Alien Languages

The recent movie Arrival treats an imagined arrival on earth by alien beings. The United States government, at a loss to understand the visitors’ intentions, conscripts the film’s hero—unusually for Hollywood, a linguist—to help understand the aliens’ language, and in turn, their purpose.

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The aliens’ language’s “freedom from time” evokes the functional programming language Haskell.

The linguist, Louise Banks, soon makes headway. She discovers that the aliens’ language “has no forward or backward direction” and “is free of time”. Moreover, in a nod to the (unfortunately, all-but discredited) Sapir–Whorf hypothesis—according to which, as Banks suggests, “the language you speak determines how you think and… affects how you see everything”—Banks soon finds her own cognition shifting:

If you learn it, when you really learn it, you begin to perceive time the way that they do, so you can see what’s to come. But time, it isn’t the same for them. It’s non-linear.

Far from inducing an reaction of incredulity and awe, these descriptions of the visitors’ language provoked in me just one persistent response: “This is just like the programming language Haskell.” Continue reading

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Swiss French, Swiss German

Ferdinand de Saussure was a profound linguistic thinker of the early 1900s. During a legendary series of lectures given at University of Geneva, de Saussure, a French-speaking Swiss, introduced to the world many ideas which have since become fundamental — even “self-evident” — within the discipline of linguistics. De Saussure suggested, for example, that the historical and etymological emphases of his day failed to recognize as the central object of linguistics the instantaneous internal structure of a language, to which prior evolutionary contingencies are irrelevant. A language’s internal structure, in fact, exists moreover independently of the writing system it uses, of the concrete sounds of its phonetic system, and even of its words. It consists entirely, de Saussure argued, of an abstract system of so-called signs — each linking an idea to a sound — which subsist only through the network of relationships among them and persist only through the coordinated ativity of a linguistic community. “It is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition,” de Saussure famously wrote, “and because it is founded upon tradition that it can be arbitrary.” [1, p. 74]

De Saussure’s facility with historical linguistics was, to his credit, uncanny. Discussing the unfortunate common tendency to confuse historical (diachronic) with instantaneous (synchronic) linguistics, for example, he writes:

In order to explain Greek phuktós, it might be supposed that it suffices to point out that in Greek g and kh become k before a voiceless consonant, and to state this fact in terms of synchronic correspondences such as phugeînphuktóslékhosléktron, etc. But then we come up against cases like tríkhesthriksí, where a complication occurs in the form of a ‘change’ from t to th… [1, p. 96]

De Saussure proceeds like this effortlessly, citing detailed examples variously from Sanskrit [1, p. 2], Latin [1, p. 95], Old High German [1, p. 83], Anglo-Saxon [1, p. 83], early Slavonic [1, p. 86], and, of course, French [1, pp. 31, 69, 85, 95, 104, 106, …].

De Saussure’s true genius, however, was evident perhaps most of all in his novel theory of signs, which emphasized the social, conventional, and ultimately arbitrary nature of linguistic systems — and which eventually produced the field of semiotics.

This theory was validated during my recent trip to Switzerland. Continue reading

Demons Within

If only Nicolas Winding Refn were as intent on my liking his films as I was.

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The first few scenes of Neon Demon offer the richness of experience that, as it seems, only Nicolas Winding Refn is capable of delivering. The protagonist (Elle Fanning), a gorgeous aspiring model from small-town Georgia, glides wide-eyed through the streets of LA in a red Mustang, driven by her new (and soon-to-be-ex-) boyfriend. America’s Next Top Model, after crossing America’s Former Top Model, comes home to a puma, prowling about her thrashed motel room. A haggard-looking Keanu Reeves strides out of the dingy, blue-lit motel lobby to smoke a cigarette in the red light of the Motel 6 sign. Indeed, this was quite something. Was Neon Demon going to be what Only God Forgives never was—the movie that could rival Drive?

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Taking Care to Take Care

The Genius of Drake. 

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In a previous post, I flagged Lil Wayne for his genius, largely because of his witty irreverence. In a world of wanna-be gangsters and braggarts, it somehow occurred to Lil Wayne that he didn’t have to act hard—he could be funny, instead.

Drake’s genius, then, becomes clear as well, for a similar but distinct reason. While his contemporaries extoll their kill counts, sexploits, and paychecks, Drake stands out in a sea of monotony for his ability to express his emotions. Just imagine: it’s 2009; Drake is rising to fame; and suddenly, it’s no longer uncool to feel. The reader will surely join me, then, in deeming Drake’s impact on the rap world revolutionary.

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From Streets to Stars

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“We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” — Oscar Wilde. Prostitutes viewing the rings of Saturn. Photo by Chris Arnade. Read the story here.

It was a crisp fall night, medical school had reconvened just a few weeks ago, and we were out on the town. “Should we stop at a bar first, and grab a few beers?” someone asked. “Or just go straight to the club and do some dancin’?” If there were worries that night, they were hard to come by.

Then, my friend tapped me on the shoulder. “Can I have some money?” he asked. “Please?” He wanted to give it to a homeless woman. I was a bit taken aback, and, honestly, I was frustrated. “Fine,” I groaned, and handed him $5.

We approached a woman slumped against a doorframe, taking shelter under the entryway awning, and under tattered blankets. My friend handed her the bill. Then we stood there for a moment, the two of us, and the one of her, face to face. I didn’t know what to say, and the silenced stretched on, for one second, and then for two. So I said, “I believe that God has a plan for all of us, and he’s going to make sure we achieve it.” She nodded. And we walked away.

At the time, it had felt like the right thing to say. But as we walked onward, I started to question my words. “Who was to tell her things would be okay?” I asked. I had received everything on a platter. I was a in medical school, training to become a member of an esteemed profession. I was wearing nice clothes. I was engaging in leisure. I was surrounded by friends. I had everything. What gave me the right to offer hope to someone who had nothing? As the night went on, I couldn’t help but wonder: can religion cross the class barrier?

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Function’s Lust

I’ll be taking my USMLE exam in less than a month, so I’ve been studying nonstop. Surprisingly, though—far from being a grueling grind towards the finish—the last few weeks actually been pretty nice.

I wake up at the same time every day. I eat the same breakfast every day: a single egg. My goals are the same every day: to complete three practice blocks, and to analyze the questions thereafter. Some days, I only complete two or two and a half. But my pace is steady.

Night falls, predictably, between my second and third daily blocks. I turn on my desk lamp, which fills the kitchen with a warm light. While I cook dinner, country music sounds from my radio. The next day, I repeat.

My routine calls to mind a concept I encountered in Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals.

The old German term funktionslust refers to pleasure taken in what one can do best—the pleasure a cat takes in climbing trees, or monkeys take in swinging from branch to branch.

Studying for the USMLE exam, at least at this phase in my life, is what I do best. There’s a distinct pleasure in doing that and only that.

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Gypsy Lore

Josh leapt towards the blue sky, and plunged into the quickly moving water thirty feet below. He emerged from the surface with a shout, and began swimming vigorously towards the bank. I looked downwards, standing on the humble diving platform – a small tower with a wooden board and a ladder poised above the river. A few Bosnian kids sat on the rock below; they half-heartedly clapped. I looked across the river at the stone houses dotting the riverbank of Mostar, Bosnia.

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The river in Mostar, Bosnia

We had met the Bosnians a few minutes earlier. I had just jumped in, and a lean kid of about eighteen had reached out his hand, helping me up the last few feet onto the rocky ledge overlooking the river. I clapped him on the back. These were locals from Saravejo. Their English was crippled. There was another kid of the same age, and a third, a pudgy kid of about twelve. The leader, whom I was inclined to trust, had freckles and dark hair; puzzled, I observed numerous parallel scars, apparently self-inflicted, lining his right arm.

I began to prepare to for my second jump. The Bosnians got up to leave. As I looked behind and beneath me, I noticed our bag – which had previously lain hidden away at the back of the rocky ledge, and which contained our wallets, cash, and much more – dangling from the hand of the twelve-year-old. Continue reading