Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Self-Organizing Economy

Krugman, Paul. (1996). The Self-Organizing Economy. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

The concept of self-organization is difficult (for me) to get a grasp on, so I turned to this well-known writer who tackled economics. What I like about him is that he's always conversational in tone, and I have to be the same way, because I'm explaining language to people who already know quite a bit, but don't know self-organization. But second, he actually went as far as to work out the math; this I admire him for, and don't know if I can do the same for language.

Now it's time to return the book to the library (though I could just renew it); I've had it for months, and I need to mine it for quotes and get it out of here. I'm sure somebody else could use it!

He points out that scientists of complexity theory have not had much luck with economics and economists, because:
the authors of articles and books on complexity almost never talk to serious economists or read what serious economists write; as a result, claims about the applicability of the new ideas to economics are usually coupled with statements about how economies work (and what economists know) that are so ill-informed as to make any economist who happens to encounter them dismiss the whole enterprise. (p. 2)
His definition of a self-organizing system is the following:
...what links the study of embryos and hurricanes, of magnetic materials and collections of neurons,is that they are all self-organizing systems: systems that, even when they start from an almost homogeneous or almost random state, spontaneously form large-scale patterns. (p. 3)
Self-organization is not always good:
...self-organization is not necessarily, or even presumptively, a good thing. I think it is fair to accuse many of the writers on complexity, especially but not only the more popular ones, of falling into this fallacy...Self organization is something we observe and try to understand, not necessarily something we want. (p. 6)
This part is about Schelling and his model of how neighborhoods become segregated:
Thus Schelling derived, without any fanfare, a theme of many writers on complexity: local, short-range interactions can create large-scale structure. (p. 17)
About the field of complexity in general:
...the whole rationale of the field is the idea that common principles may apply to subjects with very different details....(p. 29)
His main thesis is that economics is a self-organizing system in two senses that are shown by complexity theorists to be properties of self-organizing systems. First is that:
starting from disordered initial conditions they tend to move to highly ordered behavior, and at least in a statistical sense this behavior exhibits surprisingly simple regularities...(p. 36)
The second sense is that they create order from random growth. (p. 37). Of this he tells a story:
Take a ceramic object, say a Grecian urn, and throw it hard against a stone wall, so that it shatters randomly into innumerable pieces. Surely such an act can do nothing but create disorder! And yet (so The Economist tells us) a strange hidden order emerges. Carefully gather up the pieces larger than 0.1 grams, the number larger than 0.01 grams, and so on, and you will find something remarkable: the pieces will obey a power law. And not just any power law: if it really was a Grecian urn, the exponent will take on a particular value; if it was a ceramic sphere it will take on another value; and so on. That is, a seemingly disorderly and complex process of fragmentation (which is random growth with a minus sign) produces the simple order of a power law, and the exponent of that power law contains important information - in this case, incredibly, it turns out to reveal the shape of the original object. (p. 49)
Here is a complexity theory bibliography:
Bak, P. (1991). Self-organizing criticality, Scientific American (January).
Kauffman, S. (1993). The Origins of Order. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Lewin, R. (1992). Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos. New York: Macmillan.
Nicolis, G. and Prigogine, I. (1989). Exploring Complexity. New York: W.H. Freeman.
Schelling, T. (1978). Micromotives and Macrobehavior. New York: W.W. Norton.
Waldrop, W. M. (1993). Complexity. New York: Basic Books.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Harrison, K. D. (2007). When Languages Die: The extinction of the world's languages and the erosion of human knowledge. New York: Oxford.

I was impressed by this book, which I taught in the last part of the spring, maybe April to now. The author is a professor at Swarthmore and took almost twelve years crossing the globe, talking to people in remote places about their endangered languages. In the course of finding out why their languages are endangered, and what they are doing about it, he also was able to make generalizations about indigenous languages in general, about world trends, etc.

These languages have a wide variety of ways to talk about numbers, from the Melanesians, who invented abstract math independently, to the Piraha, who have no use for numbers at all, really. Languages have different ways of orienting their people in space; they have ways of talking about where they are and how to get where they want to go.

So what do they have in common? Very little, according to Dr. Harrison. Greenberg's universals, which intend to find commonalities among the ways they talk about numbers, can all be disproven, one at a time. Dr. Harrison does not pretend to hold up Chomsky's ideas; in fact, he calls Chomsky narrow, unnecessarily focused on the world's "major" languages, and unnecessarily focused on grammar, at the expense of the other building blocks of language. Some of what he concluded, I will copy below:
The lack of meaning does not hinder linguists in our investigation of mental structures: we have come to focus mainly on the structures themselves, not their cultural meanings. This has been the conventional wisdom in linguistics for at least four decades. But although languages certainly contain abstract structures, they evolve and exist to convey information within a specific cultural matrix, and that function permeates and influences every level of language. To its critics, including me, the Chomskyan program has been unduly narrow, overly focused on large, globally dominant languages, and preoccupied with structure at the expense of content. (pp. 205-206)
It was also inspirational to me that, essentially, he said that language was a self-organizing system.
...when we sum up all these discoveries, both across many languages and within a single one, we achieve a clearer insight into the grand realm of human cognition. Language may by its very structure force speakers to attend to certain qualities of the world (shape, size, gender, countability). Languages are self-organizing systems that evolve complex nested structures and rules for how to put the parts of words or sentences together. No two languages do this in the same way. (p. 236)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Leverett, T. (2013, May). 13th floor, please: Vowels on an elevator. Google docs. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1l5E7PuK16JS1xsmpR9SlTCRn8sfXNEeBrZAfFjbR4f0/edit?usp=sharing.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

gender revisited

In class the other day I told my students of what they told me in graduate school. Gender was a language characteristic, a grammatical thing, whereas sex was a biological thing, and they weren't to be confused. That's because some languages marked gender, male or female, on things that weren't alive; some marked them with neuter in some cases, etc. A gender marker was a separate idea from sex or gender as we knew it in the physical sense.

Now in the time since then both words, "sex" and "gender" have changed somewhat in people's interpretation, but the truth behind it is the same. A language's marking is separate from the physical characteristics of the thing marked. Just for example, I said, is there any good reason "book" is male in Spanish?

One student brought up the possibility that there was a good reason in the past, or at least a reason, in this case perhaps that men ruled the world of books at the time it was decided. Yes, but men also ruled the world of ships, and made ships feminine, one woman pointed out.

I said that in our culture we have an ongoing discussion about gendered things, words like "mankind" being applied to everyone, grammatical issues like "everyone brought his/her/their umbrella today" and that the essence of the discussion is that people are being more literal about pronouns and gender-marked things, thus rejecting the idea of using male words for everyone, etc. My question was whether this was happening in other cultures as well.

Two women mentioned that in Spanish, it was an issue how one addresses a group of mixed men and women; the standard rule was that if a group included even one male, it was considered male. One man who speaks German pointed out that in German, new words and borrowed words such as "computer" were all neuter these days.

I found these observations interesting and vowed to do research on the topic. My questions remain; I suspect that it's always an issue and has always been one. I remember noticing these problems immediately upon learning languages like Spanish and French (What do you call a dog that you don't know? or a group of them? Why are books male and windows female? What if you have books and windows together? etc.) or German (How do you decide which 'things' are neuter? Does male + female = neuter, and if not why not?). A glorious can of worms.

I remember the relative randomness of the answers drawing me into the study of language as I suspected that the 'reasons' for such things were actually subtle but powerful forces in our lives. Things happen, languages change, and it can happen fairly quickly over time. My questions (above) remain. I'll do research and get back to you.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The SVO myth

There's a benefit to the world getting smaller, and our being able to know more information, have it at our fingertips, be more worldly, etc. And that is, people no longer pawn off assumptions based on parochial thinking, that don't stand up to the facts. At least they do this less, because they're more likely to be proven wrong, and they're more careful about their assertions, because it's so easy to check the great database and prove someone wrong. This is why I never make assertions.

Ah, but here's one I can't resist. It's all very tentative, because what do I know? That's why I put it in a blog, and not, say, in a published academic journal. But I've been around the block a few times, and I'm sharing the best of my observations here. Take them or leave them.

When I was in graduate school (80's), the concept of SVO languages came into my field of perception. English, they said, was an SVO language, and so was Chinese, but Korean was SOV, verb last. S=subject, V=verb, 0=object.

Now the assumptions behind this observation were not stated directly, but it could be inferred that S, V and O were the main building blocks of a language, and that all languages would have them. Sure, they'd also have genitive, and instrumental, and locative and all that other fine stuff. But at their base, they were the actor, the action, and the victim. He kicked the desk. In English, you could say, sometimes there was no object. But generally there was always a subject, except when it was understood, as in Kick the desk.

So I remember wondering: why would you separate the object from the verb? So I asked: is there any such thing as an OSV language? Or VSO? I was assured that there were such things but the proof wasn't immediately forthcoming. Someone at some point allowed that they weren't distributed evenly among the what, six possibilities?

But as it turns out, this view, that there are six different kinds, whether languages distribute evenly or not, is not very useful. I have found languages that don't really have subjects; instead, they have topics and they omit those whenever possible. So where we'd like to think of subject and predicate as the two basic placeholders, like Mom and Dad, of a sentence, the fact is, there are a lot of languages where even SOV, or (S)(O)V is a fairly inaccurate way of describing them, even though it may be true to the order. You end up saying that, for the vast majority of this language's sentences, they have a subject, but it's understood, they just give you the topic, and you figure out who did it. A sentence that can be translated literally as, "As for me, the desk-victim kick-past" forces you to interpret an actor, which is not really a problem if you get used to it, but makes it hard really to maintain that the actor is the big honcho of a sentence, one of two main characters. And a LOT of languages are like this.

So what to make of it? I've noticed that people use terms like "SOV" and "SVO" a lot less these days, and maybe it's just as well, rather than beat a dog that's down already, I'll just let it die a natural death and start talking about languages another way. But somehow, I've been unable to let it die peacefully in my mind. That's because I think it is representative of another problem: that we in the west are so quick to assume that the construction of every language we've ever learned (English, Spanish, maybe a tad of French or German) makes it necessary that all languages share these properties, that S V & O are building blocks of our language because they must be natural inherent big honchos in every sentence that's ever been made in any language. It's just one more case of a kind of western ethnocentrism, and ultimately isn't very helpful in classifying the worlds's languages.

So how should we classify them? I have no idea. Linguists use words like "agglutinative" vs. "non-agglutinative" but I fancy myself a linguist, and couldn't even explain what that is, let alone assure you that there is such a thing as that second one. One thing about S V O, is that at least we could explain what it meant...and that's why it stuck around linguistics books for so long. Not because evidence provided any support for classifying languages in that way.

One final irony: you'd think that, sharing an SVO structure would make a language essentially easier to learn. Thus, Chinese would be easier (for us) to learn than, say, Korean. I'm not sure that's true. The Chinese have that SVO order, all right, but everything else is so different, including the function of grammar within the language, that Chinese I think is one of the hardest languages for us to learn. It's one thing to say, I don't think a language is going to change its basic order very easily; in other words, if our languages are SVO today, they'll probably be SVO tomorrow. An order, or a way of constructing sentences, does in some kind of way seem to be a fundamental characteristic of a language. But, though we and the Chinese both construct our sentences with subject first (and they presumably have subjects, unlike Korean), Chinese learners are famously stumped by English grammar. It brings up the question of whether patterns that are similar to yours, but way different in some ways, are actually harder to learn, than patterns that are just way different from the very start. There's an argument to be had, in there, somewhere.

spanglish: two sources

Just before the term was out I got some information about so-called Spanglish, but things were busy and I was unable to write much of it down. Now, in the heart of break, I am remembering some of it and hoping to write down what I know so that it's not lost altogether. Sometimes ruminating about what I know helps me at least come up with the right questions. There will be more sources, I'm sure, but if I don't know how to approach the subject, I won't get much information.

One problem was that my students were very naive about grammatical rules and linguistics in general. I phrased the problem as this: We know that there is a lot of language-mixing going on. We know that people make sentences that use both languages (English and Spanish) freely. The question is this: Is this widespread enough, with a large enough community, that this language begins to have its own rules? And if it has its own rules, what are they? Would they be the same where Spanglish is spoken in California and New York? Can we prove that it's a language of its own? I invited them, in a prompt for a research paper, to enter the discussion and try to prove it one way or the other.

When I brought it up in class, I got very little argument, because they really had little concept of what I meant by "rules." They even now have little concept of rules, as we know them, in English, and corresponding but different rules in Spanish. My interest really is in the interaction of these rules. I wanted to know what happens.

One of the most helpful people to me was I.D., who identified herself as being from Lubbock, but seemed to have relatives elsewhere in Texas and roots in Mexico. She said that Spanglish was a way of life when she was growing up, but she called it Tex-Mex. "Isn't Tex-Mex a kind of food?" I asked her, but she was more comfortable using the term "Tex-Mex" for what she spoke. It's definitely not Pachuco, she said, though I was unfamiliar with that term. She explained that there was a Californian side of this picture, where it's glorified in movies and such, and made to sound fancy, or glorified. She felt that what happened on a day-to-day basis in Texas was quite removed from this and wasn't described adequately by what one could experience in the media.

She gave examples which all seemed to be English words or expressions that had been worked into a Spanish system. By Spanish system I mean they sounded Spanish and had Spanish endings, gender, Spanish grammar. Tex-Mex would simply take an English word, say "truck", and make it "troca", and "park" became "parquear" or some such; clearly borrowed words that were integrated into Spanish pronunciation and grammar. She admitted to mixing Spanish and English within a single sentence; it happened all the time.

One thing she made clear which was verified by the second source. It really depended on context, how much you used, and what you did. She had one grandmother who wouldn't tolerate it, either that, or didn't know the English words, so she in effect had to use Spanish 100% of the time at that grandmother's house. Another grandmother had very limited tolerance of it. It wasn't that she couldn't understand, but because she wouldn't use it and they respected her, they wouldn't use it around her. She said, the young used it all the time; they lived in a bilingual world, and switched freely. To the older generation, it had different meaning.

One thing that has become clear to me since I got here, independent of the sources, is that the Spanish-speaking Texan community feels a little isolated from Mexico itself. A whole swath of northern Mexico has been overrun by drug lords to such a degree that people don't feel as comfortable visiting, or traveling through, as they used to. They still call family in Mexico as often as possible, and visit whenever they can. They have problems at the border as there is a heightened sense of watchfulness of people coming and going. It is just not as easy as it used to be; Mexican-Americans have in effect stepped out of that problem but in the process have isolated themselves from their community back home, which in many cases is going through the political turmoil of adjusting to the terror of very wealthy drug gangs.

A second source, C.L., identified himself as from Austin, and also claimed that Spanglish was a way of life for him as he grew up. If there are no rules, he wrote, let's make some, because this is definitely a language. He also maintained that it was different for his generation and that of his parents. The parents, he said, would use it for a different reason, to show that they were trying to fit in to the new world. We kids, he said, would use a lot more of it, and would use it sometimes to aggravate the elders.

He gave a number of examples, but I was unable, overall, to answer my own questions. If it had rules, what were they? Also, I misplaced the paper; it does not seem to be where I left it, though I'm sure it's around and will bring up more questions when I find it and reread it. The impression I got, that stuck with me, was the emotional nature of its use. These were kids who lived in two worlds; they grew up in two worlds. They spoke two languages interchangeably with each other, as something they shared, but, being bilingual, could slip immediately into either all-English (school) or all-Spanish (grandmother's house). Their concept of rules for either language was somewhat limited, so they had no examples of times when one language's rules would interact with another's. I don't get a sense of an organized community developing something and going in its own direction, or having rules such as, "when we make noun phrase constructions in this mixed language, we generally do it this way". It happens spontaneously, but it happens a lot, because you are talking about millions of people now, in Texas alone.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

so far

1. Leverett, T. (2012, Jan.) Right metaphor, wrong conclusion. Google docs. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1j2SLvs6HF7CPQ6CYcHikZzHkOS2EV5W1z2IV4doiO1k/edit.

2. ___. (2012, Dec.) Principles of language construction and change. https://docs.google.com/document/d/19eU6DYbuMIoobGpDEa99SamegqRf0ZifvjClV_u5_pg/edit.

3. ___. (2012, Dec.) The centrality of perception. Google docs. https://docs.google.com/document/d/18_DQ6FDAf6CjujJ1SFW1iNoOUgPjJuREIcrIuuN1p-k/edit.

4. ___. (2012, Dec. Differences in Self-organizing systems. Google docs. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ioiPeeanVq_ZFL6y_i0p7EnNO_S3kiMNMLeF-iyGZYM/edit.

a. ___. (2012, July). Symbols and the language learner. Google docs. https://docs.google.com/document/d/13rmxVLpnx3-6A7Kz4FqY9ylX7yxHTL7p_ReWJluso5M/edit.

b. ___. 2012, July). Koutsoudas' first principle. Google docs. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1xnyTaAIqY5necN8WeXL5nnebYEc3h4ihL-sFP-yuxtg/edit.

c. ___. 2012, May). Saussure and the Oral-writing relationship. Google docs. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1b7ibffTbB-gDGmJJnCUtclUZrjFE71T1lqL9XmQysLw/edit.

d. ___. 2012, Dec. The role of intonation. Google docs. https://docs.google.com/a/siu.edu/document/d/1oCtw1VUeKAMZ83zr7w9qyPPdTjHu4V_QrA4ebOJJI18/edit.

OK, so here's what I've got, besides what I wrote back eight or nine years ago. I wrote #1 as the introduction, a year ago, and then, in my opinion, #a-c were diversions. It was necessary to say them, I think, but as I read them, I notice that they are disorganized, and often say more than they imply, but not quite in good order, etc. I have now gone back and written #2 and will continue. #1 and #2 and the numbered ones are the book as it's developed. I want to save #a-c, as records of my thinking, but I will not use them or include them as chapters of the book.

I have a question about these Google docs. I put things here, because I can look at them, and revise them, and get comments on them, have my friends read them, etc. Yet I always feel that the computer is treating me differently, as an editor etc., than my friends who are coming in from some outside computer. How do I see them as they see them? How do I know they are seeing anything at all? And why, if they are "publicly available", do they not show up on searches, when I search for them?

Mysteries for another day.

In addition, by the way, here is more writing.