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The Power of Words: An overview of theories of language and cognition

If you’ve ever learned another language, then you know that some words don’t translate exactly. For example, there’s a language in New Guinea that only has two words for color — mola, meaning “bright,” and milli, meaning “dark.” Now compare that to English. We have lots of words for color … But does the fact […]

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Found In Translation: How our understanding of language transcends languages

From the representation of individual words as concepts to collective words as sentences, there are patterns in the ways we understand language that transcend the organization of individual languages. One of the new insights emerging about human brain function … is that individual concepts have identifiable neural signatures … [and] that there is a high […]

A Sentence as a Story: Patterns and scales of language

Every sentence is a story. That is, the organizing principles of a sentence are very similar to those of a story. Although it isn’t clear which came first, the shared abstract structures of grammar and narrative suggest an underlying pattern that informs the organization of language (and perhaps cognition as well) at multiple scales. The […]

In Your Mind’s Eye: Looking at the perception and conception of body metaphors

When two people are seeing eye to eye, they’re usually not literally standing face to face and staring at each other. However, new research suggests that hearing the previous sentence would probably activate an area of your brain responsible for the visual perception of body parts. Almost as if you were actually looking at two […]

Searching for meaning

I felt like I was digging up ancient treasure. Word archaeology. I began to see an analogy between words and computer icons. The way you can click on something and it opens up a whole world you couldn’t have imagined before you clicked. — Susan Carpenter Sims REFERENCE Found in Translation | On Being

Do sensory metaphors give language emotional flavor?

Metaphorical sentences may spark increased brain activity in emotion-related regions because they allude to physical experiences … Human language frequently uses physical sensations or objects to refer to abstract domains such as time, understanding, or emotion … “You begin to realize when you look at metaphors how common they are in helping us understand abstract […]

Patterns of mind: How differences in languages and bodies influence different ways of thinking

| Do patterns in the ways we interact with the world affect cognition? | Daniel Casasanto’s research on linguistic and bodily relativity shows that they do. Specific features in our languages (for example, the types of metaphors commonly used) and our bodies (like whether we are right or left-handed) result in specific patterns in our […]

What makes me human?: Noam Chomsky on language acquisition | BBC Radio 4

Emergence refers to the ways a complex phenomenon can emerge as a functional unit defined by the behavior of its constituent units. This is similar to the idea that a whole can be more than the sum of its parts, but with the understanding that the whole and its parts refer to patterns of interaction […]

Emergent Cognition | Emergent language: Words as sounds, references, and concepts

Words are integral to language, and language is integral to the human experience. Words help us to think and communicate about information more effectively than we could without them. Yet we don’t often stop and consider the nature of words themselves or how it is that they can provide such amazing utility. An individual’s initial […]

Jon Hamilton (NPR) | Without language, large numbers don’t add up

A study of people in Nicaragua has concluded that humans need language in order to understand large numbers… “It confirms that the kinds of problems in perceiving numerical quantities that we found in the Amazonian tribes is not due to just the cultural or environmental circumstances,” says Peter Gordon of Columbia University… “What’s exciting about […]

Philip Ball (BBC) | Colours: Differing points of hue

A new study by physicist Vittorio Loreto at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and his colleagues argues that the naming of colours is not arbitrary. The researchers say that a natural hierarchy of colour terms arises from the interplay between our innate ability to distinguish one hue from another and the complex cultural negotiation […]

Language & complexity: Evolution inside out | Terrence Deacon

Drawing on biological anthropology and cognitive science, anthropologist Terrence Deacon explores the interplay of natural selection and adaptation among various environmental, genetic, cognitive, and social factors that could have contributed to the evolution of the human capacity for language.   Reference Language & complexity: Evolution inside out | Terrence Deacon

Barbara J. King (NPR) | Culture, not biology, shapes language • Debating language: The role of culture And biology (Part 2)

Cognition + Culture + Communication = Language With this formula as shorthand, in his new book Language: The Cultural Tool, linguist Dan Everett argues that the variability in human cultural life explains the variability in human languages. Reference Barbara J. King (NPR) | Culture, not biology, shapes language Barbara J. King (NPR) | Debating language: […]

Morgan Kelly (Futurity) | Did human speech start with monkey lip smack?

Two recent studies by Princeton University researchers suggest that the oral-facial component of human speech mirrors the rhythm, development, and internal dynamics of lip smacking, a friendly back-and-forth gesture performed by primates such as chimpanzees, baboons, and macaques. Reference Morgan Kelly (Futurity) | Did human speech start with monkey lip smack?