Tag Archives: Language

Lost For Words, On Purpose

When we use words to say how we feel, the more relevant concepts and distinctions that we know, the more precisely we can express our feelings. So you might think that the number of relevant distinctions we can express on a topic rises with a topic’s importance. That is, the more we care about something, the more distinctions we can make about it.

But consider the two cases of food and love/sex (which I’m lumping together here). It seems to me that while these topics are of comparable importance, we have a lot more ways to clearly express distinctions on foods than on love/sex. So when people want to express feelings on love/sex, they often retreat to awkward analogies and suggestive poetry. Two different categories of explanations stand out here:

1) Love/sex is low dimensional. While we care a lot about love/sex, there are only a few things we care about. Consider money as an analogy. While money is important, and finance experts know a great many distinctions, for most people the key relevant distinction is usually more vs. less money; the rest is detail. Similarly, evolution theory suggests that only a small number of dimensions about love/sex matter much to us.

2) Clear love/sex talk looks bad.  Love/sex are to supposed to have lots of non-verbal talk, so a verbal focus can detract from that. We have a norm that love/sex is to be personal and private, a norm you might seem to violate via comfortable impersonal talk that could easily be understood if quoted. And if you only talk in private, you learn fewer words, and need them less. Also, a precise vocabulary used clearly could make it seem like what you wanted from love/sex was fungible – you aren’t so much attached to particular people as to the bundle of features they provide. Precise talk could make it easier for us to consciously know what we want when, which makes it harder to self-deceive about what we want. And having available more precise words about our love/sex relations could force us to acknowledge smaller changes in relation status — if “love” is all there is, you can keep “loving” someone even as many things change.

It seems to me that both kinds of things must be going on. Even when we care greatly about a topic, we may not care about many dimensions, and we may be better off not being able to express ourselves clearly.

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In Praise Of Profanity

Cursing … is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, whether living or dead, spoken by millions or by a single small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech. … The earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions. …

“Studies show that if you’re with a group of close friends, the more relaxed you are, the more you swear,” Burridge said. “It’s a way of saying: ‘I’m so comfortable here, I can let off steam. I can say whatever I like.’ ” Evidence also suggests that cursing can be an effective means of venting aggression and thereby forestalling physical violence. …

Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center. … Chimpanzees engage in what appears to be a kind of cursing match as a means of venting aggression and avoiding a potentially dangerous physical clash. (more)

My parents were very religious. They never drank alcohol, gambled, or used profanity. Since leaving them I’ve become comfortable with alcohol, and with gambling on important topics, but I’ve never been comfortable with profanity. Yet on refection, that is mostly a problem with me, not with profanity. Let me explain.

Traditionally, lower classes did hard physical labor, and as a result wore tough work clothes, and had skin that was callused, tanned, and wrinkled. Upper classes showed that they were too rich or skilled for such work by wearing fragile clothes and having soft smooth light skin. Similarly, upper classes have often nurtured polite language, avoidance of direct insult, and a heightened sensitivity and squeamishness on topics like sex or excrement. Such habits have helped the upper classes to contrast themselves with the tough and calloused attitudes of lower classes toward such things.

While upper classes have often portrayed lower class habits as due to ignorance of the universal benefits of politeness and sensitivity, lower class habits seem to me to in fact be functional adaptations to common environments. Just as it can be important to judge physical strength and toughness when allocating workers to hard physical labor, it can also be important to judge emotional toughness for tasks that may be emotionally stressful.

So lower class cultures tend to not only have more demonstrations of physical strength and toughness, including dangerous dares, fist fights, and excess drinking, such cultures also tend to have more direct and aggressive verbal challenges as well as profanity, insults, teasing, and taunting. People are even given nicknames that highlight their embarrassing weaknesses.

Such habits not only let lower class workers distinguish themselves from upper class managers and customers, they also help such workers to better express and gauge their physical and emotional weaknesses and strengths. This lets them better select and allocate people to tasks, and to push group members up to but not beyond their limits. So it makes sense that today profanity is more common in work groups that depend closely on one another, and who have high levels of physical and emotional stress. This includes surgeons, warriors, finance traders, movie makers, and restaurant servers.

Today, laws against sexual harassment, and wider monitoring of worker speech, discourage workplace profanity, in an apparent attempt to impose high class cultural standards on other classes. We should expect this to raise our status in the eyes of the world, even as it reduces the functionality of workgroups who strain against the limits of their capacities.

I also expect us to allow exceptions for work we consider to be especially important, like war and movies. I take recent increases in campus speech codes that basically ban any talk that anyone might offend anyone as further evidence that schools are more about signaling status than about gaining productivity.

If the world continues to get richer and more pampered, expect more rules against profanity in places that want to show themselves as high status. If, however, the world ever returns to really needing to get things done, expect any such rules to be mostly ignored, as people focus on productivity.

The em world scenario that I’ve been working on should have low wages, more competition, and work groups pushed to the limits of their emotional abilities, even as differences in physical abilities disappear. Em kids would also be rare, and rarely mix with adults. This all suggests that em work groups would more often adopt traditional working class habits, except emphasizing emotional over physical toughness. Em work groups will probably use lots of strongly emotional profanity, insults, and teasing.

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Tower Of Babel Still

If language evolved to allow us to exchange information, how come most people cannot understand what most other people are saying? This perennial question was famously addressed in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel. … The real puzzle is that the greatest diversity of human societies and languages arises not where people are most spread out, but where they are most closely packed together. Papua New Guinea is a classic case. That relatively small land mass – only slightly larger than California – is home to between 800 and 1000 distinct languages, or around 15 per cent of all languages spoken on the planet. This linguistic diversity is not the result of migration and physical isolation of different populations. Instead, people living in close quarters seem to have chosen to separate into many distinct societies, leading lives so separate that they have become incapable of talking to one another. Why? …

Languages act as powerful social anchors of our tribal identity. … distinct languages are an effective way to prevent eavesdropping or the loss of important information to a competitor. In support of this idea, I have found anthropological accounts of tribes deciding to change their language, with immediate effect, for no other reason than to distinguish themselves from neighbouring groups. …

Today, around 1.2 billion people – about 1 in 6 of us – speak Mandarin. Next come Spanish and English with about 400 million speakers each, and Bengali and Hindi follow close behind. (more)

Today much larger communities speak the same “language” in the sense of speaking English or Mandarin. But when it comes to the higher levels of specialized terminologies, styles of analysis, prototypical examples, etc. that naturally arise in different communities, organizations, and disciplines, it seems to me that a Tower of Babel still reigns. People quite often find it prohibitively hard to talk merely because different groups have gotten into the habit of talking differently, even though their concepts could be translated without great difficulty. And members of these groups often go out of their way to signal group loyalty by choosing to talk differently than outsiders.

The world fails dramatically to coordinate on language, both at the basic English-like level, and at these higher levels. Sometimes a nation will push hard to get everyone in the nation to speak the same basic language, in order to strengthen national solidarity. But beyond that, there is very little government effort to try to coordinate on language. Which just shows how hard is coordination, and how little of government is about coordination.

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Missing Life-Lessons

We learn many things over the space of our lives. With language, we can share such things with many others distant in space and time. With such a fantastic capacity, you might think we humans would hardly ever have to learn anything important directly for ourselves. But while we do learn many things from textbooks and mentors, we are surprisingly bad at teaching the most important life lessons. Like, for example, what its like to be married a long time, how to stay married, and when that is worth the trouble.

One contributing factor is that folks, late in life, almost never write essays, or books, on “what I’ve learned about life.” It would only take a few pages, and would seem to offer great value to others early in their lives. Why the silence? Some possible explanations:

  1. People don’t actually learn much that can be abstracted from their life details.
  2. People don’t want to hear the truth, and they won’t find lies useful, so why bother.
  3. Young folks already think they know all the answers, so won’t listen.
  4. It seems arrogant to offer lessons from your life when few others do this.
  5. When folks write on their life, they care much more to brag about what they did.
  6. Useful lessons will suggest the author had average success, which is shameful.
  7. The lessons of folks with way above average success aren’t useful to average folks.
  8. People are too weak to write when they feel old enough to tell lessons.
  9. Few care what people will think of them after they are dead.
  10. Most lessons have been written, but few can be bothered to read them.

None of these explanations seem especially satisfactory. What’s going on?

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Slang Signals

From a review of the new book “The Life of Slang”:

“The arguments in favor of slang [are] about slang itself: it is vibrant, creative, and so on,” she writes. “These qualities might be attributed to slang-creators. The arguments against [are] largely about slang-users: they’re unintelligent and have limited vocabularies. And that’s one of the reasons why I find it hard to take sides in this argument: slang words often are witty and appealing, but not all slang-users are. On the other hand, slang-users might be perfectly charming were it not for their irritating repetition of tired slang words. …

What really sets slang apart from Standard English is the way it functions in social contexts: communicating meaning is often a secondary function for slang; it’s really for communicating attitudes and cementing relationships.”

Slang “creates in-groups and out-groups and acts as an emblem of belonging.” To Coleman, “the importance of slang in creating and maintaining a sense of group or personal identity” is paramount, and all the evidence supports her. Groups that have developed slang as a way of cementing their identity include the military, especially in the lower ranks. …

In sum, according to Coleman, “slang is an attitude (insolence, for example, coolness, disdain, admiration, or a desire for conformity) expressed in words.” … “Slang was once considered a sign of poor breeding or poor taste,” Coleman writes, “but now it indicates that the speaker is fun-loving, youthful, and in touch with the latest trends.” (more)

I suppose this helps explains why I’m not into slang. I want to talk to the widest possible audience, and to focus on timeless issues and insights, as opposed to the latest fashionable topics. I can see why people want to signal loyalty to their groups, especially in the military, but I have little confidence that this is good for the world as a whole.

While I have fun talking the way I do, that isn’t really what people mean by “fun-loving, youthful” – they mean more that if you were young you’d be sending the right signals about your being a good person for others to have fun with. You’d be a good person for the typical young person to have as a friend, associate, or lover. And that, I’m not.

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Near Is Warm, Relational

I had heard before: warm is near:

‘Holding warm feelings toward someone’’ and ‘‘giving someone the cold shoulder’’ indicate different levels of social proximity. In this article, we show effects of temperature that go beyond these metaphors people live by. In three experiments, warmer conditions, compared with colder conditions, induced (a) greater social proximity, (b) use of more concrete language, and (c) a more relational focus. Different temperature conditions were created by either handing participants warm or cold beverages (Experiment 1) or placing them in comfortable warm or cold ambient conditions (Experiments 2 and 3). (more; HT Eric Barker via Katja Grace)

I had not heard: in near mode we talk more about the relations between things, relative to their categories or properties:

An … argument found in cultural psychology suggests that cultures emphasizing interdependence (placing the self in general in social proximity to others) are more likely to emphasize relationships, whereas cultures emphasizing independence (placing the self in general in lower social proximity to others) are more likely to emphasize properties. Similar conclusions have been drawn in a wide array of research: Individuals from cultures emphasizing interdependence not only tend to categorize objects on the basis of interrelatedness, but also perceive Rorschach cards more as patterns and detect more changes in relationships between objects, compared with individuals from cultures emphasizing independence, who tend more to categorize objects on the basis of shared categories (and features), to focus on details, and to detect changes in central properties of objects. …

On the basis of this reasoning in cultural psychology, and the fact that warmer temperatures led to use of more concrete language in Experiment 2, we hypothesized that a warmer temperature would produce a greater focus on relationships, or interdependence, between objects portrayed in a perceptual focus task, and that this effect would be mediated by language use. … [Our data] analysis confirmed that participants in the warm condition had a greater relational perspective than participants in the cold condition.

See also more support for far being happy.

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Data On Sarcasm

Our capacities to communicate covertly, out of view of social reporting, are central to our abilities to coordinate to hypocritically pretend to support norms while actually evading them. Like laughter and eye-contact, sarcasm seems a central supporting skill. Here is some of what we know about sarcasm:

According to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. … Brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm. …

Lsten[ing] to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line, … students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. … The mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is [sometimes] perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. … “You’re distancing yourself, you’re making yourself superior,” Haiman says. “If you’re sincere all the time, you seem naive.” …

We’re more likely to use sarcasm with our friends than our enemies, … [New York students] were more likely [than Memphis students to suggest sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a hypothetical conversation. Northerners also were more likely to think sarcasm was funny. …

Haiman lists more than two dozen ways that a speaker or a writer can indicate sarcasm with pitch, tone, volume, pauses, duration and punctuation. … Expressions around the mouth, as opposed to the eyes or eyebrows, were most often cited as a clue to a sarcastic statement. (more; HT David Brin)

Note that higher status and IQ cultures tend to use sarcasm more, just as smart folks tend to lie more, even though they are no better at discerning lies (source: Triver’s new book).

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Is Confidence Social?

Consider some uses of the word “confident“:

Tom is confident the bus will arrive soon.

This is often interpreted as Tom assigning a high probability to the bus arriving soon. But then what about:

The CDC is confident this diseases poses only a moderate risk.

Is there a high probability that moderate risk is the correct risk assessment? But what can it mean for an estimate to be “correct”? Is this about the robustness of estimate to analysis variations? Now consider:

Sam took me into his confidence.

Perhaps this means Sam assigned a high probability that I would not betray him. But then what about:

Bill’s manner is more confident these days.

Perhaps this means Bill assigns a high probability to his having a high ability.  But this last usage seems to me better interpreted as Bill acting higher status, and expecting his bid for higher status to be accepted by others. Bill does not expect to be challenged in this bid, and beaten down.

If you think about it, this status move interpretation can also make sense of all the other uses above. Sam taking me into his confidence might mean that Sam didn’t expect me to use his trust to reduce his status. And the CDC might expect that its risk estimation could not be successfully challenged by other parties, perhaps in part because this estimate was robust to analysis variations. Similarly, Tom might expect that his status won’t be reduced by the bus failing to show up as he predicted.

Yes, sometimes confidence can be in part about assigning a high probability, or about the robustness of an analysis. But more fundamentally, confidence may be about status moves. It is just that in some circumstances we makes status bids via asserting that some event is high probability, or asserting that variations of an analysis tend to lead to similar results.

If you ever offer advice, to someone who asks you how confident you are in your advice, try to remember that this may at root not be a question about probabilities. It may instead be a question what can happen socially if your advisee follows your advice. How easily might others might challenge that advice, perhaps then lowering your advisee’s status? To figure that out, you may need to look beyond probabilities and analysis robustness, and consider who might want to challenge this advice, what might make them want to launch such a challenge, and what resources they might bring to such a fight.

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Pronoun Inflation

A striking example of how powerful signaling can be in forming language:

Not so long ago—just a few hundred years—thou and its cousins thee and thy were the words to use when addressing one person, while you and ye and your were reserved for more than one. … But later in the Middle Ages, … it became the custom, not only in English but in most European languages, to show respect by addressing someone as you, even if the person was singular. Perhaps it was the inverse of the royal we, used by a ruler in public utterances as if to speak on behalf of God or of all his or her subjects. The subjects would show respect by responding to the plural we with the plural you. … Because you was a sign of respect, thou by contrast became a sign of disrespect, at least in public. … Gradually politeness spread so widely among speakers of English that you entirely displaced thou. … Even with you usurping the whole of second-person pronouns, the impulse to distinguish between singular and plural remains. That’s why we have plural locutions that prompt purists to gnashing of teeth: you all, y’all, yous, you’ns, and of course that all-time favorite … you guys. (more; HT Virginia Postrel)

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Concept Inflation

Many places in the world claim to make the “world’s greatest hamburgers.” So many places, in fact, that one is tempted to conclude that many folks have adopted some new meaning for the phrase “world’s greatest.” OK, the temptation is weak in this case, but I suspect that such meaning drifts are common, and that they make positive concepts less positive, and negative concepts less negative. Let me explain.

Many words, like “excellent”, “genius”, “rude”, or “tyrant” have ambiguous borderlines, so that it isn’t clear to what cases the concepts do or don’t apply. In such borderline cases, we should expect people to choose their words strategically, to make they and their allies look good, and to make their rivals look bad. That is, we expect people to try be especially generous and loose in order to let them apply positive words to themselves or their allies, but to be especially strict and stingy in order to avoid applying such words to their rivals. For example, my modest insight seems “genius” to me, but your modest insight seems to me insufficient for such a lofty title. We also expect negative words to be applied reluctantly to allies, but generously to rivals. You were “rude,” but I was merely “thoughtless.”

If the tendencies to apply a concept generously are not equally balanced by opposing tendencies to apply that concept strictly, then its meaning should drift in one direction or the other. For example, if people more often use a certain positive concept to describe themselves and their allies, and less often apply the concept to rivals, then we should expect its perceived meaning based on recent usage to drift to cover more cases. And since we expect the newly covered cases to be intrinsically less positive, we expect the concept to drift toward a less positive connotation. When more students get “A” grades, then “A” is less positive a distinction. Similarly, if we use negative concepts more often on rivals, we should expect those concepts to drive toward a less negative connotation.

We do seem to use positive concepts to describe ourselves and our allies, more often than we use such concepts to describe rivals, mainly because we talk about ourselves and allies more than we talk about rivals. So we should expect such positive concepts to broaden and become less positive with time. Yet we still have many concepts with both ambiguous borderlines and substantially positive connotations. So there must be some opposing tendency that makes positive concepts get more positive. What is that tendency?

Our tendency to talk more about ourselves and our allies than our rivals should make it more possible for negative concepts to retain a narrow application and strong negativity. Is this what we see – do negative concepts tend to be stronger and more restricted?

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