Saturday, May 12, 2007

AZ commencement: Carmontastic!

Well, it wasn't, as I had feared, in Wildcat Stadium! I think my colleagues were having a little fun with me. It was in the
McKale Memorial Center
, where the basketball team plays; all nicely covered and well suited for dramatic lighting.

Funny how you can work for a long time at an institution and be totally ignorant of its particular traditions... turns out U of A grads throw tortillas at commencement; have done since 1919 or something. This is frowned upon, and the security detail was actually patting down students for tortillas (and, presumably, other more sinister things) beforehand. Nonetheless, a large number of tortillas found their way into the ceremony. I even got hit with one.

The speaker was Dr. Richard Carmona, former surgeon general of the US and now professor in the school of public health. He gave a really excellent and very anti-Administration speech about being citizens of the globe, about winning hearts and minds and improving the lives of others through good works and not with bombs and guns, about recognizing and addressing the long list of scary problems we all face. Very inspirational and suitable and remarkably political, unequivocally characterizing current foreign policy as a failure on all fronts, both with respect to its stated goals and with respect to catastrophic unintended consequences. As one of my colleagues said as we recessed, "He's out of the closet now!" The graduating audience at UA, not a necessarily especially progressive group, were remarkably on board with it all, cheering and clapping. Then they got back to throwing tortillas.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Family Circus Filology (Crosspost from LL)

Today's language cartoons come via the Comics Curmudgeon, who has featured a coupla linguistically-significant Family Circus cartoons in recent rants.

First, a simple Eggcorn Genesis moment:

Next, something a bit more sophisticated:

To fully appreciate this one, you really need to read part of what Josh (the Curmudgeon) has to say about it in his original rant:

I wasn’t aware that there was some Papally proscribed prayer posture, with more knees denoting more Christian sincerity. I’m also not sure how Dolly can tell Jeffy’s only doing half an Ave Maria if he’s still in the midst of it — is he only doing every other word or something?

Josh's remark illustrates an important point about the temporal properties of events that can be described as "saying half the Hail Mary", namely, that they unfold towards a specific endpoint along a timecourse specified by the extent properties of the element denoted by the object NP in direct object position. That is, such events keep on going until half a Hail Mary is said and then they stop. The size of half a Hail Mary determines the extent of the event. This necessary stopping is a crucial property of such events -- called "telic events" -- and distinguishes them from another kind of event, ones with no predetermined endpoint, like running or singing -- ''atelic'' events..

Now, the English progressive (be + V-ing) has the property of focussing on the midpoint of some event -- the event is ongoing when you use the progressive to describe it. So the normal interpretation of "Jeff is saying half a Hail Mary" is that Jeff is in the middle of saying half a Hail Mary -- he hasn't reached the endpoint of the saying-half-a-Hail-Mary event yet.

Josh's point is that Dolly can't possibly tell whether Jeffy is only saying half a Hail Mary or saying a full Hail Mary. Any midpoint of a saying-half-a-Hail-Mary event is ALSO a midpoint of a saying-a-Hail-Mary event, so if Dolly's in the middle of watching Jeffy executing such an event, she can't know if he's going to stop halfway through or not, so she can have no evidence that he's only saying half.

There are only a couple of ways her report can make sense as a true statement about an ongoing event. One is the way that Josh mentions in his comment -- if he's saying half the Hail Mary by uttering every other word. Then, after hearing just a few words of the Hail Mary, Dolly could extrapolate the pattern to the end of the prayer, conclude that Jeffy isn't going to say the whole thing, and make her report.

The other way is if she's witnessing an iteration of half-a-Hail-Mary-saying events -- Jeffy has been repeatedly saying half-Hail-Marys. This represents a so-called 'coercion' effect of the progressive+telic verb combination -- rather than one event halfway through, the event is reimagined as consisting of multiple iterated events. He knocked at the door could be true with just a single "knock!", but He was knocking at the door has to involve multiple knocks -- coercion to an iteration interpretation, since knocking has no internal event duration that the progressive could focus on. Saying a Hail Mary does, though, so there's both the 'normal' and iterated interpretations available. And only as a description of iterated half-Hail-Mary-saying events does Dolly's report make sense.

I imagine this is why it's the Hail Mary and not some other bedtime prayer that is mentioned in the caption -- in my media-based and sketchy impression of Catholicism, Hail Marys are a prayer that is often said repeatedly, yes? Poor little Jeffy. Now he'll have to go back and say all the other half-a-Hail-Marys. Halfs-a-Hail-Mary? Certainly not halves-a-Hail-Mary. Hmm!


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Humanities convocation

I just got back from a hooding ceremony that I wouldn't normally attend. At Arizona, Linguistics is (I think rightly) housed in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, so normally I would participate only in SBS-related pomps and circumstances. This spring, however, a student from the Spanish and Portuguese department who had enrolled in a couple of my classes over the past few years asked me if I would be willing to come and hood him at the Humanities ceremony, for his Masters in Hispanic Linguistics. I was naturally honored to be asked, and happened to be available, so happily went, though not really looking forward to the long ceremony, the repeated clapping, the sitting and sitting...

But the Humanities ceremony wasn't as long as the SBS ceremonies that I have been to -- just about an hour and 20 minutes to hood 67 graduate students. And it's always fun to be around so many happy people, the students enjoying a proud moment in front of the friends and family, the advisors happy to be honoring the efforts of their students in pursuit of (in the case of many of the Humanities degrees) purely non-mercenary ideals of erudition, creation, beauty and/or truth. Hooray for societies that value such things.

Anyway, it was a happy moment; it's hard not to smile when you're around so many smiling people. Like watching people greet each other at the airport.

On the other hand, I'm on tap to stand up for the Linguistics department at the BIG commencement ceremony for the whole university on Saturday. THAT -- three+ hours in the seriously hot sun in black robes -- is an honor which we are happy to rotate through the faculty, once per year. Given the current size of our department, I won't have to do it again for 15+ years. By that time maybe they'll have put a dome on Wildcat Stadium.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Ineffable apes (crosspost from Language Log)

Look at me, baby!

News from the animal communication front: Chimps and bonobos have arbitrariness of the sign, at least sort of, at least with respect to some gestures.

From the New Scientist article:

By observing captive groups of bonobos and separate groups of captive chimps, Pollick and de Waal identified 31 gestures and 18 facial or vocal signals made by the apes, and recorded the context in which they were used. It turns out that the facial and vocal signals were practically the same in both species, but the same gesture was used in different contexts both between and within species.

For example, the vocal signal "bared-teeth scream" signals fear in chimps and bonobos, but the signal "reach out up" – where an animal stretches out an arm, palm upwards – has different meanings. It may translate as begging for food or as begging for support from a friend, says de Waal. "The open hand gesture is also used after fights between two individuals to beg for approach and contact during a reconciliation. So the gesture is versatile, but the meaning depends on context."

In other words, chimps and bonobos seem to have gestural homophones--one symbol with two or more meanings.1 The authors, Amy S. Pollick and Frans B.M. de Waal, of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, find this suggestive in thinking about the evolution of language: Perhaps the earliest symbolic communications were gestures, and the symbolic use of vocal signasl came later?

A colleague of theirs at the Yerkes Primate Research center agrees:

"The openness of the hand-gesture system among chimps and bonobos “is consistent with the idea that the early hominid communications system was gesture based and that vocal communication came later,” said William Hopkins, a Yerkes researcher not involved in the study. “The speech system is a very recent adaptation in hominids.”

But are the gestures really symbolic? Maybe they're just used as an enhancement of the vocal/facial signal (like the gestures accompanying speech among users of spoken languages). Are they really independent communicative units on their own (like the symbols of signed languages)?

In fact, it seems to me that the 'flexibility' of (at least some) gestures is consistent with the notion that they are general attention-getting devices. On this interpretation, they show up in multiple contexts precisely because they are not symbolic. A gesture might be saying, 'Pay attention to my vocal /facial signal!' rather than, say, denoting 'Help!' in one context and 'Can I have some of that?' in another. Flexibility of contexts are the opposite of symbolic communication, in a way!

Figure 3
Consider Fig. 3 from the article, where the reliability of the correlation between particular contexts and particular gestures and vocal/facial signals is reported. The gestures that show the least reliability are hand/arm motions in various directions -- 'reach out side', for example. These gestures happen to be the ones which intuitively (speaking as a communicative primate myself) have the least symbolic content.

If these gestures are actually signal amplifiers, rather than symbols, then we wouldn't expect them to show up by themselves, in the absence of the 'real' signals coming through in another modality (another communicative medium, like sound). They would always appear in combination. This seems like the $64,000 question to me, if use of symbols is what is at issue. (Marc Hauser, of {Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch} is quoted in the NY Times article as wondering the same thing).

Indeed, in the article itself, the authors introduce the research with remarks on the pervasiveness of mulitmodality in the communications systems of many different species:

Gestures are rarely produced in the absence of other communicative signals, such as facial expressions and vocalizations.
Multimodal communication has been appreciated in humans for several decades (43) and is becoming increasingly important in the study of animal communication (44). Multimodal signaling occurs across taxa, from snapping shrimps to spiders and birds, and in all contexts, although those related to courtship and mating are best documented (A.S.P., unpublished work). This communication strategy can have a variety of functions, including amplification and modulation of signal meaning. Combined with the graded facial/vocal signals typical of the apes (46), gestural flexibility has the advantage over the more stereotyped signaling by monkeys that it permits greater communicative

So, you get multimodal signaling across all taxa; makes its existence in chimps and humans seem less special. But you don't get it in monkeys, which makes it seem more special, within our lineage, anyway. Looking for clues about whether the gestures were always in a multimodal context, it turns out there is a significant difference between bonobos and chimps in this regard:

No significant difference was found in the proportion of signals that was gestural versus facial/vocal, but chimpanzees did
combine these two signal classes relatively more often than did bonobos.

So there are at least some non-mulitmodal gestures in the data, enough to run stats on.

Interestingly, although chimps were more likely to use multimodal signals, multimodal signals were significantly more effective than gesture alone in eliciting a response from another animal in bonobos, but, remarkably, not in chimps. Among chimps, another chimp responded about 67-68 percent of the time to any gestural signal, whether it was embedded in a multimodal context or not. Among bonobos, on the other hand, a gesture alone elicited a response at about that same rate, 67 percent-ish, but if a bonobo gestured and made some facial or vocal signal along with the gesture, they got a response a whopping 83 percent of the time! And yet the bonobos were less likely to produce mulitmodal signals than the chimps! What's up with that?

The interest of this inverse correlation does not escape the authors, who write in their discussion,

That this contrast between multimodal
and single modality utterances held for bonobos only is
interesting given that multimodal combinations are less common
in bonobos. Could the relative scarcity of multimodal signaling
in bonobos relate to a more deliberate combination of gestures
with other forms of communication, perhaps in an attempt to
add critical information to the message instead of merely amplifying

The whole question of the attention-getting issue is complicated by the methodology. The authors wanted to have good criteria for which signals (gestural or otherwise) to count as communicative, so they only counted gestures made at the start of a 'social interaction'... which one individual approached another and attempted to engage the recipient with a communication signal. The two individuals may have been in proximity before, but without observable interaction. Signals were not included in the analysis, therefore, if they occurred in the middle or toward the end of an ongoing interaction.

So all of the communicative contexts examined were in attention-getting contexts; this may muddy the waters for sorting out the precursor-to-symbolic-communication hypothesis from the signal-amplification hypothesis.

Even if the gestures are more attention-getters than symbols, though, it's definitely interesting that apes, but not monkeys, use them. Silly monkeys -- it couldn't be more obvious that you should wave your hands to get attention! Working to get someone's attention, though, presupposes that you know they have an attention to get -- presupposes a theory of mind. And that is likely a sine qua non for language. Maybe the reason that bonobos use multimodal signals more selectively than chimps do is not that they are trying to 'add critical information' to the signal. Perhaps it's because they have a better theory of mind than chimps do, and hence they've got a better grasp of how to deploy the whole 'Look at me!' thing.

1 Anyone want to coin a term for this? Maybe there already is one.