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A Momentary Flow

Evolving Worldviews

The Limits of My World

Hilary Lawson, Michael Potter, John Searle. Robert Rowland-Smith hosts.

Language has been the focus of philosophical enquiry for the last century. But was the ‘linguistic turn’ a wrong turn, leading to a barren discipline without ‘real world’ influence? Is it time for a fresh approach to the big issues, or would this be a capitulation to intellectual fantasy?

The Panel One of the world’s most influential analytic philosophers, John Searle, live from Berkeley, joins post-postmodernist

Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Words?

At around 2PM on Tuesday, October 30, 1973, a New York radio station played a monologue by the comedian George Carlin, enumerating and exemplifying in rich detail the seven words ostensibly not allowed on the public airwaves. Soon after, the F.C.C. placed sanctions on the radio station for the broadcast, which it deemed to be “indecent” and “patently offensive.” Five years later, the United States Supreme Court upheld its decision. In other words, the highest court in the land judged certain words to be so dangerous that even the constitutional right to free speech had to be set aside. But why? The children, of course. It was to protect the children. According to the Supreme Court, the problem with Carlin’s routine was that the obscene words, words describing sexual acts and excretory functions “may have a deeper and more lasting negative effect on a child than on an adult.” Many of us are afraid of exposing children to taboo language, based on this same notion—that somehow certain words can damage young minds. And the well-being of children—were it indeed on the line—would most certainly be a justifiable reason to limit freedom of speech. But the problem is that the Supreme Court’s premise, that children can be harmed by selected taboo words, does not survive the test of careful empirical scrutiny. In fact, there are no words so terrible, so gruesomely obscene, that merely hearing them or speaking them poses any danger to young ears. Taboo words carry no intrinsic threat of harm. Simply referring to body part or actions involving them harm a child. Indeed, the things taboo words refer to can be equally well identified using words deemed appropriate for medical settings or use around children. And there’s nothing about the sound of the words themselves that causes insult to the child’s auditory system. Near phonological neighbors to taboo words, words like “fit” and “shuck” do not contaminate the cochlea. Indeed, which particular words are selected as forbidden is an arbitrary accident of history. Words that once would have earned the utterer a mouthful of soap, expressions like “Zounds!” or “That sucks!” hardly lead the modern maven to bat an ear. And conversely, words that today rank among the most obscene at one time were used commonly to refer to the most mundane things, like roosters and female dogs. No, the only risk children run by hearing the four-letter words prohibited over the public airwaves is the small chance of broadening their vocabularies. And even this possibility is remote, as anyone can attest who has recently overheard the goings-on in an elementary school playground. So when the Motion Picture Association of America forbids children from watching the South Park movie; when parents instruct children to put their hands over their ears in “earmuff” position; and indeed when the FCC levies fines on broadcasters, they aren’t protecting children. But they are having an effect. Paradoxically, it’s these actions we take to shield children from words, with censorship foremost among them, that gives specific words their power. And this makes perhaps the best argument that we shouldn’t be afraid of exposing children to taboo words. Doing so is the best way to take away any perceived threat they pose.

David Bodanis
Writer; Futurist; Author, Passionate Minds

The Na’vi tongue was invented by Paul Frommer, a clean-cut linguist and professor emeritus of management communication from California. Na’vi is melodious and fast flowing, composed of unusual syntax and consonant clusters that sound beautiful and exotic to an Anglophone ear. It is one of many so-called constructed languages, or conlangs: a man-made language authored for a purpose. From world peace, as in the case of perhaps the most widely-known conlang, Esperanto, to expanding our capacity for logic, like the unwieldy Loglan, constructed languages have captivated us for centuries. Na’vi is a conlang subtype known as an artlang: It was created with a specific aesthetic goal, as an integral part of a piece of art. Like other famous artlangs (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish, Star Trek’s Klingon, and the languages spoken in the HBO television series Game of Thrones, Dothraki and Valyrian) Na’vi was intended solely for fiction.

Cracking Avatar’s Language Codes - Issue 6: Secret Codes - Nautilus

‘Dreamings’ and dreaming narratives: what’s the relationship?
To imagine what “Australia” was like B.C. (“Before Cook”, or before colonisation), one needs to envision the entire landmass of this island/continent and most of its surrounding islands and waters as crisscrossed by “Dreamings” (in popular parlance sometimes referred to as “Songlines”). Each of the approximately 250 separate Australian languages had their own words for and substantial vocabularies relating to what has now become known in English almost universally as “The Dreamtime” or “The Dreaming”. These usages have now entered other world languages as global tags for Indigenous Australian religion, thereby dramatically reducing outsiders’ capacity to grasp the diversity of Australian languages and cultures. (It should be noted here that “Australian languages” is the linguistically accurate terminology for Aboriginal languages – which have no connection to any other language families in the world. The terminology “Australian languages” also takes on a political edge for Aboriginal language speakers, many of whom regard all other languages spoken in Australia, including English, as foreign imports). In the Ngunnawal and Ngarigo languages, for instance, in and around today’s national capital, Canberra, The Dreaming is called “Daramoolen”, and it’s “Nura” in the Dharug language, in the vicinity of Sydney. Across some of the dialects of Western Desert languages, including Pitjantjatjara, which crosses the borders of three states, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, the word-concept is “Tjukurpa”. As a result of processes of colonisation, all of these words have been reduced to the catch-all English translation, “Dreaming”, or sometimes, “Dream Time”. (via 'Dreamings’ and dreaming narratives: what's the relationship?)

And we feel someone else’s pain like no other species. We extend it over distance to help a refugee child on another continent. We extend it over time, feeling the terror of what are now mere human remains at Pompeii. We feel it embodied in words, as we contemplate George’s sadness that Lennie is never going to get his rabbits. (That part of Of Mice and Men never failed to leave me a sopping, tearful mess when I’d reread it obsessively as a kid.) We even feel empathic pain prompted by symbols encompassed in pixels. “Oh no, the poor Na’vi!” we cry, when Home Tree is destroyed in Avatar. Because the anterior cingulate has trouble remembering “it’s only a figure of speech,” it functions as if your heart is literally being torn out.

Metaphors Are Us - Issue 1: What Makes You So Special - Nautilus

‘Powers are attributed to any structure of ideas,’ Douglas writes. We all tend to think that our categories of understanding are necessarily real. ‘The yearning for rigidity is in us all,’ she continues. ‘It is part of our human condition to long for hard lines and clear concepts’. Yet when we have them, she says, ‘we have to either face the fact that some realities elude them, or else blind ourselves to the inadequacy of the concepts’. It is not just the Lele who cannot parse the pangolin: biologists are still arguing about where it belongs on the genetic tree of life.

Margaret Wertheim – The limits of physics


The essential truth behind subsymbolism is that language and behavior exist in relation to an environment, not in a vacuum, and they gain meaning from their usage in that environment. To use language is to use it for some purpose. To behave is to behave for some end. In this view, any attempt to generate a universal set of rules will always be riddled with exceptions, because contexts are constantly shifting. Without the drive toward concrete environmental goals, representation of knowledge in a computer is meaningless, and fruitless. It remains locked in the realm of data.

A.I. Has Grown Up and Left Home - Issue 8: Home - Nautilus