Interconnectivity part 2: The theory of connections

In my previous post on interconnectivity I gave an example of some literary and historical interconnections. Actually this kind of interconnection between people and events is quite easy to find, as demonstrated by this graphic from Lapham’s Quarterly.

Friends, Lovers, and Family (from Lapham's Quarterly)

Friends, Lovers, and Family (from Lapham’s Quarterly)

Probably the most famous examples of this interconnected way of looking at things are the televisions documentaries, books, and magazine articles of James Burke, in particular Connections. Burke showed the often surprising lines of influence that drove scientific innovations. This was a direct challenge to the more linear view of history, and in particular the history of science and technology. Instead of progressing in small incremental steps, Burke sees innovation often taking surprising leaps from one seemingly unconnected area to another, and this kind of cultural influence can be seen in areas other than science (as Burke sometimes demonstrates in his various writings).1 He also has an excellent project on the go called the Knowledge Web, an interactive and visual mapping of these connections for educational purposes (check out the video overview).

A similar example is the book Joined Up Thinking, in which author Stevyn Colgan demonstrates the interconnected nature of a vast array of “trivia”, with often quite entertaining effect. Colgan casts his net much more widely than Burke does, in order to show not the surprising course of innovation but instead the highly interconnected nature of our modern culture.2

Finding these sorts of interconnections is, however, more than just an intellectual parlour game.3 There is a serious point to be made here. First of all, interconnectivity is a property of complex systems, which is a concern not just of scientists and mathematicians, but of social sciences such as economics, sociology, and anthropology, and I would argue that such an approach would be useful for the study of history and culture too. A complex system is any system composed of many interconnected parts, and thereby exhibits properties not obvious from the properties of the individual parts. In colloquial terms, it is more than the sum of its parts. This is a phenomenon called emergence.

a visual, organizational map of complex systems broken into seven sub-groups (from Wikipedia)

a visual, organizational map of complex systems broken into seven sub-groups (from Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most notable example of emergence is the mind which is seen as arising from the complex system of interconnected neurons in the brain. This approach to understanding cognition is known as connectionism. According to this model, human cognition is the result of the interaction of the 100 billion neurons, each of which with several thousand synaptic connections, for a total of several hundred trillion synaptic connections.4 The overall map of these connections is often referred to as the connectome, perhaps most famously by neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, who advanced the proposition “I am my connectome”.5 The idea is that, similar to the way your genome makes you physically who you are, your connectome makes you mentally who you are. According to this hypothesis, the pattern of these connections encodes all your thoughts, memories, and personality. It is due to the vast number of connections in the brain that something as complex as cognition is able to arise.6

diffusion MRI Tractography in the brain white matter (from Wikipedia)

In addition to cognition generally speaking, the human brain is responsible for producing the specific cognitive faculty of language.7 Unsurprisingly perhaps, interconnectivity is important in language as well, and some of the cognitive approaches to language are based on this. For instance, in frame semantics, the meanings of words or concepts is structured not like a dictionary but like an encyclopedia. That is to say, one cannot understand a word without also knowing an array of related concepts. Thus, to understand the word sell, one must have knowledge a number of related concepts in the domain of financial transactions, such as a buyer, money, etc. Thus, a word evokes an semantic frame or domain of related knowledge, and it is by that frame that we understand the word.8 Sometimes a word can belong in more than one frame, and thus have different meanings depending on context. Bank in the context of a river has a very different meaning than bank in the context of money, and one must have a broad conceptual and cultural understanding to be able to correctly interpret such expressions as “a strong man”, “a strong woman”, “a strong smell”, “a strong argument”, and so on. Thus it is the interaction of words that creates meaning. One can envisage a kind of web of words that collectively produce a meaning not entirely clear from the meanings of the individual words themselves. In a sense, this interconnected property of language is visually represented in the excellent language tool Visual Thesaurus (which you can use in a limited free trial or purchase a subscription). This is an example of a semantic network. See also, the lexical database WordNet, and both WordVis and Lexipedia, which provide graphical representations of the WordNet semantic network in a structure very similar to that of the Visual Thesaurus (and are free to use without a subscription). You can look up words and click between related words which are organised as a set of interconnected nodes to explore whole semantic domains.9

An example from the Visual Thesaurus of the word "connection".

An example from the Visual Thesaurus of the word “connection”.

So in a sense, I’m exploring interconnectivity on two levels, the micro level of cognition and language, and on the macro level of culture and history, and further exploring how these systems interact, since language, culture, and thought are constantly interacting and influencing each other. And it is no surprise, given the interconnected nature of our brains that we are pattern recognition machines, and seem to be driven to seek out patterns in the complex world around us.

1 You can see Burke’s various television documentaries on this YouTube channel (including also his documentary on neural connections called The Neuron Suite). There is, of course, a list of his books on Wikipedia, and his Scientific American articles were collected and republished as the book Circles: 50 Round Trips through History, Technology, Science, Culture. Interesting bit of trivia, Burke studied medieval English literature at Oxford University. No wonder I like him so much! [back]

2 Colgan has a follow-up book in the works, Constable Colgan’s Connectoscope. Click here to find out more, and learn how you can support the publication of this book. I highly recommend it. [back]

3 Though it can often be a very fun one to engage in. Try it for yourself! [back]

4 Apparently a 3-year-old child has 1 quadrillion synapses, but this number declines into adulthood. [back]

5 See his TED talk “I am my connectome” and his recent book Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Who We Are. [back]

6 Though there are several projects underway to map connectomes, it’s still a long way away that we’ll be able to do so with the complete human connectome. The only complete connectome mapped is the 302-neuron nervous system of the roundworm C. elegans. However, Seung, through his organisation WiredDifferently, is crowdsourcing scientific research by enlisting the help of volunteers. If you click through to EyeWire, you can play an online game that maps part of a connectome (the neural structure of the retina). It’s set up as a game to get people to participate, but it actually helps map the connectome, spreading the work out amongst many people. Crowdsourced scientific research, very cool! Of course lexicographers had this method worked out years ago, making use of volunteer readers contributing words, as with the Oxford English Dictionary. The internet certainly makes it a lot more effective. [back]

7 Which can itself therefore be seen as an emergent phenomenon. [back]

8 The notion of frame semantics was first proposed by Charles J. Fillmore, who explains “by the term ‘frame’ I have in mind any system of concepts related in such a way that to understand any one of them you have to understand the whole structure in which it fits” (“Frame Semantics”, Linguistics in the morning calm, ed. The Linguistic Society of Korea, 111-37, Seoul: Hanshin). [back]

9 Go ahead and play with these language tools, they’re lots of fun. It’s like getting lost following the links in Wikipedia, only with word meanings! [back]

Categories: interconnectivity | 2 Comments

Bright light

A quick news article post today. This story has been making the rounds online, and is relevant to my earlier discussion of interdisciplinarity. Jonathon Allen, a biochemistry student with an interdisciplinary interest in history, hearing about tree ring evidence for a spike in carbon-14 levels in Japanese cedar trees, which is usually caused by a supernova or solar flares, in the year AD 774, has made the connection with a mention in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of a strange red crucifix in the sky:

Her Norðhymbra fordrifon heora cyning Alchred of Eoforwic on Eastertid & genamon Æþelred Molles sunu him to hlaforde, se ricsade IIII winter; & men gesegon read Cristes mel on heofenum æfter sunnan setlgange. (ChronD)

Her Norðhymbra fordrifon heora cining Alhred of Eoferwic on Eastertid & genamon Æðelred Molles sunu heom to hlaforde, & se rixade IIII gear; & men gesegon read Cristes mel on heofenum æfter sunnan setlangange. (ChronE)

Her Æðelred Molles sunu rixian agann on Norðhymbran, & menn gesegan read Cristes mæl on heouonum æfter sunnan setlegange; on ðan ylcan geare fuhton Myrce & Centwaræ at Ottefordan & wundorlice nædra wæron gesawene on Suðsexan. (ChronF)

“This year the Northumbrians banished their king, Alred, from York at Easter-tide; and chose Ethelred, the son of Mull, for their lord, who reigned four winters. This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset; the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the South-Saxons.” (OMACL translation)

He suggests it might have been caused by a supernova partially covered by a dust cloud. This is a nice example of an intersection between history and science. Of course there are many such strange portants recorded in chronicles like these (for instance the odd mention of wonderful snakes in Sussex in the F version of the Chronicle), so it’s hard to know what they might mean, but I’d imagine that a medieval or ancient observer is much more reliable than the average modern one. Simply put, they knew their night sky better than we often do, since they had no electric lights. And it’s a nice example of a clever insight through interdisciplinary knowledge.

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle (ChronE) from Wikipedia

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle (ChronE) from Wikipedia

Categories: Interdisciplinarity, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Interconnectivity part 1: A detective story

As promised a couple of posts back, here is the related post on interconnectivity, or rather the first of what will probably be two posts on the topic. I was writing then about interdisciplinarity, essentially how different disciplines and subjects intersect and are interconnected. The underlying principle of this is the interconnectedness in everything in the highly complex phenomenon of our world. This post will be a demonstration of and exploration of the kinds of interconnections possible. In the next post I’ll discuss some of the broader implications of interconnectivity.

The great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is famous for his amazing powers of deduction. Using keen observation and deductive reasoning he is able to observe clues and work out the causes that lie behind any circumstance, a skill he frequently uses to solve crimes. He is able to see, in a way that other characters who inhabit Conan Doyle’s stories were not, the way seemingly unconnected facts can relate to one another. Other characters, such as his friend and companion Doctor Watson, are amazed and baffled until Holmes explains the deductive steps that led to his conclusions. Only then does the greater web of clues create a more complete and holistic meaning for both characters in the story and for the readers as well. Presented only with the starting point and the final conclusion, the chain of deductions seems remarkable indeed.1

Sherlock Holmes as illustrated by Sidney Paget

Sherlock Holmes as illustrated by Sidney Paget

This blog post is something of a literary/cultural/historical detective story that begins and ends with Sherlock Holmes. Or rather, it begins with another ‘detective’, Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, and the perhaps surprising suggestion that there is a connection between Sherlock Holmes and Sir Gawain. They are both detectives who have to follow a trail to solve a mystery, and they are connected by fascinating literary/historical trail.

A number of years ago, I was teaching a course aimed at first-year university students which focused on literature in the context of the arts and humanities. (It was intended for students who were not English majors.) I decided to take the approach of trying to demonstrate the cultural network that underlies all of western literature, that nothing existed in a vacuum, and that all of history, art, culture, philosophy, and science are inextricably linked. In order to understand the literary texts in the course, we had to examine the world that produced them in all its interconnected complexity. As it turns out, two of the works I decided to include in this course were the 14th century Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Sherlock Holmes short story “A Scandal in Bohemia”.

Here follows a summary of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for those who are unfamiliar with the story: In the early days of King Arthur’s court, at around the time of Christmas and New Year’s, all the nobles at court were feasting and celebrating, as befits that time of year. At one such feast, surprising everyone, a strangely green intruder burst into the hall riding a strangely green horse. Both horse and man are completely green, and the man carries with him two things, an axe and a holly bob. Holly had the same symbolic connection to Christmas then as it does now — mercy, rebirth, salvation. The axe, both a weapon of battle and the instrument of the executioner’s justice, had a particular lace wrapped about the handle. The strange green intruder proposed a game to the court, an exchange of blows. Gawain accepted the challenge on behalf of his king and court, and struck the head from the Green Knight using the axe. What was even more surprising was that the Green Knight picked up his head, reminded Gawain of his promise to accept a return blow one year later, and then rode out of the hall with his head carried under his arm.

The beheading of the Green Knight (from the original manuscript Cotton Nero A.x.)

The beheading of the Green Knight (from the original manuscript Cotton Nero A.x.)

Thus begins Sir Gawain’s detective story. He must gumshoe his way around the countryside trying to track down the Green Chapel where he is to keep his bargain to the Green Knight, and along the way come to grips with the mysterious events that have precipitated this adventure. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Sir Gawain is not an exemplary detective, and he fails to pick up on all the clues presented to him. Surprising, considering that his personal symbol, which he wears emblazoned upon his shield is the Sign of Solomon, a pentangle or five-pointed star also referred to in the poem as the Endless Knot, from which this blog takes its name and logo.2 It is so named because of its interconnectedness. One can draw a pentangle without lifting the pen from the page, and each point is connected to two other points of the star. It is indeed an interconnected, endless knot. For Gawain, this symbol represents the interconnected nature of his code of honour as a Knight of the Round Table. Furthermore, its connection to Solomon, a symbol of judgement from the Old Testament, represents his commitment to justice. (Incidentally, on the inside of his shield Gawain has the image of the Virgin Mary, a symbol of mercy, and thus the shield graphically represents the same set of oppositions that the axe and the holly symbolized, justice and mercy.) But although Gawain’s personal symbol is one of interconnectedness, he doesn’t himself grasp the interconnectedness of the events which befall him.

Pentangle - The Endless Knot

Pentangle – The Endless Knot

Sir Gawain heads out on a quest to find the Green Knight, and a few days before his appointment at the Green Chapel, Sir Gawain comes upon an unexpected castle in the wilderness where he may celebrate Christmas, quite possibly the last one of his life. The castle is circled by a palisade and moat two miles away, with the grounds within this palisade belonging to the castle. He is warmly welcomed there — perhaps a little too warmly. His host, Lord Bertilak, suggests another game of exchange, this time between daily winnings. The host will go out on a hunt each day and exchange what he manages to catch with whatever Gawain wins staying home in the castle each day. Unsurprisingly the host manages to hunt down various animals, namely a deer, a boar, and a fox. Gawain’s daily winnings are somewhat more unusual. Each day his host’s wife, Lady Bertilak, who is the femme fatale of this detective story, visits Gawain in his bedchamber and attempts to seduce him, having heard of his fame as chivalrous knight of King Arthur’s court who is as successful at wooing women as he is fighting on the battlefield. Gawain, of course is in something of a quandary, having agreed to the game of exchange. Anything he ‘wins’ must be passed along to his host at the end of the day. Each day Gawain manages to squirm his way out of having an affair with Lady Bertilak, accepting only kisses from her, which he dutifully passes on to the host each evening.3

Lady Bertilak tempts Sir Gawain (from the original manuscript Cotton Nero A.x.)

Lady Bertilak tempts Sir Gawain (from the original manuscript Cotton Nero A.x.)

However, on the third day he finally breaks his word. Lady Bertilak offers him her lace girdle, and if this seems a sexually charged gift, it is. She offers him an undergarment in much the same way that a groupie would throw her underwear at a rockstar today, given Gawain’s rockstar fame as one of the Knights of the Round Table. Only it’s not just any underwear, it’s magic underwear! Lady Bertilak tells him that if he wears this lace, he will be impervious to any harm. Now Gawain has a way of surviving the fateful encounter with the Green Knight, but only if he breaks his word and doesn’t give up his winnings to his host that evening, and this is exactly what he does. Perhaps had Gawain not been so concerned for his life, not only would he have not broken his word, he might also have picked up on the clues that he was being set up. He had all the information he needed to deduce the meaning of this mystery, but unlike Sherlock Holmes, he fails to see the connections. He had in fact already before seen the lace the wife gave to him, around the handle of the axe the Green Knight was carrying. And upon arriving at the castle, he was told the Green Chapel was not two miles away, and therefore within the walls surrounding the castle grounds. But he doesn’t connect these and other clues to come to the conclusion that all these events are interconnected, and that the outcome of the exchange of winnings game is tied to the outcome of the exchange of blows game. As it turns out, the Green Knight, who is also his host at the castle in a magical green disguise, judges his error to be a minor one, and only scratches Gawain with the axe. Gawain, however, learns his lesson. He chose poorly, picking the axe of judgement rather than the holly bough of mercy, and didn’t fully live up to his code of honour as a knight.

Thus ends this detective story, one part of the larger cycle of Arthurian legends and romances. The Arthurian stories encapsulate the medieval mindset perhaps better than any other works of literature, with conflicts between religious belief, martial conquest, devotion to women in the courtly love tradition, and personal codes of honour. Of course, to a large extent, this was an imaginary world. Already, in the middle ages, writers were looking back on a golden age of chivalry which never really existed, at least not in the way it was portrayed in courtly romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But it was a powerful and resonant set of images and ideas, one which continued to be drawn upon by writers in successive ages.

"How Sir Galahad Sir Bors and Sir Percival were fed with the Sanc Grael" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“How Sir Galahad Sir Bors and Sir Percival were fed with the Sanc Grael” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

One such later age which drew heavily upon the medieval was the Victorian period. Many Victorian writers, artists, and thinkers, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Carlyle, and John Ruskin, looked to the medieval for imagery, ideas, and inspiration. Again, it was something of a romanticisation of a medieval golden age that never really existed in quite that way, but it was nevertheless a major part of the Victorian aesthetic. Tennyson is often thought of as the quintessential Victorian poet, reflecting all the many cluttered aspects of Victorianism, including Victorian medievalism. One of his most famous poems is Idyls of the King, a poetic retelling of the Arthurian story (though not the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Tennyson’s poem is an attempt at writing the great British epic, with the Arthurian story reflecting on the British monarchy. Indeed, Tennyson frequently reflects the concerns of his day – everything from the conflict between faith and science, which was brought into sharp focus by the new evolutionary theories of the day, to the appalling social conditions that resulted from industrialisation, sharply contrasted by the pastoral world of Arthurian legend. Indeed, Tennyson was officially adopted as the poetic voice of the age when he was named Poet Laureate.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

One particular national issue which Tennyson wrote about after being named Poet Laureate was in his other most famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.4 This poem tells the story of a disastrous attack in the Crimean War. A misunderstood order caused the Light Brigade to charge, and they were all slaughtered. Tennyson seems to be celebrating the heroism of doing one’s duty and courage in the face of defeat, qualities at the heart of the Victorian self image. It was at the order of the commander of the British forces, Lord Raglan, that this disastrous attack was made.

Officers and men of the 13th Light Dragoons, survivors of the charge, photographed by Roger Fenton

Officers and men of the 13th Light Dragoons, survivors of the charge

Speaking of Lord Raglan, or more properly FitzRoy Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, his great-grand-son FitzRoy Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan, also commonly known as Lord Raglan, was most famous for his scholarly work on the hero figure, and wrote about a variety of legendary heroes, including King Arthur. Raglan’s approach is to analyse the hero myth pattern that underlies such stories, such as Gawain’s journey in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

FitzRoy Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan

FitzRoy Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan

But getting back to Raglan senior and the Crimean War, the general poor organisation and appalling conditions endured by the troops were written about by the world’s first war correspondent William Howard Russell. Russell’s dispatches, published in The Times, created much controversy and uproar back home, and as a result Raglan ordered his officers not to talk to Russell. But not before Russell’s stories brought Florence Nightingale, along with a team of nurses she trained, to Crimea to see to those poor conditions being suffered by the troops.

William Howard Russell

William Howard Russell

Florence Nightingale became famous for her pioneering efforts in wartime nursing. But she wasn’t the only notable nurse involved with the Crimean War. Rather less well known than Nightingale is the Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole.5 Seacole travelled from Jamaica to England to volunteer as a nurse for the Crimean War soldiers, bringing her knowledge of tropical medicine (with herbal and folk remedies). She was rebuffed by the authorities (at least in part due to racial prejudice, since she was of mixed race). Seacole managed to raise the money independently, and she went anyway, setting up her own hotel for the care of wounded soldiers, which she financed by selling food and drink to the soldiers. She is notable for sometimes treating soldiers on the battlefield under fire. Though the soldiers and military commanders seemed to appreciate her efforts, Nightingale herself was dismissive of Seacole, and after the war ended she returned to England destitute. Her plight was brought to public attention in part through Punch magazine, the famous satirical Victorian periodical.6

Illustration of Mary Seacole in Punch magazine

Illustration of Mary Seacole in Punch magazine

There was something of an explosion in periodicals in the 19th century, driven in part by cheaper paper and advances in printing technology. This allowed for low-cost, mass-circulation periodicals, which coupled with increased literacy rates led to a market for popular literature, literature for the masses. Indeed there was a mini-explosion of printed media in the 19th century, what with the periodicals, the proliferation of broadsheet newspapers, and the penny dreadfuls, which led to a kind of information overload similar in effect to the digital media explosion of our own time. This in turn led to more and more affective and even sensational content in order to grab the attention of the readers.

A cover of Punch magazine, with the masthead designed by Richard Doyle

A cover of Punch magazine, with the masthead designed by Richard Doyle

Richard “Dickie” Doyle was a famous Victorian illustrator who drew the Punch magazine’s first cover, and therefore designed the Punch masthead used for over a century. Doyle contributed various illustrations for the magazine,7 as well as illustrations for a variety of famous Victorian authors such as Dickens, Ruskin, Thackeray, and Leigh Hunt, often signing his initials RD with a dickie bird standing on top (see the bottom left corner of the image above). Richard Doyle’s nephew came to prominence, feeding the public desire for sensational content such as stories about crime and other lurid topics, in the pages of another famous Victorian periodical, The Strand Magazine, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes in The Strand Magazine

Sherlock Holmes in The Strand Magazine

So here the trail ends, from one “detective” to another. In my final, half-improvised lecture to my students, I outlined this connection, which touched on several of the texts and historical contexts we had examined in the course. The point was (and is) that all these things are connected one way or another and to study any one of them inevitably leads to an unending trail of connections. Stay tuned for Interconnectivity part 2, wherein I discuss some of the theoretical background to interconnectedness, and explain why I’m so concerned with this…8

1 Here’s an excerpt from “A Scandal in Bohemia” which demonstrates this:

“Wedlock suits you,” he remarked. “I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.”

“Seven!” I answered.

“Indeed, I should have thought a little more. Just a trifle more, I fancy, Watson. And in practice again, I observe. You did not tell me that you intended to go into harness.”

“Then, how do you know?”

“I see it, I deduce it. How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?”

“My dear Holmes,” said I, “this is too much. You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago. It is true that I had a country walk on Thursday and came home in a dreadful mess, but as I have changed my clothes I can’t imagine how you deduce it. As to Mary Jane, she is incorrigible, and my wife has given her notice, but there, again, I fail to see how you work it out.”

He chuckled to himself and rubbed his long, nervous hands together.

“It is simplicity itself,” said he; “my eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant bootslitting specimen of the London slavey. As to your practice, if a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the right side of his top-hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull, indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession.”

I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. “When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”


2 The blog URL uses the phrase “endless round”, since The Endless Knot was already taken. The phrase “endless round” was used in the poem Pearl, in the same manuscript as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and written by the same poet. It describes the image of the pearl, a symbol of perfection, and connected, I believe, with Gawain’s pentangle. [back]

3 It’s really quite a sexually charged poem, with kinky bondage sex-talk between the host’s wife and Sir Gawain, and the implication of potential homosexual sexual favours between Gawain and his host. Medieval literature is by no means prudish and boring! [back]

4 If you’ve never heard this before, have a listen to this wax cylinder recording of Tennyson himself reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Amazing! [back]

5 You can read her own autobiography here. [back]

6 The poem published in Punch magazine is entitled “A Stir for Seacole”. [back]

7 Though not as far as I can tell the one of Seacole. [back]

8 I hereby dedicate this blog post to Stevyn Colgan. If you want to read more interconnected detective stories, click here to read the first two chapters of his new book Constable Colgan’s Connectoscope, and click here to sponsor the book and make sure it gets published. [back]

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A page from (recent) history

Today’s post is a quick example of the kind of language-culture connection that can be made by using the Google ngram tool I mentioned in the last post. It features some wildly unsupported hypothesizing, but sometimes that’s the way we do things here.1

Pager or beeper?

Pager or beeper?

It had actually occurred to me years ago that there had been a shift in the use of the terms pager and beeper (to refer to the portable electronic paging device). This observation was based completely on subjective impression. It seemed to me that the word beeper used to be more common, an impression I formed from things like television and film, but that the word pager to refer to the same device was becoming increasingly common. I attributed this to the increasing use of the devices by the general public, not just those in special niches, such as doctors or plumbers. The word beeper calls attention to external impression of the devices — they make beeping noises. The word pager calls attention to the function of the devices. Of course in the years since, the devices themselves have largely disappeared with the advent of the cell phone.

Now with the ngram tool (and a little background research) I can test this observation. Pagers were invented in 1950 (as you can read about in the Wikipedia entry). The devices were not initially referred to as beepers or pagers. As you can read in this early Popular Science article, the service is referred to as a radio paging service and the unit itself is referred to as a pocket ratio or portable receiver. As it turns out, the words pager and beeper both predate the device which they have come to refer to. The OED lists the first attestation of the word beeper in 1946 to refer to any machine which makes a beeping sound. According to Merriam-Webster, the first use of the word with its current more restricted use is 1970. The word pager was originally a printing term, referring to someone who makes up type into pages (dating from the 19th century). The first use of the word to refer to the radio device is not until 1968.

Now these other senses of the words beeper and pager may cause some ‘noise’ in the Google ngram search results, particularly in the earlier years before the current uses become more common, but these other uses are rather uncommon and are soon drowned out. In any case, some general trends are quite clear.

pager & beeper 1950-2008 from Google Ngram Viewer (click to enlarge)

pager & beeper 1950-2008 from Google Ngram Viewer (click to enlarge)

pager & beeper 1950-1980 from Google Ngram Viewer (click to englarge)

pager & beeper 1950-1980 from Google Ngram Viewer (click to englarge)

Initially beeper has the edge on pager. Then in the early 1990s, as the devices become more commonplace, the word pager surges ahead, and beeper starts to level off and eventually decline. Of course both words drop off dramatically in the early 21st century as the devices themselves become uncommon. So now, thanks to the Google ngram tool, I’ve easily been able to support this casual supposition I’ve been making all these years. It’s a fun game to play. If anyone reading this wishes to play around with the ngram tool, I’d love to hear about your results in the comments.

1 It’s my blog and I can do what I like! Obviously one could do a little more digging and consider things like regional variation, other terms beyond the two I consider here, and other influencing factors, but this is just a quick example. Do also have a look at the Culturomics website, and in particular the Cultural Observatory for more details about this kind of analysis. Also, have a listen to this podcast from Lexicon Valley about the analysis of the language used in such historically-set tv shows as Downton Abbey and Mad Men. [back]

Categories: culture and thought, linguistics | Leave a comment

Interdisciplinarity: Crossing the boundaries from the trivial to the interconnected

I wanted to write today about something that is in many ways central to much of what I write about here on this blog, and has been fundamental to much of my research more generally: interdisciplinarity. For those not that familiar with academia, universities are generally rigidly divided into a variety of disciplines. At the larger level, there are main groupings such as the sciences and humanities, which are further divided into departments such as physics, biology, English literature, history, and philosophy. There are certainly good organizational reasons for this kind of division, as it fosters in depth interaction within disciplines with others working on similar areas, and puts researchers and students with others of a like mind, who might best be able to appreciate their shared material.

I suppose ultimately this kind of division goes back to the medieval arrangement of education into what is known as the trivium and the quadrivium. The first level, the trivium with three subjects, is what we might now think of as the arts: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (that is logic). The second level, the quadrivium with four subjects, consisted of what we might call the sciences: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (that is the theoretical study of harmonics). The word trivium means literally ‘three ways’ (referring obviously to the three parts) from Latin tri– ‘three’ and via ‘way, road’, and on a more literal level the same word was used to refer to a crossroad of three streets. From this also comes the modern English word trivial.1 Now I’m not suggesting that intense specialisation is trivial,2 but the research produced from increasingly specialised disciplines runs the risk of being appreciated by only a small few who are in the know. Now this kind of detailed work is very important at advancing and solidifying what we know about the world — quantum physicists may discover the fundamental operations of reality or paleographers may determine the provenance of a particular manuscript. But sometimes great advances come from the unexpected intersection of different knowledge sets, and because few people can be experts in more than one field, these kinds of perspectives can be missed.

This serendipity is at the heart of much of the writing of the popular science historian James Burke, and indeed Burke makes a particularly strong case for this kind of boundary crossing in this podcast, if you care to listen. The point is, groundbreaking discoveries often come from people working outside of their normal, comfortable, well-defined area of study, exploring areas outside their comfort zone. Sometimes they connect the familiar with the unfamiliar. Or they connect an external idea with their usual subject matter. This is in part what lies behind interdisciplinarity.

My background, as I’ve mentioned before, is in medieval studies, which combines a variety of disciplines such as language, literature, palaeography, codicology, history, archaeology, musicology, and so forth, over a wide geographical range, with the unifying chronological parameter of the middle ages. My doctoral dissertation would not have been possible in an English literature department, combining as it did linguistics, literature, anthropology, philosophy, history, and a variety of other approaches. It may have left me as something of a jack of all trades, master of none, but it allowed me a range that I found quite interesting. Cognitive science, my latest interest, is also an example of an interdisciplinary field, even more so when applied to literature, culture, or history, as researchers like myself do.

Recently I’ve noticed some quite inventive interdisciplinary projects worthy of note. Culturomics, applying detailed quantitative analysis to a large database of texts with a view to making cultural connections, has garnered some broad attention, particularly with a recent paper examining the birth and death of words. This culturomics approach has led to the Google ngram tool, which is free for anyone to play around with. Searchable electronic corpora of texts are often only available to those within an academic institution, and take some specialised knowledge to use. When I work with Old English, for instance, I make extensive use of the Old English Corpus from the Dictionary of Old English Project. The ngram tool from Google allows anyone to experiment.

Closer to my own background in Old English, there is the Lexomics project, which bring statistical analysis and computer science to the study of Old English poetry. This project has taken the Old English Corpus and applied some quite sophisticated statistical analysis with a view to finding lexical connections between different texts. This could, for instance, be used for research on authorship or literary influence. And again, many of the Lexomics tools are freely available online.

And as I’ve written about before, M. Keith Chen has tried to explore the intersection of economics, language, and psychology, and Chen’s other work also employs similar cross-boundary approaches, as is clear from his website.

Of course, inevitably such boundary pushing research will be criticised by specialists in the fields, sometimes rightly and sometimes not. Naturally when working outside of your comfort zone you may make faulty assumptions that a specialist would not, and thus the scrutiny of specialists is important for refining this kind of work. I’ve already written about the criticisms of Chen’s linguistic relativistic effects on saving behaviour. There are, indeed, some potentially serious problems to his categorisation of languages, and perhaps with the type of statistical analysis he uses. Nevertheless, I think this research raises some interesting questions, which merit further investigation. While I don’t think Chen has definitively proven anything, I do think that he has cast a light on an intriguing correlation between language and thought, which can be further explored with both statistical and experimental work. And the Culturomics work has similarly been criticised due to problems with the corpus of texts they’re working with.3

In particular, I’m personally quite fascinated by scientific approaches to literature and the humanities in general, bridging that traditional trivium/quadrivium divide I mentioned earlier. Culturomics is one such example, conducted as it is by physicists and mathematicians. Another science/humanities crossover is the project to determine the provenance of medieval manuscripts by analysing the DNA of the parchment. My own post on the history of sailing technology in its way is a cross over between science and the humanities. And one thing the sciences do well, that is often not a factor in the humanities, is collaboration. I’d like to see more collaborative work in the humanities.

So in the end, all of this was to call attention to the basis of much of what I’m writing about on this blog. As I’ve said, my research, including my doctoral dissertation, is inherently interdisciplinary. I use language as an entry point to investigate history, culture (including literature), and thought. On this blog I may push the boundaries even further than I do in my other research in an effort to see what sticks. I do think that by taking those chances real progress can be made, but I certainly do welcome any constructive criticism.

Coming up soon, a related post on interconnectedness…

The Endless Knot

The Endless Knot

1 Presumably from the sense of ‘commonplace’, hence ‘unimportant’. [back]

2 Nor am I suggesting that the arts are more trivial than the sciences. [back]

3 See here, and a humorous response to this kind of interdisciplinary approach can be seen here. [back]

Categories: Interdisciplinarity | 1 Comment


This blog (and my other blog) have gone fallow of late, due in part to end-of-term busy-ness and my preparation for and attendance of the medieval conference in Kalamazoo. But it’s time to get the blogs back on track, so to that end here’s a roadmap of what’s coming up.

The Endless Knot

The Endless Knot

First up, a few more background posts on some of what lies behind much of what I write about here and elsewhere, one on interdisciplinarity, one on interconnectedness, and some background on where I stand on the issue of linguistic relativity. Then I’ll embark on a series of posts about the topic I’ve been working on most intently over the past decade and more, that is time, language, and thought. These posts will hopefully go beyond the narrowly defined subject of my dissertation, futurity in Old English, to explore how people think about and talk about time more generally. There will probably also be the occasional post on other topics as the mood strikes me too. Oh, and there’s a redesign of the banner image, my own take on the cognitive science hexagram (which I’ve mentioned before) — the significance will be explained in an upcoming post. So, as they say, watch this space…

Categories: General | 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…



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

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