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Why language is humanity's greatest invention

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    Spoons.
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    Cardboard boxes.
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    Toddler-size electric trains.
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    Holiday ornaments.
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    Bounce houses.
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    Blankets.
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    Baskets.
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    Carpets.
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    Tray tables.
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    Smartphones.
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    Pianos.
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    Robes.
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    Photographs.
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    What do all of these things
    have in common,
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    aside from the fact they're photos
    that I took in the last three months,
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    and therefore, own the copyright to?
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    (Laughter)
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    They're all inventions
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    that were created
    with the benefit of language.
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    None of these things
    would have existed without language.
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    Imagine creating any one of those things
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    or, like, building
    an entire building like this,
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    without being able to use language
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    or without benefiting from any knowledge
    that was got by the use of language.
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    Basically, language
    is the most important thing
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    in the entire world.
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    All of our civilization rests upon it.
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    And those who devote
    their lives to studying it --
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    both how language emerged,
    how human languages differ,
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    how they differ from
    animal communication systems --
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    are linguists.
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    Formal linguistics is a relatively
    young field, more or less.
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    And it's uncovered a lot
    of really important stuff.
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    Like, for example, that human
    communication systems
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    differ crucially from animal
    communication systems,
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    that all languages are equally expressive,
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    even if they do it in different ways.
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    And yet, despite this,
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    there are a lot of people
    who just love to pop off about language
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    like they have an equal
    understanding of it as a linguist,
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    because, of course, they speak a language.
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    And if you speak a language,
    that means you have just as much right
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    to talk about its function
    as anybody else.
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    Imagine if you were talking to a surgeon,
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    and you say, "Listen, buddy.
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    I've had a heart for, like, 40 years now.
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    I think I know a thing or two
    about aortic valve replacements.
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    I think my opinion
    is just as valid as yours."
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    And yet, that's exactly what happens.
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    This is Neil deGrasse Tyson,
    saying that in the film "Arrival,"
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    he would have brought a cryptographer --
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    somebody who can unscramble a message
    in a language they already know --
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    rather than a linguist,
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    to communicate with the aliens,
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    because what would a linguist --
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    why would that be useful
    in talking to somebody
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    speaking a language we don't even know?
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    Though, of course, the "Arrival" film
    is not off the hook.
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    I mean, come on --
    listen, film. Hey, buddy:
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    there are aliens that come down
    to our planet in gigantic ships,
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    and they want to do nothing
    except for communicate with us,
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    and you hire one linguist?
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    (Laughter)
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    What's the US government
    on a budget or something?
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    (Laughter)
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    A lot of these things can be
    chalked up to misunderstandings,
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    both about what language is
    and about the formal study of language,
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    about linguistics.
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    And I think there's something that
    underlies a lot of these misunderstandings
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    that can be summed up
    by this delightful article in "Forbes,"
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    about why high school students
    shouldn't learn foreign languages.
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    I'm going to pull out
    some quotes from this,
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    and I want you to see
    if you can figure out
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    what underlies some
    of these opinions and ideas.
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    "Americans rarely read the classics,
    even in translation."
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    So in other words, why bother
    learning a foreign language
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    when they're not even going to read
    the classic in the original anyway?
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    What's the point?
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    "Studying foreign languages in school
    is a waste of time,
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    compared to other things
    that you could be doing in school."
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    "Europe has a lot of language groups
    clustered in a relatively small space."
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    So for Americans, ah, what's the point
    of learning another language?
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    You're not really going to get
    a lot of bang for your buck out of that.
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    This is my favorite,
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    "A student in Birmingham
    would have to travel
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    about a thousand miles
    to get to the Mexican border,
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    and even then, there would be enough
    people who speak English to get around."
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    In other words, if you can
    kind of wave your arms around,
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    and you can get to where you're going,
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    then there's really no point
    in learning another language anyway.
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    What underlies a lot of these attitudes
    is the conceptual metaphor,
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    language is a tool.
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    And there's something that rings
    very true about this metaphor.
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    Language is kind of a tool
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    in that, if you know the local language,
    you can do more than if you didn't.
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    But the implication is that
    language is only a tool,
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    and this is absolutely false.
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    If language was a tool,
    it would honestly be a pretty poor tool.
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    And we would have abandoned it long ago
    for something that was a lot better.
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    Think about just any sentence.
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    Here's a sentence that I'm sure I've said
    in my life: "Yesterday I saw Kyn."
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    I have a friend named Kyn.
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    And when I say this sentence,
    "Yesterday I saw Kyn,"
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    do you think it's really the case
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    that everything in my mind
    is now implanted in your mind
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    via this sentence?
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    Hardly, because there's a lot
    of other stuff going on.
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    Like, when I say "yesterday,"
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    I might think what the weather
    was like yesterday because I was there.
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    And if I'm remembering,
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    I'll probably remember there was something
    I forgot to mail, which I did.
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    This was a preplanned joke,
    but I really did forget to mail something.
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    And so that means
    I'm going to have to do it Monday,
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    because that's when
    I'm going to get back home.
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    And of course, when I think of Monday,
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    I'll think of "Manic Monday"
    by the Bangles. It's a good song.
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    And when I say the word "saw,"
    I think of this phrase:
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    "'I see!' said the blind man
    as he picked up his hammer and saw."
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    I always do.
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    Anytime I hear the word "saw" or say it,
    I always think of that,
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    because my grandfather
    always used to say it,
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    so it makes me think of my grandfather.
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    And we're back to "Manic Monday"
    again, for some reason.
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    And with Kyn, when I'm saying
    something like, "Yesterday I saw Kyn,"
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    I'll think of the circumstances
    under which I saw him.
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    And this happened to be that day.
    Here he is with my cat.
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    And of course, if I'm thinking of Kyn,
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    I'll think he's going to
    Long Beach State right now,
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    and I'll remember that
    my good friend John and my mother
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    both graduated from Long Beach State,
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    my cousin Katie is going to
    Long Beach State right now.
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    And it's "Manic Monday" again.
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    But this is just a fraction
    of what's going on in your head
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    at any given time while you are speaking.
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    And all we have to represent
    the entire mess
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    that is going on in our head, is this.
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    I mean, that's all we got.
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    (Laughter)
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    Is it any wonder
    that our system is so poor?
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    So imagine, if I can give you an analogy,
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    imagine if you wanted to know
    what is it like to eat a cake,
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    if instead of just eating the cake,
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    you instead had to ingest
    the ingredients of a cake,
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    one by one,
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    along with instructions
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    about how these ingredients
    can be combined to form a cake.
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    You had to eat the instructions, too.
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    (Laughter)
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    If that was how we had to experience cake,
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    we would never eat cake.
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    And yet, language is
    the only way -- the only way --
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    that we can figure out
    what is going on here, in our minds.
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    This is our interiority,
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    the thing that makes us human,
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    the thing that makes us different
    from other animals,
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    is all inside here somewhere,
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    and all we have to do to represent it
    is our own languages.
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    A language is our best way of showing
    what's going on in our head.
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    Imagine if I wanted to ask
    a big question, like:
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    "What is the nature of human
    thought and emotion?"
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    What you'd want to do
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    is you'd want to examine
    as many different languages
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    as possible.
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    One isn't just going to do it.
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    To give you an example,
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    here's a picture I took of little Roman,
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    that I took with a 12-megapixel camera.
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    Now, here's that same picture
    with a lot fewer pixels.
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    Obviously, neither
    of these pictures is a real cat.
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    But one gives you a lot better sense
    of what a cat is than the other.
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    Language is not merely a tool.
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    It is our legacy,
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    it's our way of conveying
    what it means to be human.
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    And of course, by "our" legacy,
    I mean all humans everywhere.
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    And losing even one language
    makes that picture a lot less clear.
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    So as a job for the past 10 years
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    and also as recreation, just for fun,
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    I create languages.
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    These are called "conlangs,"
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    short for "constructed languages."
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    Now, presenting these facts back to back,
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    that we're losing languages on our planet
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    and that I create brand-new languages,
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    you might think that there's
    some nonsuperficial connection
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    between these two.
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    In fact, a lot of people have drawn a line
    between those dots.
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    This is a guy who got
    all bent out of shape
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    that there was a conlang
    in James Cameron's "Avatar."
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    He says,
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    "But in the three years
    it took James Cameron
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    to get Avatar to the screen,
    a language died."
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    Probably a lot more than that, actually.
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    "Na'vi, alas, won't fill the hole
    where it used to be ..."
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    A truly profound and poignant statement --
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    if you don't think about it at all.
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    (Laughter)
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    But when I was here at Cal,
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    I completed two majors.
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    One of them was linguistics,
    but the other one was English.
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    And of course, the English major,
    the study of English,
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    is not actually the study
    of the English language, as we know,
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    it's the study of literature.
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    Literature is just a wonderful thing,
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    because basically, literature,
    more broadly, is kind of like art;
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    it falls under the rubric of art.
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    And what we do with literature,
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    authors create new,
    entire beings and histories.
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    And it's interesting to us to see
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    what kind of depth and emotion
    and just unique spirit
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    authors can invest
    into these fictional beings.
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    So much so, that, I mean --
    take a look at this.
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    There's an entire series of books
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    that are written
    about fictional characters.
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    Like, the entire book is just about one
    fictional, fake human being.
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    There's an entire book
    on George F. Babbitt
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    from Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt,"
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    and I guarantee you,
    that book is longer than "Babbitt,"
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    which is a short book.
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    Does anybody even remember that one?
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    It's pretty good, I actually think
    it's better than "Main Street."
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    That's my hot take.
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    So we've never questioned the fact
    that literature is interesting.
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    But despite the fact,
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    not even linguists are actually interested
    in what created languages can tell us
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    about the depth of the human spirit
    just as an artistic endeavor.
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    I'll give you a nice little example here.
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    There was an article written about me
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    in the California alumni
    magazine a while back.
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    And when they wrote this article,
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    they wanted to get somebody
    from the opposing side,
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    which, in hindsight,
    seems like a weird thing to do.
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    You're just talking about a person,
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    and you want to get somebody
    from the opposing side of that person.
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    (Laughter)
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    Essentially, this is just
    a puff piece, but whatever.
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    So, they happened to get
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    one of the most brilliant
    linguists of our time,
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    George Lakoff, who's a linguist
    here at Berkeley.
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    And his work has basically forever changed
    the fields of linguistics
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    and cognitive science.
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    And when asked about my work
    and about language creation in general,
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    he said, "But there's a lot of things
    to be done in the study of language.
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    You should spend the time
    on something real."
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    Yeah.
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    "Something real."
    Does this remind you of anything?
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    To use the very framework
    that he himself invented,
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    let me refer back
    to this conceptual metaphor:
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    language is a tool.
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    And he appears to be laboring
    under this conceptual metaphor;
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    that is, language is useful
    when it can be used for communication.
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    Language is useless
    when it can't be used for communication.
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    It might make you wonder:
    What do we do with dead languages?
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    But anyway.
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    So, because of this idea,
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    it might seem like
    the very height of absurdity
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    to have a Duolingo course
    on the High Valyrian language
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    that I created for HBO's
    "Game of Thrones."
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    You might wonder what, exactly,
    are 740,000 people learning?
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    (Laughter)
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    Well, let's take a look at it.
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    What are they learning?
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    What could they possibly be learning?
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    Well, bearing in mind that
    the other language for this --
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    it's for people that speak English --
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    English speakers are learning quite a bit.
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    Here's a sentence that they will probably
    never use for communication
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    in their entire lives:
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    "Vala ābre urnes."
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    "The man sees the woman."
  • 11:41 - 11:43
    The little middle line is the gloss,
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    so it's word for word,
    that's what it says.
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    And they're actually learning
    some very fascinating things,
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    especially if they're English speakers.
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    They're learning that a verb can come
    at the very end of a sentence.
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    Doesn't really do that in English
    when you have two arguments.
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    They're learning that sometimes
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    a language doesn't have an equivalent
    for the word "the" -- it's totally absent.
  • 12:02 - 12:03
    That's something language can do.
  • 12:03 - 12:07
    They're learning that a long vowel
    can actually be longer in duration,
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    as opposed to different in quality,
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    which is what our long vowels do;
    they're actually the same length.
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    They're learning that
    there are these little inflections.
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    Hmm? Hmm?
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    There are inflections called "cases"
    on the end of nouns --
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    (Laughter)
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    that tell you who does what
    to whom in a sentence.
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    Even if you leave the order
    of the words the same
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    and switch the endings,
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    it changes who does what to whom.
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    What they're learning is that languages
    do things, the same things, differently.
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    And that learning languages can be fun.
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    What they're learning is respect
    for Language: capital "L" Language.
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    And given the fact that 88 percent
    of Americans only speak English at home,
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    I don't think that's
    necessarily a bad thing.
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    You know why languages die on our planet?
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    It's not because government imposes
    one language on a smaller group,
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    or because an entire group
    of speakers is wiped out.
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    That certainly has happened in the past,
    and it's happening now,
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    but it's not the main reason.
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    The main reason is that
    a child is born to a family
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    that speaks a language that
    is not widely spoken in their community,
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    and that child doesn't learn it.
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    Why?
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    Because that language is not valued
    in their community.
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    Because the language isn't useful.
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    Because the child can't go and get a job
    if they speak that language.
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    Because if language is just a tool,
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    then learning their native language
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    is about as useful
    as learning High Valyrian,
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    so why bother?
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    Now ...
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    Maybe language study isn't going to lead
    to a lot more linguistic fluency.
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    But maybe that's not such a big deal.
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    Maybe if more people
    are studying more languages,
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    it will lead to more linguistic tolerance
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    and less linguistic imperialism.
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    Maybe if we actually respect
    language for what it is --
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    literally, the greatest invention
    in the history of humankind --
  • 14:10 - 14:11
    then in the future,
  • 14:11 - 14:15
    we can celebrate endangered languages
    as living languages,
  • 14:15 - 14:17
    as opposed to museum pieces.
  • 14:17 - 14:19
    (High Valyrian) Kirimvose.
    Thank you.
  • 14:19 - 14:20
    (Applause)
Title:
Why language is humanity's greatest invention
Speaker:
David Peterson
Description:

Civilization rests upon the existence of language, says language creator David Peterson. In a talk that's equal parts passionate and hilarious, he shows how studying, preserving and inventing new languages helps us understand our collective humanity -- and gives a quick lesson on High Valyrian, one of two languages he created for "Game of Thrones" (along with Dothraki). "Language is not merely a tool," he says. "It is our legacy, it's our way of conveying what it means to be human."

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
14:33

English subtitles

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