Bryn Mawr College

Center for Science In Society

To facilitate the broad conversations, involving both scientists and non-scientists, which are essential to continuing explorations of
  • the natural world and humanity's place in it,
  • the nature of education,
  • the generation, synthesis, and evaluation of information,
  • technology and its potentials,
  • the relationships between forms of understanding.

Language: A Conversation

Meeting Notes
9 September 2002

Doug Blank (Computer Science), Carol Bernstein (English), Anne Dalke (English), Panama Geer (Math, Computer Science), Mark Lord (Theater), Sharoukh Mistry (Biology), Eric Raimy (Linguistics), Kathryn Rowe (English), George Weaver (Philosophy)

One Summary View (prepared by Eric Raimy; views by other participants encouraged and can be sent either by email or posted using our working group forum area):

The meeting began with Paul explaining why he chose the first reading and why it ended up being a bad choice. Paul hoped that the paper "Color Realism and Color Science" by Byrne and Hilbert would provide a good discussion of the issue of cultural and material theories and their relation to the unconscious mind using color as an example. Unfortunately, as everyone agreed upon, the paper in question failed to discuss these issues and other issues that are of interest to the group in an adequate manner. To finish real discussion of this paper Paul provided rather conclusive arguments that the position of 'color realism' that the authors proposed was not supported by any compelling arguments.

The failure of the paper to discuss issues of interest to us did not prevent the group from identifying interesting questions about color though. Carol began this investigation by raising the question about culturally dependent colors using the example that the Japanese have a cultural sensitivity to many shades of blue that are absent in other cultures. Everyone in the group agreed with the importance of taking cultural considerations into the best understanding of color phenomena.

Doug expressed the idea that one of the problems with the article was that it was too reductionist in nature. The level at which the article wanted to define 'red' (and other colors) was at such a low level it was unclear as to what purpose any results would serve.

Following from this Mark brought up the issue of the discrepancy between verbal descriptions of the 'red' of a tomato versus the actual colors that an artist would use to paint a picture of a tomato. The point being that an artist would use many different shades of red (and possibly other close colors) to paint the picture. Doug chimed in on this point and proposed that we have to consider 'context' in addition to the brain and 'reality' when considering these issues.

The group took up Doug's suggestion that we also have to consider 'context' by reverting this question back to how culture interacts with language and other phenomena that we're interested thinking about. Paul suggests that we need to recognize both culturally dependent and culturally independent approaches to investigating language and other phenomena. The question was then raised as to how we could possibly tease apart culture from language in order to pursue an 'acultural' investigation of language. Three possible approaches were outlined:

(1) Study aspects of language in cases where there is a lack of culture. The group recognized that this approach prevents the use of human beings in the study because acculturation can begin before birth. This means that studies of these sorts would have to use non-human subjects and thus there is an open question as to how applicable the findings are to human language. Paul indicated that there was research on cricket song/language that would satisfy these requirements and we may want to read an article of this sort.

(2) Study aspects of language in cases where culture is held constant and the human genome is varied. Although some in the group were skeptical that the human genome varies enough to make this a useful method Paul indicated that the human genome does vary enough. Possible readings along this line of inquiry would be the recent publication of the 'discovery' of the 'language gene' and other research about the genetic basis of some specific language impairments.

(3) Study aspects of language that appear to be constant while culture varies. This approach appeared to the group to be the most promising. The group agreed to read an article by Derek Bickerton about pidgins and creole languages. Creole languages are ones that are created by children who are exposed to a pidgin. The interesting characteristic to creoles is that they all share common linguistic characteristics regardless of which culture they developed in or which languages are used to form the pidgin.

In addition to the Bickerton reading, the group will also read a selection from "Shakespear's Brain: Reading with cognitive theory" by Mary Thomas Crane. Our concern is to begin getting beyond dichotomous approaches to language to the terrain where different "scientific" and "humanistic" traditions can agree on intersecting interests and problems.