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
4 March 2002

Carol Bernstein (English), Doug Blank (Computer Science),  Anne Dalke (English, Feminist and Gender Studies), Paul Grobstein (Biology), Ruth Guyer (General Studies, journalist), Deepak Kumar (Computer Science), Liz McCormack (Physics), Eric Raimy (Linguistics),  Katherine 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 an off-topic discussion of how to define an 'experience'.  Paul presented the view that the only data we can have about an 'experience' is to ask the person because we can double dissociate the mind/brain/nervous system response and conscious behavior.  In other words, we have cases where the mind/brain/nervous system has a measurable response but a person does not report an experience (example cases we talked about were hemispherical neglect where a person only sees things in one half of their visual field, face 'agnosia' where a person reports that they can not recognize people by face, and general 'automatic behavior' aka Paul's driving without remembering the turns that he made).  There was general displeasure with this position by many in the group because of the non-objectiveness of these reports.  Alternative definitions of 'experience' were offered that connected it to more direct measures of the mind/brain/nervous system as a way around the subjective nature of self reporting but Paul insisted that they were not adequate.  We left the conversation with the general feeling that much of what we were discussion was a matter of definition.

From here we moved onto the discussion of the readings of the week.  Scarry was first to be discussed.  In general there was a consensus that Scarry's current work was much more similar to literary analysis and not cognitive science. From the literary analysis point of view, people were relatively satisified with Scarry's work but considered from a cognitive science point of view, most of the group was dissatisfied.  At this point, the group decided to abandon reading Scarry.

In defence of the general method that Scarry was trying to use, the example of the 'Japanese go-light' was presented.  The brief summary of this example is that the color of the 'go-light' in Japan is the same color green as in the US.  The interesting fact is that the literal name for the 'go-light' in Japanse is 'blue-light' though.  This fact appears to affect the memory of 'go-lights' for Japanese people who move to the US.  The longer a person lives in the US the more 'blue' a person reports their memory of the 'go-light'.  This appears to be an effect along the lines of what Scarry was trying to talk about or investigate.  The language that is used creates pictures in your head and depending on what language is used, different images are created.  The group found a general interest in this example and the article that reports this experiment is available in the Biology, English and Center for Science in Society offices.

Next we turned to specific questions about Pinker.  Anne had different quotes that she had questions about.  The firt was "to satisfy the desire of a word early in a sentence for some other word late in the sentence, the device has to remember the early word while it is churning ou all the words in between" (p 86). Anne was curious about what Pinker meant with respect to 'words desiring things or other words'. What does it mean to attribute "agency", "desire", or other anthropomorphic qualities to words?

  George pointed out that Pinker was referring to co-occurance restrictions (e.g. number agreement, negative concord in French 'ne .... pas', etc.).  It was further claimed that using the term 'desire' had no other content to it other than trying to make the material more exciting for lay people since The Languge Instinct is a popular press book. This point raised the issue of whether we can separate how the information is conveyed from the information that is meant to be conveyed.  Both Kathy and Anne indicated that this could not be done and thus had deeper questions about what Pinker was getting at here.  Eric and George disagreed with this though attributing this style purely to Pinker trying to write a poplular press book.  This point was further investigated in the next question about Pinker.

The second quote that Anne asked about was "the function words form a closed club that resists new members. That is why all attempts to introduce gender-neutral pronouns ... have failed" (p 111).   The linguistic phenomenon that Pinker is referring to here is the difference between open/content (verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs) and closed/function (pronouns, determiners, prepositions, etc.) words found in the world's languages.  The difference between these classes of words is based on distributional facts, ability to add words to the classes (you can create new nouns and verbs easily but it is very difficult, if not impossible to create new prepositions, determiners, pronouns etc.), acquisition facts, and psycholinguistic facts.  The point that Anne focused on was Pinker's comment that the atempt to make English less 'sexist' by creating a new gender neutral pronoun was doomed to fail because pronouns are a closed class of words.

The politcal/social subtext of Pinker's choice of example (Romance gender systems) and his dismissal of attempts to alter sexist language raised the issue of whether the content and presentation of an idea can be separated.  This highlights a difference in approach to language that I think is derived from the previous Two Cultures discussion.  One part of the group appears to be happy to focus on a 'contentless' language where questions are asked about what language can tell us about human cognition and not consider the social impact of language.  The other part of the group wants to focus primarily on the social impact and cultural use of language.  By discussing particular points in Pinker the group has appeared to find common ground in which to discuss the validity of both approaches to language.

Time had run out at this point.  The group decided that we would continue the productive conversation in the next meeting by continuing to work through the present Pinker readings.  Additional readings were suggested (Lakoff, the Japanese 'go-light') so we could continue our present discussion and find productive avenues to explore language which bridges the gap of Two Cultures.