Punctuational Outburst

A friend in academe sent me a paper on the evolution of language, from this month’s Science. I’m reposting it here, so you can read it for free. Academic journals are a racket.

Even free, I’m not sure you want to bother. “Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts” is boring and largely self-evident*. But mostly just boring: If real language was as dry and devoid of life as most academics make it, I’d give it up. I’d stop reading, stop talking, and just grunt.

The authors lead with an implied claim that American English emerged abruptly as a language when Noah Webster introduced his first dictionary. You could say that publishing a dictionary is a sign that a language has emerged–that dictionaries are symptoms of language. But they insinuate that Webster published his dictionary and, ipso facto, the American Language was created. I can’t imagine the authors actually believe this, but it’s how their forced analogy comes out.

They then present the thesis that, basically, language evolves more rapidly during times of social upheaval. Sure, but how did they discover this? It was “inferred from vocabulary data,” and in a footnote they say their “materials and methods are available on Science Online.” Their methods would have been more interesting to me than their conclusions, and I wish they’d included at least a precis of them in the paper*.

I have no idea of the actual merit of “Punctuational Bursts.” I am, clearly, totally ignorant when it comes to, among other things, linguistics, and in general the academic side of language and words. But wadding through academic writing like this makes me want to cry tears of vomit. Can anyone recommend an intro to or overview of linguistics that’s actually pleasant to read?

* UPDATE: Maybe I was a little gassy or something when I wrote this. I just reread the paper, and yes, it’s rather dry, but I think that’s almost a requirement to get published in a fancy journal like Science. And I wasn’t previously aware of some of the limits imposed by them. See the comments for a response from one of the authors, and yet another lame, arm-flapping mea culpa from yours truly. Note to self: work on impulse control.

The Comedy of the Commons

I’m a huge fan of online collaboration, and I particularly love (and try to build) tools that encourage people to create common good while having fun. It’s the exact opposite of the tragedy of the commons: rather than squabbling over limited resources, and destroying them, people improve a shared resource, or create entirely new ones, while having a good time and benefiting themselves.

Many Eyes, from IBM’s Visual Communications Lab, lets you visualize word relationships in literature. It’s tremendous eye candy, and the visualizations are in essence collaborations between the site’s developers (Fernanda and Martin, who I saw give a great talk at this year’s Foo Camp*) and its users, who contribute data for the visualizations.

Self-sacrifice is a beautiful thing, but not the most effective motivator; for getting things done, there’s nothing like aligning the interests of individuals and groups. It’s idealism without the masochism, something Wordie aspires to. Many Eyes is fun, beautiful, and a great example of this mechanism in action.

* Pathetic name dropper: guilty.

Words on the Brink!

That’s the rather sensational headline on the cover of this week’s Nature. Inside are two papers on word evolution, with the more staid titles “Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history”* and “Linguistics: an Invisible Hand”.

The premise of the first is straightforward and rather commonsensical: words that are used a lot don’t change much. In other words, the rate at which words tend to morph is in inverse proportion to how often they’re used. For example, all Indo-European languages apparently use the same root form for the word “two.” It’s obviously a widely-used word, and it has evolved hardly at all. The authors do a statistical analysis of four large language corpora (language corpora: the subject of an upcoming post, btw) to back this up. Good stuff. This is apparently the process by which the once little-used “vergerhade” came to be defined as an animatronic groucho marx in a tutu and straitjacket.

Nature’s sister site, Nature News, has a good overview of these papers, geared towards a more general audience.

* Nature is trying to charge $18 to download this single article, which is, if you’ll pardon my French, fucking nuts, especially given that most of what they publish is publicly funded research–we’ve already paid for it! So I had one of my spies steal it. You can get the full PDF here.