Language comes naturally to us, but is also deeply mysterious. On the one hand, it manifests as a collection of sounds or marks on paper. On the other hand, it also conveys meaning – words and sentences refer to states of affairs in the outside world, or to much more abstract concepts. How do words and meaning come together in the brain?
David Poeppel is a leading neuroscientist who works in many areas, with a focus on the relationship between language and thought. We talk about cutting-edge ideas in the science and philosophy of language, and how researchers have just recently climbed out from under a nineteenth-century paradigm for understanding how all this works.
David Poeppel is a Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at NYU, as well as the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. He received his Ph.D. in cognitive science from MIT. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Arts and Sciences, and was awarded the DaimlerChrysler Berlin Prize in 2004. He is the author, with Greg Hickok, of the dual-stream model of language processing.
namaskar/a-salam-alaikum. amar nam Troy. ami aekjon markin chattro. ami ingreji jani, ar ami bangla shikhchi. ami besh bhalo achi. apnara keimon achen?…
…Okay, enough showing off for now. That’s what I think of it, at least. My Bengali study is coming along better than I’d thought, and at the same time not as quickly as I’d like. But then, it’s not wise to try to rush things in informal study, which is the path I’ve taken to learn the language outside of an academic institutional setting. I’ve given myself the equivalent of two 18 week semesters of study time before switching to the same period for both Tamil and Hindi each.
At this point, I can read fairly complex text in Bangla script that uses the basic letters and numerals, some diacritic signs, some basic symbols like the rupee sign and punctuation, and a few consonant conjuncts. There are many more of those last to learn before mastering all of the script. The dialogues in the two texts I’m using are quite good for that, though being smaller paperbacks the vocabulary is more limited than I’d like. So I’ve picked up this heavyweight to help:
It’s a pleasingly huge tome, and I’m using it a lot lately. My penmanship in the script is still horrible, about what you would expect from a man with poor fine motor skills like mine, and my study not as disciplined as I’d like, but those can be fixed with practice.
The mnemonic, like last time’s, is a story heavy with cues to the shapes and sounds of the letters they relate to. It will sound silly, not to poke fun at the language, but to help memorization. Here it is, and I explain my somewhat tortured reasoning afterward:
Six lurking ewes leaped¹ six meters at a troll with a skull², as its rage³ was mad, made to fear⁴. Laboring drudgingly, jesters emerged and zhooshed⁵ up the King in Yellow’s palace⁶, before he chose twenty-one of them to vote on war⁷ against the jealous cobras⁸. Jumping in, twenty-nine of these shredded⁹ the choicest of their very naive servants¹⁰, while sixty-two of the many hordes¹¹ of functional T-629 Terminators¹² left maneuvers against orders and were dismantled, shrieking terribly¹³.
1. Six(for the numeral) and ewes(a pun on the Roman letter u) describe the shape of the letter, while lurking and leaped suggests the Tamil letter’s sound. Besides, evil or even mildly sinister female sheep can be scary if you’re a troll.
2. Six(as above) and meters(using the letters m, t, and r as a mnemonic code for the numbers 3, 1, and 4, the first three digits of Pi) are cues to the shape of the Tamil letter, while troll and skull hint at the letter’s sound as per its type.
3. Its suggests the Roman letters I and T, and with the pulli, the shape of the Tamil letter. The r in rage is a cue to the letter’s sound in the vernacular.
4. Mad and made are repeated letter shape cues, to the letter’s very rough resemblance to a Roman letter m. The r at the end of fear is a sound cue, properly trilled, or rolled, of course.
5. Laboring, drudgingly, and jesters are cues to the Roman letters L, D, and J, which when combined, suggest the Tamil letter’s shape minus the pulli. The r in emerged and the zh in zhooshed (Yes, that’s a real word in English. It means to make something more exciting, lively, or attractive.) are sound cues.
6. Up combines the resemblance of the left half of the letter to a Roman u and the resemblance of the right half to a Tamil letter ப், pronounced p or b. Yellow suggests the glide sound y, while King and palace are simply filler to add coherence, plus a little Cthulhu Mythos reference thrown in for good measure. After all, what’s the King in Yellow without his haunted palace in Carcosa?
7. Chose is partly mnemonic code for the numeral six, and with twenty-one, serves to suggest the letter’s vague resemblance to the number 621. Vote and war are cues to the glide sounds v and w represented by the letter.
8. Jealous is a cue for the letter’s sound, j, cobra suggests its shape, to me evoking the image of a snake preparing to strike.
9. Jumping is a cue to the number six as well, and with twenty-nine suggests the letter’s shape, the number 629. The sh in shredded suggests the sound of the consonant.
10. Choicest and naive are codes to letter shape, the numeral six and a curvy, ornate Roman letter N while the s in servants suggests the letter’s sound.
11. Sixty-two and many are recognition cues, the letter resembling the number 62 followed by a letter m with an understroke. The h in hordes suggests the letter’s sound, as well as fitting the narrative and aiding recall.
12. The 4th-6th letters in functional are an obvious clue to pronunciation for English speakers, and T-629 suggests the shape of the letter, in a way that’s intuitive to a Westerner like me – very early model Terminators never shown in the movie franchise, likely prior to da Ah-nold himself – as far as a superficial and suggestive similarity to the Roman letter T hyphenated with the number 629 is concerned.
13. Left, maneuvers, and terribly suggest a resemblance, very sketchy but close enough, to the letters L, M, and T squashed together, minus the understroke and the dependent vowel sign, and the shri in shrieking a clue, but not a fully accurate representation of the sound, but close enough to remember.
This was fun, and provided a lot of opportunity in tweaking the mnemonics. This month I resume fuller study of Hindi, with recall practice of Tamil, Bengali, and other subjects to be conducted as well.
I came up with this while on study break, a silly but idiosyncratically memorable story that contains recall and recognition cues for two groups of Tamil consonants, the stop consonants, the nasal consonants, and thirdly, the velar fricative akkēnā lying somewhere between vowel and consonant.
As with this series’ previous post, no disrespect toward the Tamil language or its speakers is intended. The silliness of the story is an aid to memorization, not an attempt at satire.
I’ll also explain my rationales for choosing the cues I did for each part of the mnemonic narrative, to lay out how easy it is to come up with a set of memory cues that work perfectly well at least for oneself. We tend to individually give our mnemonics meaning to make them effective, and that meaning may not translate to the preferences and quirks for others, as we all have different brains and different information in those brains.
“While I baked a 91 kilogram cake¹, I was chased by a school of flying sea jellies² who smote a fruit-bat by dropping logs³ on it. Elsewhere, a tadpole drank tii with much adu⁴. But he never stopped the remaining poor bats in a box⁵ from angering 15 kings⁶ who for the 16th time outmaneuvered⁷ a 600 tonne giant⁸. It, the giant, then thought to send⁹ regards to 60 of the newbies¹⁰whose mega-large diamonds¹¹ where not a hoax and therefore not fake¹².”
Here’s the breakdown:
1. I used the words bake and cake to show the k sound the letter represents, the number 91 to indicate the general shape of the letter, minus its central stem, if it were to be rotated to the left by ninety degrees, the k and g of kilogram as a reminder of the letter’s sound in general usage.
2. I used the ch in chase to indicate the general sound of the letter, with the f and j in flying sea jellies to reflect my perception of the letter’s shape. The s in sea is used as a reminder of the occasional pronunciation when the letter is in the word initial position.
3. The words smote and fruit-bat indicate the retroflex t sound at the end of each at play, the word logs used as a cue for the shape of the letter, a lengthened Roman letter L with the pulli or dot just above it in the Tamil consonant’s pure form.
4. The use of tadpole here is a cue to the letter’s resembling in outline a newly hatched tadpole, while tii and adu are both romanized transcriptions of the Tamil words for tea and it, but double-mnemonics in reminding of the sounds of the letter they help cue for.
5. Poor and bats are both used as cues for letter sounds p and b, less aspirated in Tamil than in English, while box is a cue to the letter’s shape minus its pulli.
6. The 2nd and 3rd ng in angering and kings are both used as cues to the sound of the letter, while 15 is given as a cue to its resemblance to that very number written in digits.
7. 16th is also a cue to letter shape while outmaneuvered is a cue to the sound of the letter.
8. 600 tonne is a cue to both letter shape, resembling the number 600 + letter T, and tonne also indicates the way the n sound is pronounced. The giant part was just a little extra to help memorization by fitting things together.
9. The first words, It, and then are cues to letter shape, while the nd in send is a reminder of the presence of this letter solely in consonant clusters.
10. This letter slightly resembles a number 60 + letter T, and newbies is used as a cue to pronunciation of the n sound.
11. Mega here indicates the m sound, while the phrase large diamonds are cues to the letter’s resemblance to a Roman capital L and D.
12. The h in hoax and f in fake are used to cue for pronunciation in different uses as indicated above, while therefore is used to indicate the letter’s resemblance to a common notation in symbolic logic (∴) for the words Therefore or Thus.
In coming up with these, one must use what one knows, and often the easiest memory cues will be things that no one else has thought of. These are just a few of the consonants of this rich and ancient language. In future installments, I’ll explore mnemonics for other consonants and full syllables as well. See you then!
Here, Pagel discusses the most dangerous trait our species has ever evolved, our ability to learn through culture from others, and the problems of misusing this to steal the ideas of others through visual theft, and the effects this had on the evolution of our languages as a means of cooperation to sidestep it.
Language… It’s our means of transferring our thoughts to the minds of others through simple speech and writing, no special abilities needed, a natural outgrowth of the consequences of social learning, and our use of it that often frightens the powers that be into suppressing it.
I have occasional e-mails, usually from supporters of some pseudoscience I have challenged on these pages, claiming that presenting the mathematical details on my web sites makes them “too complex” and that I should express the science in ‘simpler terms’ without the mathematics.The language of science is mathematics.
This is a concept that links back to Galileo (QuoteDB) and is the reason why technology works, because the physical world obeys regular mathematical rules independent of any human belief system. Scientific concepts are interconnected by the rules of mathematics. Much has been written about why nature seems to work so well with these techniques (one of the most famous papers on this topic being “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” by Eugene Wigner. But all mathematics does not make valid science…