Dominant Languages, Oldest Libraries, and the Brain Atlas

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May 31, 2016 by libroshombre

“One does not inhabit a country,” the Romanian philosopher Emile Cioran once pointed out, “one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland, and no other.” Language is certainly one of the key delimiters that set humans apart. In “the Roots of Language: What Makes Us So Different From Other Animals?,” from TheGuardian.com, Paul Ibbotson noted that “the natural world is full of wondrous adaptations,” yet “language seems to have evolved just once, in one out of 8.7 million species on earth today.”

For example, a “chimpanzee, and other great apes, can discern what someone is intended to do when she pursues a concrete goal, like obtaining a banana, but they cannot discern what someone intends them to pay attention to or to think, which is the purpose of communicative intentions … Language is not the unique thing in itself – it is an expression of the unique: the ability to put our heads together and collaborate.”

However, humans often take good things to extremes. There’s growing concern that English, the world’s dominant language for scientific research and Internet usage world-wide, is becoming too collaborative. According to “Does the Rise of English Mean Losing Knowledge?,” a BBC.com article by Matt Pickles, “in 1880 there were 36% of scientific publications using English, which had risen to 64% by 1980. But this trend has been further accentuated, so that by 2000 … 96% were in English.” In addition, graduate level classes are increasingly being taught in English. Maastricht University in the Netherlands, for instance, “offers 55 masters courses in English and only eight exclusively in Dutch.” The problem is that people think best in their native language, and, like Fedrico Fellini said, “a different language is a different vision of the world.”

In 2014 Ross Perlin wrote an online article titled, “The Internet, Where Language Goes to Die,” reporting that “the online world – when compared with offline, analog diversity – is very nearly a monoculture, an echo chamber where the planet’s few dominant cultures talk among themselves.” Part of the problem is that “3,535 of the world’s 7,105 living languages have no writing system whatsoever … For hundreds of languages, linguists lack even the barest documentation – a word list, a brief recording, basic grammatical information.”

Nearly 500 current languages are teetering on dying out, without a trace. Ancient Babylonian, Sumerian, and Egyptian tongues haven’t been spoken for millennia, but they’re still read because those cultures had literacy and libraries. Fez, Morocco is home to the al-Qarawiyyin Library, “the oldest continuously operating library in the world.” According to a recent Ideas.TED.com article by Karen Eng, it “was founded by Fatima El-Fihriya, the daughter of a rich immigrant from al-Qayrawan (Tunisia today) … Al-Qarawiyyin played a leading role in the transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans.”

The 1,157 year-old library building has recently fallen into serious disrepair, but the Moroccan government hired woman architect, and TED fellow, Aziza Chaouni to oversee the restoration, which is fitting for an institution founded by a woman. It’s also somewhat ironic since women weren’t allowed to use the library for the first 1,100 years of its operation. Regardless, the restored library reopened this month.

Scientists are finding that, where words are concerned, our brains are sort of like one-person libraries. Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at UC Berkley said his research team’s goal was to build “a giant atlas” that shows how the meanings of words are represented in the brain. TheGuardian.com’s Ian Sample wrote that, “No single brain region holds one word or concept. A single brain spot is associated with a number of related words. And each single word lights up many different brain spots … For example, on the left-hand side of the brain, above the ear, is one of the tiny regions that represents the word ‘victim’. The same region responds to ‘killed’, ‘convicted’, ‘murdered’, and ‘confessed’ … Each word is represented by more than one spot because words tend to have several meanings.” The word “top, for example, triggers the areas for “clothing”, “numbers”, “measurements”, “buildings”, and “places.”

            Like Martin Heidegger said, “Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remained the master of man.”

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