A MOOC for language lovers

Finally there’s a MOOC out there (free, online university course) for language lovers with no previous background in linguistic studies. “Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics” is a Leiden University course, transmitted on Coursera as of March 2015, and presented by my old linguistics teacher’s husband.

It promises to be a solid introduction to the basics of linguistics: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and all that fun stuff, with possibly some celebrity appearances (did someone say Noam Chomsky?). So if all of this rocks your boat, or just ruffles your curiosity, head over to Coursera.org and sign up early for next year.


Translators in wartime

If you’re unfamiliar with John Oliver I strongly suggest you get acquainted, and to get you started here’s a clip from the most recent show on Last Week Tonight  about the importance of translators in conflict situations and the injustice at how they’re being repaid for their service and selflessness.

The interview with Mohammad, the Afghan translator, ends poignantly with these remarks:

John Oliver: “Is there a word in Pashto to convey deep gratitude for someone’s service but also profound shame at how they’ve been treated?”

Mohammad: “Not really”

John Oliver: “There isn’t really in English either”

The Interspecies Internet

The internet has unarguably been the biggest revolution in communication since the printing press. Never before have you been able to share so many thoughts with so many strangers and start arguments with someone half-way around the world in some common dialect of international English. Still, we have so far remained in the domain of human communication, but it seems that the next revolution may be just around the corner.

The concept of the Interspecies Internet has just been launched at a TED conference this week by Vint Cerf (chief Internet evangelist at Google and one of the founders of the world wide web), Diana Reiss (a researcher in animal cognition), Neil Gershenfeld from MIT, and Peter Gabriel (yes, as in the songwriter, who you can see in this video jamming with an ape).

They are interested in the power of using new technology to help us communicate with the more intelligent animals out there and have already started collaborating with elephant, dolphin and orangutan sanctuaries. It turns out that animals have generally been better able at figuring out how to communicate with us than the other way around, largely by pressing strange buttons to show us what they want.

So we are hopeful, even though the project is still at the stage of being ‘an idea in progress’, that one day soon we will be sharing videos and tunes with our animals friends around the world and seeing how they react. Will orangutans find cats and funny babies as fascinating as we do? Will elephants show their sense of humour or will dolphins express a penchant for jazz? Let’s just hope that we don’t simply end up arguing with them over whose momma is fatter.


Pontypool: Shut up or die


“Don’t Speak. Don’t Scream. Shut Up or Die.”

How’s that for a movie tagline?

Adapted from the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, this low-budget Canadian horror movie is based on an interesting premise: language can be a vector for a deadly virus, so communication becomes the mode of transmission of disease.

In an interview, director Bruce McDonald stressed the victims of the virus were not zombies and called them “conversationalists”. He describes the stages of the disease as such (potential spoiler alert):

“There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like ‘sweetheart’ or ‘honey’. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.

Charming, but what did you expect from a horror flick? A moral behind it all? A commentary on society?

Well there just may be some of that. Some bloggers and critics see in this movie a metaphor for the corrupt nature of language in our society: “We’ve become a society of texters and Tweeters, who cut words down to symbols and letters.  The smiley rules, and we go on breaking down the language until there’s little of use left.”

Yes indeed, we might just end up destroying our kind because our children can no longer spell. The end of civilization through the destruction of language. How poignant. And absurd.

Ironically our morning radio host hero is among the uninfected.  Can we surmise that those who think and analyse their language before transmitting information (as it is his job to do) are immune to this disease? Is the film recognising that this quality has become rare and commendable in a society in which everyone blogs, tweets, and facebook-posts their every thought? Perhaps.

Then there’s the praise of silence.  From our blogger-critic friend again: “In a world wholly drowned in white noise, there’s precious little quietude left for us.  A little bit of silence will save us, it says, and maybe we can shut off our cell phones, radios, TVs, and mouths, and enjoy the sounds of silence for a while.”  

A little more silence, a little less killing, I can handle that. I say we shut off MTV and FOX News first.

Nim Chimpsky

What happens when a bunch of academic hippies take a new-born chimp and attempt to raise him like a human in New York with the aim of teaching him sign-language and finally bridging the inter-species communication gap? Well, first they give him a highbrow joke for a name, then they let him smoke weed and ride motorcycles, and finally, when the animal gets too big and is still not displaying use of syntax, they ship him off to an experimental research laboratory.

A couple of decades later, they write memoirs about their time with said chimp, and then the cherry on this sordid cake is the film: the moving documentary Project NimDirector James Marsh managed to interview just about all of the people involved in the process of raising Nim and attempting to teach him sign language – you can see their individual profiles in this Guardian article. In the end, he not only succeeds in showing us the emotional involvement the researchers had with the chimp, he also untangles the love-affairs between the human participants which only added to the delicate and complex nature of the project.

This is a documentary worth watching if only to be reminded that chimps may not have syntax, but they are probably nicer than most humans. I know whose side I’m on in any case.