burns up the ship itself in an attempt to win his race against time. This is the ultimate expression of man’s desire to control his own fate. Fogg overcomes all obstacles thrown in his way in order to win the bet, and that includes the obstacles of the natural world and the elements. This is reflected of the Victorian elevation of man’s ability to control his world. In this world-view man has a special place in the world, he is at its pinnacle. He even sought to have mastery over nature — nature was something to be tamed or controlled. And it is in the late 19th century that science is really beginning to challenge religion, with the realisation that the geological age of the earth is vastly longer than the Bible accounts for, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory challenges the Biblical creation story. The Victorian man did not adapt to his surroundings, he adapted the surroundings to suit himself, and this is subtly commented upon in Verne’s novel with the description of the British Empire which sought to impose its customs and organization (often unsuccessfully) upon the world. Furthermore, there is a shift from the age of exploration to an age of tourism. The world has been largely explored by Europeans, and Fogg is really more of a tourist than an explorer. The world is a much smaller place, and this makes man’s stature seem the larger. Instead of defining himself in relation to the world, man redefines the world in his own image.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness stands out as the most striking example of the travel and exploration metaphor. But now, instead of a journey outwards, it is a journey inwards. Instead of defining his place in the world, man is defining himself. Man’s relationship with his world becomes his relationship with his own inner psyche. Man’s attempt to control nature and the world around him becomes his attempt to control human nature and the world within him. But his sense of control is an illusion since he has no real self-control.6 Yet again the metaphor is redefined for a new era which is so self-referential and solipsistic.

And so I leave you with this little bit of obscure though apropos verse which explains the post-colonic part of the title:7

Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,
All you will to do:
But if you would succeed, you must
Paddle your own canoe.


* Yes, a footnote on the title. Let me know what you think of the rampant footnoting: Pretentiously academic? Compellingly non-linear? Just plain annoying? Or for a more amusing musing on the footnote, click here. Or go read Got Medieval’s blog, the locus classicus for footnote humour. As for the note itself, the first part of the title of this post, scip-gefere, is an Old English word which means “A going by ship”. As for the second part of the title, read to the end of the post…

1 This is, I suppose, where the obligatory “Gentle reader” trope would go. Not wanting to follow convention, and yet also wanting to follow convention, I’ve relegated it to a footnote, Gentle Reader. [back]

2 I’m planning a post on scientific approaches to literature and the humanities as well. With all these promises of future posts, I’ll have my work cut out for me. [back]

3 Basically the area of linguistics which looks at contextual meaning. [back]

4 It has been suggested that Vikings navigated by means of polarised light using crystals. See here. [back]

5 I think I remember first learning about all this sailing technology from James Burke’s excellent Connections series. You can see the relevant portion here. [back]

6 The the cognitive psychologists would no doubt point out, we are slaves to our own cognitive processes. Have a look at the blog You Are Not So Smart or the writings of David Eagleman for more on this. [back]

7 Academic titles these days seem to almost invariably follow the formula of the two-part structure connected by a colon. The term post-colonic is a bit of a joke on that. Sorry. [back]

Categories: cognitive, metaphor | 2 Comments

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