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That LSA Letter

I’ve had a couple of senior colleagues ask me why I signed the LSA letter, one curious, one censorious. I’ve also had a number of personal emails from people I don’t know, some saying that my signing the letter was shameful, etc. I thought I should make brief summary of the reasons why I signed the letter, though I usually don’t blog about things that aren’t syntax and related stuff.

There’s also a useful blog by Barbara Partee which takes a different view on these matters.

I was sent the letter before it appeared publicly, and I thought hard about signing it. There were a number of arguments in the letter that I didn’t find compelling, but there were three points in particular that convinced me that there were misrepresentations of fact in the tweets and that those led to a potential for harm. 

I don’t know Professor Pinker personally, so my signing of the letter was purely based on the nature of the tweets I discuss below.  People can hold and defend whatever views they like, but misrepresenting positions or facts in service of those views, and thereby creating potential harm, isn’t consistent with the highest standards of professional responsibility.

The first argument was the tweet: “Data: police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately. Problem: not race but too many police shootings”. If you look at the article, it very clearly states that race is the problem: “The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin.” The tweet is misrepresenting the claims in the article. It could have said: “Data: proportion of whites shot by police who stop them is the same as the proportion of blacks. Problem: structural racism means police stop black people disproportionately, and so kill them disproportionally.” That’s what the article says, and it’s the opposite of what the tweet says: police do shoot black men disproportionately and the problem is race.  Barbara Partee in her blog suggests that this was just sloppy, but as far as I can tell the tweet was never corrected or supplemented even when challenged in responses to the original post. And uncorrected sloppiness is irresponsible in this area, as it has the potential to provide succour to those who espouse racist views.

The second was “Every geneticist knows that the ‘race doesn’t exist’ dogma is a convenient PC ¼ truth.” This is untrue even if you forgive the hyperbole. Academic societies of geneticists “challenge[s] the traditional concept of different races of humans as biologically separate and distinct” because genetic variance within populations that are socially classed as racial groups is far wider than that between such populations, and so there’s no meaningful way to establish the boundaries that have been socially constructed via clear groupings of genetic markers, so “race itself is a social construct”. Stephen Rose back in a lecture on Genetics and Society in 2002 summarized the state of the field as “The consensus view among population geneticists and biological anthropologists is that the concept of “race” to indicate analytically distinct subgroups of the human race is biologically meaningless,”  and the American Association of Physical Anthropology makes the same point in their statement of 1996 (“Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogenous populations, do not exist in the human species”), since updated. The consenus was, then, the polar opposite of the tweet’s claim. The tweet wasn’t about race as a social category, given the content of the article embedded in it; it was referring to race as a biological category. Though this tweet was from 2013, it misrepresented the facts then, and the potential harms such views cause remain central to the everyday experience of racism now.  The tweet was used as a supporting argument in a piece in Medium just last year (I won’t link it here but a google search will take you there if you are interested) by a researcher who was arguing for correlations between race and IQ, so such statements can be harmful (as well as false) years after they are made.

The third was the misrepresentation of Bobo’s position in his interview as reflecting cautious optimism on race relations, plus the harmful timing of the tweet. Bobo throughout the interview makes it clear that things are pretty bad because of systemic racism (e.g. “devaluing of black life, sadly, is a part of the American cultural fabric. Not as extreme as it used to be, but still very clear and very deeply rooted”). The whole tone of Bobo’s interview is not cautiously optimistic – it’s pessimistic given the deep-seated racism and political structures of the US – his note of optimism is: “we’re in a deeply troubling moment. But I am going to remain guardedly optimistic that hopefully the higher angels of our nature win out in what is a really frightening coalescence of circumstances”. That is emphatically not him reflecting with cautious optimism on race relations in the context of the killings of black men, as the tweet says. Further, the tweet was spectacularly awfully timed to be right in the middle of BLM protests (3rd June 2020) – like saying, calm down everybody, it’s not as bad as you think. Again we have a coalescence of misrepresentation and potential harm.

I concluded that those tweets had misrepresented positions in a way that both has potential negative effects on black people, and provided statements that are potentially helpful to racists. That is, the misrepresentations were harmful. My judgment was that at least the LSA should consider the question of whether that was consistent with LSA Fellows’ responsibilities to uphold the highest professional standards and come to their own conclusion. That’s why I signed the letter, while recognizing that it was, of course, a blunt instrument. 

This isn’t an issue of free speech, which seems to be how it has been taken by many. For me, at least, Pinker’s views are absolutely not at issue. It’s about misrepresentation and harm. Because of this, I’m unconvinced that the LSA letter will have a chilling effect on scholars, a concern that some have raised. Tweets like the ones discussed here (and other similar pronouncements) do, though, exert a chilling effect on (potential) black scholars. Racist structures and racist attitudes in society and academia have meant that many black scholars either haven’t felt welcome in academia and have made other choices or have left it. Any resulting action from this letter may make it clear to black scholars that the LSA is sensitive to the impact that tweets of this sort have on maintaining structures that we all should be attempting to dismantle.

Invented Languages and the Science of the Mind

This post was abridged and reblogged from BBC Science Focus.

Hildegard von Bingen
 was something of a medieval genius. She founded and was Abbess of a convent at Rubensberg in Germany, she wrote ethereally beautiful music, she was an amazing artist (one of the first to draw the visual effects of migraines), and she invented her own language.

Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias. Public Domain

Hildegard von BingenSource: Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias. Public Domain

The language she constructed, Lingua Ignota (Latin for “Unknown Language”)  appears to be a secret, mystical language. It was partly built on the grammar of languages Hildegard already knew, but with her usual creativity, she invented over a thousand words, and a script consisting of 23 symbols.

The Lardil, an Aboriginal people of Northern Australia, as well as their day-to-day language, also used a special ritual language, restricted to the adult men. This language, Damin, is the only known language outside of sub-Saharan Africa to incorporate click sounds into its words.

In fact, the sounds of Damin are a creative extension of the sounds of Lardil, showing a deep level of knowledge of how linguistic sounds are made. The Lardil say that Damin was invented in Dreamtime. It certainly shows signs of having been constructed, with careful thought about how it is structured.

While most languages have emerged and changed naturally in human societies, some languages are constructed by human beings. Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota was created for religious purposes and Damin for social and ritual reasons.

More recent constructed languages (or ‘conlangs’), like the Elvish languages J. R. R Tolkien developed for The Lord of the Rings, or the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages David Peterson created for the TV series Game of Thrones, were developed for artistic or commercial reasons. However, constructed languages can also be used in science to understand the nature of natural languages.

There’s a long-standing controversy amongst linguists: are human minds set up to learn language in a particular way, or do we learn languages just because we are highly intelligent creatures? To put it another way, is there something special about language-learning that distinguishes it from other kinds of learning?

Constructed languages have been used to probe this question. There are some striking results which suggest there is indeed something special about language-learning.

One example where constructed languages have been used scientifically is to explore the difference between grammatical words (like thebeandofa) and words that convey the essence of what you’re talking about (like alligatorintelligententhraldance).

This difference is found in language after language. Generally, grammatical words are very short, they tend to be simple syllables, and they are frequent. They signal grammatical ideas, like definiteness and tense. Core meaning words tend to be longer, more complex in their syllable structure, each one is less frequent.

If you look at a list of English words organised by frequency, you have to go down to number 19 before you get to a core meaning word (say), and the next (make) is at 45. The examples of grammatical words I gave above (thebeandofa) are in fact the five most frequent words in English.

One of the properties of grammatical words is that they don’t have fixed positions in a sentence. If you look at the sentence you’ve just read, you can see grammatical words interspersed quite randomly through it. Here it is repeated with those words in bold.

“One of the properties of grammatical words is that they don’t have fixed positions in a sentence.”

Depending on the language, grammatical words appear either randomly, like in this sentence, or they appear fairly consistently either immediately before or immediately after core meaning words, like in this example from Scottish Gaelic.

Cha   do   bhuail   am balach earchdail  an cat gu cruaidh

Not   past      hit     the boy    handsome   the cat    hard

which translates as ‘the handsome boy didn’t hit the cat hard’. Here the short grammatical words in bold come immediately before longer core meaning words.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Anduril, a prop sword from Lord of the Rings engraved in ElvishSource: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The researchers Iga Nowak, formerly in Glasgow, and Giosuè Baggio in Trondheim, taught different groups of children constructed languages. In some of these languages, the short frequent words had fixed positions, in others, the positions were freer, mimicking what happens in real languages.

Nowak and Baggio reasoned that, if children came with an unconsciousexpectation about how grammatical words worked, they should find it harder to learn constructed languages where the short frequent words had fixed positions.

Human languages in general don’t work like this, so if children were using a specialised language learning system, they should find such languages difficult to learn.

Nowak and Baggio ran the same experiment with adults. Their idea here was that adults would be able to use other strategies, like counting, and should be good with languages that put short frequent words in particular positions. The children, on the other hand, would have to rely on their innate linguistic sense, if they had any!

The experiments turned out as Nowak and Baggio expected. The children were not capable of learning the artificial languages where the short frequent words appeared in fixed positions, but they were good at learning the other kinds of languages.

The adults, on the other hand, were good at learning the artificial languages that the children were bad at.

Using constructed languages scientifically, Nowak and Baggio have added to evidence that children may come to language learning with unconscious expectations about what the system they are learning should be like. The results are consistent with the idea that a system with grammatical words in fixed positions in sentences is not a natural language, as far as children are concerned.article continues after advertisement

Human beings love to play with language. Many, over the centuries, have constructed languages to express deep religious, social, artistic and philosophical ideas. Science, too, is a kind of play: we try out different ideas, see how they work out, and learn about the world as we do so. It’s not surprising then that constructed languages have recently become part of the way linguists and psychologists investigate our most human trait, language.