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← Why language is humanity's greatest invention

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Showing Revision 6 created 10/03/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. Spoons.
  2. Cardboard boxes.

  3. Toddler-size electric trains.

  4. Holiday ornaments.

  5. Bounce houses.

  6. Blankets.

  7. Baskets.

  8. Carpets.

  9. Tray tables.

  10. Smartphones.

  11. Pianos.

  12. Robes.

  13. Photographs.

  14. What do all of these things
    have in common,

  15. aside from the fact they're photos
    that I took in the last three months,
  16. and therefore, own the copyright to?
  17. (Laughter)

  18. They're all inventions

  19. that were created
    with the benefit of language.
  20. None of these things
    would have existed without language.
  21. Imagine creating any one of those things
  22. or, like, building
    an entire building like this,
  23. without being able to use language
  24. or without benefiting from any knowledge
    that was got by the use of language.
  25. Basically, language
    is the most important thing
  26. in the entire world.
  27. All of our civilization rests upon it.
  28. And those who devote
    their lives to studying it --
  29. both how language emerged,
    how human languages differ,
  30. how they differ from
    animal communication systems --
  31. are linguists.
  32. Formal linguistics is a relatively
    young field, more or less.
  33. And it's uncovered a lot
    of really important stuff.
  34. Like, for example, that human
    communication systems
  35. differ crucially from animal
    communication systems,
  36. that all languages are equally expressive,
  37. even if they do it in different ways.
  38. And yet, despite this,

  39. there are a lot of people
    who just love to pop off about language
  40. like they have an equal
    understanding of it as a linguist,
  41. because, of course, they speak a language.
  42. And if you speak a language,
    that means you have just as much right
  43. to talk about its function
    as anybody else.
  44. Imagine if you were talking to a surgeon,
  45. and you say, "Listen, buddy.
  46. I've had a heart for, like, 40 years now.
  47. I think I know a thing or two
    about aortic valve replacements.
  48. I think my opinion
    is just as valid as yours."
  49. And yet, that's exactly what happens.
  50. This is Neil deGrasse Tyson,
    saying that in the film "Arrival,"

  51. he would have brought a cryptographer --
  52. somebody who can unscramble a message
    in a language they already know --
  53. rather than a linguist,
  54. to communicate with the aliens,
  55. because what would a linguist --
  56. why would that be useful
    in talking to somebody
  57. speaking a language we don't even know?
  58. Though, of course, the "Arrival" film
    is not off the hook.
  59. I mean, come on --
    listen, film. Hey, buddy:
  60. there are aliens that come down
    to our planet in gigantic ships,
  61. and they want to do nothing
    except for communicate with us,
  62. and you hire one linguist?
  63. (Laughter)

  64. What's the US government
    on a budget or something?

  65. (Laughter)

  66. A lot of these things can be
    chalked up to misunderstandings,

  67. both about what language is
    and about the formal study of language,
  68. about linguistics.
  69. And I think there's something that
    underlies a lot of these misunderstandings
  70. that can be summed up
    by this delightful article in "Forbes,"
  71. about why high school students
    shouldn't learn foreign languages.
  72. I'm going to pull out
    some quotes from this,
  73. and I want you to see
    if you can figure out
  74. what underlies some
    of these opinions and ideas.
  75. "Americans rarely read the classics,
    even in translation."
  76. So in other words, why bother
    learning a foreign language
  77. when they're not even going to read
    the classic in the original anyway?
  78. What's the point?
  79. "Studying foreign languages in school
    is a waste of time,
  80. compared to other things
    that you could be doing in school."
  81. "Europe has a lot of language groups
    clustered in a relatively small space."
  82. So for Americans, ah, what's the point
    of learning another language?
  83. You're not really going to get
    a lot of bang for your buck out of that.
  84. This is my favorite,
  85. "A student in Birmingham
    would have to travel
  86. about a thousand miles
    to get to the Mexican border,
  87. and even then, there would be enough
    people who speak English to get around."
  88. In other words, if you can
    kind of wave your arms around,
  89. and you can get to where you're going,
  90. then there's really no point
    in learning another language anyway.
  91. What underlies a lot of these attitudes
    is the conceptual metaphor,

  92. language is a tool.
  93. And there's something that rings
    very true about this metaphor.
  94. Language is kind of a tool
  95. in that, if you know the local language,
    you can do more than if you didn't.
  96. But the implication is that
    language is only a tool,
  97. and this is absolutely false.
  98. If language was a tool,
    it would honestly be a pretty poor tool.
  99. And we would have abandoned it long ago
    for something that was a lot better.
  100. Think about just any sentence.
  101. Here's a sentence that I'm sure I've said
    in my life: "Yesterday I saw Kyn."
  102. I have a friend named Kyn.
  103. And when I say this sentence,
    "Yesterday I saw Kyn,"
  104. do you think it's really the case
  105. that everything in my mind
    is now implanted in your mind
  106. via this sentence?
  107. Hardly, because there's a lot
    of other stuff going on.
  108. Like, when I say "yesterday,"

  109. I might think what the weather
    was like yesterday because I was there.
  110. And if I'm remembering,
  111. I'll probably remember there was something
    I forgot to mail, which I did.
  112. This was a preplanned joke,
    but I really did forget to mail something.
  113. And so that means
    I'm going to have to do it Monday,
  114. because that's when
    I'm going to get back home.
  115. And of course, when I think of Monday,
  116. I'll think of "Manic Monday"
    by the Bangles. It's a good song.
  117. And when I say the word "saw,"
    I think of this phrase:
  118. "'I see!' said the blind man
    as he picked up his hammer and saw."
  119. I always do.
  120. Anytime I hear the word "saw" or say it,
    I always think of that,
  121. because my grandfather
    always used to say it,
  122. so it makes me think of my grandfather.
  123. And we're back to "Manic Monday"
    again, for some reason.
  124. And with Kyn, when I'm saying
    something like, "Yesterday I saw Kyn,"
  125. I'll think of the circumstances
    under which I saw him.
  126. And this happened to be that day.
    Here he is with my cat.
  127. And of course, if I'm thinking of Kyn,
  128. I'll think he's going to
    Long Beach State right now,
  129. and I'll remember that
    my good friend John and my mother
  130. both graduated from Long Beach State,
  131. my cousin Katie is going to
    Long Beach State right now.
  132. And it's "Manic Monday" again.
  133. But this is just a fraction
    of what's going on in your head

  134. at any given time while you are speaking.
  135. And all we have to represent
    the entire mess
  136. that is going on in our head, is this.
  137. I mean, that's all we got.
  138. (Laughter)

  139. Is it any wonder
    that our system is so poor?

  140. So imagine, if I can give you an analogy,
  141. imagine if you wanted to know
    what is it like to eat a cake,
  142. if instead of just eating the cake,
  143. you instead had to ingest
    the ingredients of a cake,
  144. one by one,
  145. along with instructions
  146. about how these ingredients
    can be combined to form a cake.
  147. You had to eat the instructions, too.
  148. (Laughter)

  149. If that was how we had to experience cake,

  150. we would never eat cake.
  151. And yet, language is
    the only way -- the only way --
  152. that we can figure out
    what is going on here, in our minds.
  153. This is our interiority,
  154. the thing that makes us human,
  155. the thing that makes us different
    from other animals,
  156. is all inside here somewhere,
  157. and all we have to do to represent it
    is our own languages.
  158. A language is our best way of showing
    what's going on in our head.
  159. Imagine if I wanted to ask
    a big question, like:
  160. "What is the nature of human
    thought and emotion?"
  161. What you'd want to do
  162. is you'd want to examine
    as many different languages
  163. as possible.
  164. One isn't just going to do it.
  165. To give you an example,
  166. here's a picture I took of little Roman,
  167. that I took with a 12-megapixel camera.
  168. Now, here's that same picture
    with a lot fewer pixels.
  169. Obviously, neither
    of these pictures is a real cat.
  170. But one gives you a lot better sense
    of what a cat is than the other.
  171. Language is not merely a tool.

  172. It is our legacy,
  173. it's our way of conveying
    what it means to be human.
  174. And of course, by "our" legacy,
    I mean all humans everywhere.
  175. And losing even one language
    makes that picture a lot less clear.
  176. So as a job for the past 10 years

  177. and also as recreation, just for fun,
  178. I create languages.
  179. These are called "conlangs,"
  180. short for "constructed languages."
  181. Now, presenting these facts back to back,
  182. that we're losing languages on our planet
  183. and that I create brand-new languages,
  184. you might think that there's
    some nonsuperficial connection
  185. between these two.
  186. In fact, a lot of people have drawn a line
    between those dots.
  187. This is a guy who got
    all bent out of shape
  188. that there was a conlang
    in James Cameron's "Avatar."
  189. He says,
  190. "But in the three years
    it took James Cameron
  191. to get Avatar to the screen,
    a language died."
  192. Probably a lot more than that, actually.
  193. "Na'vi, alas, won't fill the hole
    where it used to be ..."
  194. A truly profound and poignant statement --
  195. if you don't think about it at all.
  196. (Laughter)

  197. But when I was here at Cal,

  198. I completed two majors.
  199. One of them was linguistics,
    but the other one was English.
  200. And of course, the English major,
    the study of English,
  201. is not actually the study
    of the English language, as we know,
  202. it's the study of literature.
  203. Literature is just a wonderful thing,
  204. because basically, literature,
    more broadly, is kind of like art;
  205. it falls under the rubric of art.
  206. And what we do with literature,
  207. authors create new,
    entire beings and histories.
  208. And it's interesting to us to see
  209. what kind of depth and emotion
    and just unique spirit
  210. authors can invest
    into these fictional beings.
  211. So much so, that, I mean --
    take a look at this.
  212. There's an entire series of books
  213. that are written
    about fictional characters.
  214. Like, the entire book is just about one
    fictional, fake human being.
  215. There's an entire book
    on George F. Babbitt
  216. from Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt,"
  217. and I guarantee you,
    that book is longer than "Babbitt,"
  218. which is a short book.
  219. Does anybody even remember that one?
  220. It's pretty good, I actually think
    it's better than "Main Street."
  221. That's my hot take.
  222. So we've never questioned the fact
    that literature is interesting.
  223. But despite the fact,
  224. not even linguists are actually interested
    in what created languages can tell us
  225. about the depth of the human spirit
    just as an artistic endeavor.
  226. I'll give you a nice little example here.

  227. There was an article written about me
  228. in the California alumni
    magazine a while back.
  229. And when they wrote this article,
  230. they wanted to get somebody
    from the opposing side,
  231. which, in hindsight,
    seems like a weird thing to do.
  232. You're just talking about a person,
  233. and you want to get somebody
    from the opposing side of that person.
  234. (Laughter)

  235. Essentially, this is just
    a puff piece, but whatever.

  236. So, they happened to get
  237. one of the most brilliant
    linguists of our time,
  238. George Lakoff, who's a linguist
    here at Berkeley.
  239. And his work has basically forever changed
    the fields of linguistics
  240. and cognitive science.
  241. And when asked about my work
    and about language creation in general,
  242. he said, "But there's a lot of things
    to be done in the study of language.
  243. You should spend the time
    on something real."
  244. Yeah.
  245. "Something real."
    Does this remind you of anything?
  246. To use the very framework
    that he himself invented,
  247. let me refer back
    to this conceptual metaphor:
  248. language is a tool.
  249. And he appears to be laboring
    under this conceptual metaphor;
  250. that is, language is useful
    when it can be used for communication.
  251. Language is useless
    when it can't be used for communication.
  252. It might make you wonder:
    What do we do with dead languages?
  253. But anyway.
  254. So, because of this idea,

  255. it might seem like
    the very height of absurdity
  256. to have a Duolingo course
    on the High Valyrian language
  257. that I created for HBO's
    "Game of Thrones."
  258. You might wonder what, exactly,
    are 740,000 people learning?
  259. (Laughter)

  260. Well, let's take a look at it.

  261. What are they learning?
  262. What could they possibly be learning?
  263. Well, bearing in mind that
    the other language for this --
  264. it's for people that speak English --
  265. English speakers are learning quite a bit.
  266. Here's a sentence that they will probably
    never use for communication
  267. in their entire lives:
  268. "Vala ābre urnes."
  269. "The man sees the woman."
  270. The little middle line is the gloss,
  271. so it's word for word,
    that's what it says.
  272. And they're actually learning
    some very fascinating things,
  273. especially if they're English speakers.
  274. They're learning that a verb can come
    at the very end of a sentence.
  275. Doesn't really do that in English
    when you have two arguments.
  276. They're learning that sometimes
  277. a language doesn't have an equivalent
    for the word "the" -- it's totally absent.
  278. That's something language can do.
  279. They're learning that a long vowel
    can actually be longer in duration,
  280. as opposed to different in quality,
  281. which is what our long vowels do;
    they're actually the same length.
  282. They're learning that
    there are these little inflections.
  283. Hmm? Hmm?
  284. There are inflections called "cases"
    on the end of nouns --
  285. (Laughter)

  286. that tell you who does what
    to whom in a sentence.

  287. Even if you leave the order
    of the words the same
  288. and switch the endings,
  289. it changes who does what to whom.
  290. What they're learning is that languages
    do things, the same things, differently.
  291. And that learning languages can be fun.
  292. What they're learning is respect
    for Language: capital "L" Language.
  293. And given the fact that 88 percent
    of Americans only speak English at home,
  294. I don't think that's
    necessarily a bad thing.
  295. You know why languages die on our planet?

  296. It's not because government imposes
    one language on a smaller group,
  297. or because an entire group
    of speakers is wiped out.
  298. That certainly has happened in the past,
    and it's happening now,
  299. but it's not the main reason.
  300. The main reason is that
    a child is born to a family
  301. that speaks a language that
    is not widely spoken in their community,
  302. and that child doesn't learn it.
  303. Why?
  304. Because that language is not valued
    in their community.
  305. Because the language isn't useful.
  306. Because the child can't go and get a job
    if they speak that language.
  307. Because if language is just a tool,
  308. then learning their native language
  309. is about as useful
    as learning High Valyrian,
  310. so why bother?
  311. Now ...

  312. Maybe language study isn't going to lead
    to a lot more linguistic fluency.
  313. But maybe that's not such a big deal.
  314. Maybe if more people
    are studying more languages,
  315. it will lead to more linguistic tolerance
  316. and less linguistic imperialism.
  317. Maybe if we actually respect
    language for what it is --
  318. literally, the greatest invention
    in the history of humankind --
  319. then in the future,
  320. we can celebrate endangered languages
    as living languages,
  321. as opposed to museum pieces.
  322. (High Valyrian) Kirimvose.
    Thank you.

  323. (Applause)