This is wild. Crows in this study could tell that recordings of people speaking Japanese (the language of the researchers) was different from recordings of people speaking Dutch. We can’t do that listening to birds. Unless we were a highly trained specialist, we couldn’t distinguish between mockingbird songs in one part of the country from mockingbird songs in another part of the country, though each song has a ‘dialect” that makes them mutually unintelligible. All the mockingbird would know is that another mockingbird is yelling at it. It has to learn to sing in the local dialect (meaning mockingbirds have learned cultures, actually.) But when a crow hears recordings of humans speaking different languages, it can tell that we are not speaking the same language, and it reacts to them differently. They were used to Japanese. They were wary of the recording in Dutch. What were they hearing? Japanese isn’t tonal like Chinese, so it’s not that the crows can tell that one is melodic and the other not. Can they detect the different phonemes (the vowel and consonant sounds) the languages use? Can they distinguish stresses, like what part of a sentence rises or drops? Can they detect the specific rhythms or sound patterns of grammar? How is it that a goddam bird can tell if a person is speaking Dutch or speaking Japanese while we with our enormous brains can’t tell if a recording of a mockingbird screaming at five in the morning is in Southern California Mockingbirdese or Danish Mockingbirdese? I can write about the concept of a crow distinguishing human languages, but damn if I can imagine what it is they actually hear in our human sounds.
Just posted this on BricksBrain.com:
For a writer I certainly don’t do a lot of writing anymore, then again I’ve never felt less epileptic in my life. Writing sets off epilepsy which creates more writing. The more the epilepsy, the more creative the writing. The more creative the writing, the more the epilepsy. The more the epileptic writing, the more the brain damage. Oops. Thus, sidelined, I just kick back and watch all the shit go down. These are marvelous times for watching the shit go down. Glorious times, even. Watching history happen from our little urban forested haven. Lots of time to read and watch old movies. The less the epilepsy, it turns out, the more the reading. I’m wending my way though stacks of turgid volumes. Don’t even ask. The constant writing in my head got in the way when I was trying to read. It’s good to have the fountain of words turned off. I can listen to people now and not rewrite what they are saying. I can listen to music now and not hear it as writing. I can look at the landscape and not see it as stories. I can listen to birds sing and not hear language. I just hear birds singing.
Listening to these mockingbirds improv reminds me of a factoid I read today in Daniel Tammet’s Embracing the Wide Sky that in order for male songbirds to sing some of the incredibly complex songs which change constantly, up to one per cent of the neurons in their song center are replaced by new neurons every single day, which adds up pretty quickly. That’s what those mockingbird brains are doing, rebuilding themselves continuously. Not adding brain cells to what is there already, but replacing them. It’s as if in order to speak we had to replace 100% of the neurons in our language center every 100 days. That is, all the grammar we’ve hardwired into our brain is replaced by entirely new brain cells with all new intricately laced connections between them four times a year. It’s not quite that simple (some of the neurons in the mockingbird’s song center will be replaced more often than others and others are more permanent), but still, our grammar and vocabulary would completely and fundamentally change over a period of a hundred days. Not all at once, but a little everyday so that you’d be speaking a completely different language in April from what you were speaking on January 1. I’m writing this in English now and a hundred days from now I’d be writing this in Armenian, and next year in Sioux. Plus I’d wake you up at five in the morning screaming outside your window.
Most verbs in standard English have six possible forms, e.g. take, takes, took, take, taking, taken. But in Archi, a language spoken in a few small villages tucked away in a valley deep in the Caucasus Mountains, a verb can have 1,502,839 possible forms. A grammar nazi would go out of his anal little mind.
Easter was not how you pronounced Ishtar. Ishtar is pronounced–hang on–ish-tar. Dig that crazy voiceless postalveolar fricative. When you shhhhhhh someone you are shaming them with a voiceless postalveolar fricative. Easter is a word that comes from the ancient German, where it was pronounced something like e-oster, and it contains, instead of a voiceless postalveolar fricative a fricative is any sound, a voiceless alveolar sibilant followed immediately by a voiceless retroflex stop. That’s the st sound. Add a voiceless bilabial stop–the p sound–to that voiceless alveolar sibilant and voiceless retroflex stop and you get psssssst, though not like getting drunk pssssst. That would be pssssht, a voiceless bilabial stop-voiceless postalveolar fricative-voiceless retroflex stop, and some someone would voiceless postalverolar fricative back even louder and everything would be all fricked up. Every time I see that ridiculous Ishtar-Easter meme, I wonder how the hell anyone could think an SH was pronounced like ST, unless they were drunk. Somewhere drunk people are writing memes, and the world is believing every voiceless postalveolar fricative of them. Australian indigenes had neither voiceless alveolar sibilant (or any sibilants at all) and no voiceless postalveolar fricative, and could not have said Ishtar or Easter, let alone psssst or shhhhhh. They would not have been reading those memes. But they could say ingoorrooloorrloorroona noorroo.
(Written maybe ten years ago….)
I only use plethora to sound pretentious. Otherwise I’d never touch it. Why I don’t know. It is kind of a strange word. It was Greek and then popped into medical Latin about 500 years ago meaning excess fluid. You sprain your ankle and it swells up like a balloon with plethora, or plethorae or plethoram depending on the case. There are four different endings for the plural in case you manage to sprain both ankles. It must have been a relief that it remained in Latin. Or would have, had not some wag turned it into a English metaphor for excess anythings about three hundred years ago and it has not shifted meaning in all the time since. It has probably always bothered some people because it still sounds more like a medical condition than a group noun. I probably use its antonym dearth more, because apparently I don’t think it’s as pretentious as plethora. They’re not the least bit related. Plethora was plucked by an intellectual from the Latin, while dearth came up the hard way, from the West Germanic, like most of English. Dearth in medieval times–derthe–had connotations of a bare cupboard, of famine. It was a scary, ugly word, and with the vagaries of food supply in that era was probably more commonly used than we could ever comprehend in our own obese times. Go back deep into the Dark Ages, in the Old Saxon from which much of our English sprung, and diurtha meant love, glory, even splendor. It was an exultant word. A thrilling word. But that was many centuries ago. Now it means not enough, and will soon be forgotten altogether, as have nearly all words in all languages, eventually. Linguists educatedly guess that 80% of all languages spoken in history have disappeared, perhaps 31,000 tongues. That’s a lot of words. Some get passed on and transmogrified, like dearth. Some get dug up and repurposed, like plethora. Most disappear forever, or darisam, as a Sumerian would have said.
The rush of inventing a word that would make the OED just the once were it somehow noticed before vanishing like one of those synthetic elements invented for the sheer physicist’s fuck of it before vanishing a millisecond later with no impact on the universe whatsoever.
Thus invertebratefully, perfectly logical for one second in one sentence and then poof, gone.
Sometimes I think writing is like a jazz solo in an empty room, perfect for just that moment and then never heard again.
Actually languages aren’t made from random mouth sounds, only a small portion of the wide range of possible sounds is used for language. The International Phonetic Alphabet can notate all the phonemes (individual sounds) of all human languages and does so with only I think 107 letters and around 50 diacritics (and a handful of other marks). English uses around 44 phonemes (a phoneme being an individual sound). There’s a language in the Pacific somewhere that uses only 11 phonemes. How I do not know. And there’s a click language in southern Africa that has I think 112. You could do amazing things with 112 phonemes.
There was a language in Turkey that had only two vowels and eighty some consonants. It is extinct now, killed off in the greatest consonant clusterfuck of all time. That’s a linguistics joke.
I know a funnier one about a lady in Boston who asked a cabbie if he knew a place where a woman could could get scrod.
I suspect that most verbs began as nouns verbed and an ungodly number of nouns were once verbs nouned and not once but sometimes many times this renouning and reverbing takes place, leaving dictionaries a record of wanton anarchy and the decline of values over and over again.
Turns out that the word helicopter is made from the the classic Greek stems helico, meaning spiral, and pter, meaning winged, as in pterodactyl or pterosaur or pterpaulanmerisaur. Which means that helicopter should be pronounced helicoter, long o, silent p, which will make you even more irritating to your friends. Try it next time one is noisily circling the neighborhood while you are all trying to watch your favorite show. Fucking helicopters they shout. That’s pronounced heliCOter you shout back. They stare at you. The P is silent, you shout. Or scream, really, so they can understand the important phonological distinction in all that noise. But no one has ever screamed that a P is silent before, not ever. It’s not something one would ordinarily scream, not like screaming fire or watch out or Stella. So now everyone is staring at you, the helicopter is gone, and you wished you’d never read this post.