Who Decides What Words Get Into the Dictionary?

DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Once upon a time, we were made to believe that words could never acquire sticks and stones’ capacity to wound.

Talk about a maxim no longer worth the paper it was printed on!

Language is organic. Definitions, usage, and our response to particular words evolve over time.

Lexicographer Ilan Stavans’ TED-Ed lesson, Who Decides What’s in the Dictionary?, rolls the clock back to 1604, when schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey assembled the first English language dictionary “for the benefit of Ladies, Gentlewomen, and other unskilled folk.”




Other English dictionaries soon followed, expanding on the 2,543 words Cawdrey had seen fit to include. His fellow authors shared Cawdrey’s prescriptive goal of educating the rabble, to keep them from butchering the high-minded tongue the self-appointed guardian considered it his duty to protect.

Wordsmith Samuel Johnson, the primary author of 1775’s massive A Dictionary of the English Language, described his mission as one in which “the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.”

Lest we think Johnson overly impressed with the importance of his lofty mission, he submitted the following gently self-mocking definition of Lexicographer:

A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

150 years later, Ambrose Bierce offered an opposing view in his delightfully wicked dictionary:

LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.

Stavans points to brothers George and Charles Merriam’s acquisition of the rights to Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) as a moment when our concept of what a dictionary should be began to shift.

Webster, working by himself, set out to collect and document English as it was used on these shores.

The Merriams engaged a group of language experts to curate subsequent editions, striking a blow for the idiom by including slang and regional variants.

A good start, though they excluded anything they found unfit for the general consumption at the time, including expressions born in the Black community.

Their editorializing was of a piece with prevailing views — see “wife.”

But humans, like language, evolve.

These days, lexicographers monitor the Internet for new words to be considered for upcoming editions, including profanity and racial slurs.

If a word’s use is judged to be widespread, sustained and meaningful, in it goes… even though some might find it objectionable, or even, yes, hurtful.

Stavans wraps his lesson up by drawing our attention to Merriam-Webster’s tradition of anointing one entry to Word of the Year, drawn from statistical analysis of the words people look up in extremely high numbers.

“They” got the nod in 2019, a testament to how deeply non-binary gender expression has permeated the collective consciousness and national conversation.

The runner up?

Impeach.

Care to guess which word 2020 placed in the dictionary’s path?

Related Content: 

How a Word Enters the Dictionary: A Quick Primer

A Dictionary of Words Invented to Name Emotions We All Feel, But Don’t Yet Have a Name For: Vemödalen, Sonder, Chrysalism & Much More

The Largest Historical Dictionary of English Slang Now Free Online: Covers 500 Years of the “Vulgar Tongue”

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Story of Elizebeth Friedman, the Pioneering Cryptologist Who Thwarted the Nazis & Got Burned by J. Edgar Hoover

Elizebeth S. Friedman: Suburban Mom or Ninja Nazi Hunter?

Both, though in her lifetime, the press was far more inclined to fixate on her ladylike aspect and homemaking duties than her career as a self-taught cryptoanalyst, with headlines such as “Pretty Woman Who Protects United States” and “Solved By Woman.”

The novelty of her gender led to a brief stint as America’s most recognizable codebreaker, more famous even than her fellow cryptologist, husband William Friedman, who was instrumental in the founding of the National Security Agency during the Cold War.

Renowned though she was, the highly classified nature of her work exposed her to a security threat in the person of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover credited the FBI, and by extension, himself, for deciphering some 50 Nazi radio circuits’ codes, at least two of them protected with Enigma machines.

He also rushed to raid South American sources in his zeal to make an impression and advance his career, scuppering Friedman’s mission by causing Berlin to put a stop to all transmissions to that area.

Too bad no one asked him to demonstrate the methods he’d used to crack these impossible nuts.

The German agents used the same codes and radio techniques as the Consolidated Exporters Corporation, a mob-backed rum-running operation whose codes and ciphers Elizebeth had translated as chief cryptologist for the U.S. Treasury Department during Prohibition.

As an expert witness in the criminal trial of international rumrunner Bert Morrison and his associates, she modestly asserted that it was “really quite simple to decode their messages if you know what to look for,” but the sample decryption she provided the jury made it plain that her work required tremendous skill. The Mob Museum’s Jeff Burbank sets the scene:

She read a sample message, referring to a brand of whiskey: “Out of Old Colonel in Pints.” She showed how the three “o” and “l” letters in “Colonel” had identical cipher code letters. From the cipher’s letters for “Colonel” she could figure out the letter the racketeers chose for “e,” the most frequently occurring letter in English, based on other brand names of liquor they mentioned in other messages. The “o” and “l” letters in “alcohol,” she said, had the same cipher letters as “Colonel.” 

Cinchy, right?

Elizebeth’s biographer, Jason Fagone, notes that in discovering the identity, codename and ciphers used by German spy network Operation Bolívar‘s leader, Johannes Siegfried Becker, she succeeded where “every other law enforcement agency and intelligence agency failed. She did what the FBI could not do.”

Sexism and Hoover were not the only enemies.

William Friedman’s criticism of the NSA for classifying documents he thought should be a matter of public record led to a rift resulting in the confiscation of dozens of papers from the couple’s home that documented their work.

This, together with the 50-year “TOP SECRET ULTRA” classification of her WWII records, ensured that Elizebeth’s life would end beneath “a vast dome of silence.”

Recognition is mounting, however.

Nearly 20 years after her 1980 death, she was inducted into the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Hall of Honor as “a pioneer in code breaking.”

A National Security Agency building now bears both Friedmans’ names.

The U.S. Coast Guard will soon be adding a Legend Class Cutter named the USCGC Friedman to their fleet.

In addition to Fagone’s biography, a picture book, Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, was published earlier this year.

As far as we know, there are no picture books dedicated to the pioneering work of J. Edgar Hoover….

Elizebeth Friedman, via Wikimedia Commons

Watch The Codebreaker, PBS’s American Experience biography of Elizebeth Friedman here.

Related Content: 

The Enigma Machine: How Alan Turing Helped Break the Unbreakable Nazi Code

How British Codebreakers Built the First Electronic Computer

Three Amateur Cryptographers Finally Decrypted the Zodiac Killer’s Letters: A Look Inside How They Solved a Half Century-Old Mystery

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Short Animation Explores the Nature of Creativity & Invention, with Characters That Look Like Andrei Tarkovsky & Sergei Eisenstein

A gentleman goes to the movies, only to find a marquee full of retreads, reboots, sequels, and prequels. He demands to know why no one makes original films anymore, a reasonable question people often ask. But it seems he has run directly into a graduate student in critical theory behind the glass. The ticket-seller rattles off a theory of unoriginality that is difficult to refute but also, it turns out, only a word-for-word recitation of the Wikipedia page on “Plagiarism.”

This is one of the ironies in “Allergy to Originality” every English teacher will appreciate. In the short, animated New York Times Op-Doc by Drew Christie, an official Sundance selection in 2014, “two men discuss whether anything is truly original — especially in movies and books,” notes the Times. The question leads us to consider what we might mean by originality when every work is built from pieces of others. “In creating this Op-Doc animation,” Christie writes, “I copied well-known images and photographs, retraced innumerable drawings, then photocopied them as a way to underscore the un-originality of the entire process.”




From William Burroughs’ cut-ups to Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” moderns have only been re-discovering what ancients accepted with a shrug — no one can take credit for a story, not even the author. Barthes argued that “literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”

In Christie’s short, the smartass theater employee continues quoting sources, now from the “Originality” Wikipedia, now from Mark Twain, who had many things to say about originality. Twain once wrote to Helen Keller, for example, outraged that she had been accused of plagiarism. He came to her defense with an earnest conviction: “The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterance — is plagiarism.”

Postmodern sophistry from Mark Twain? Maybe. We haven’t had much opportunity to verbally spar in public like this lately, unmasked and in search of entertainment in a public square. If you find yourself exasperated with the streaming choices on offer, if the books you’re reading all start to feel too familiar, consider the infinite number of creative possibilities inherent in the art of quotation — and remember that we’re always repeating, replaying, and remixing what came before, whether or not we cite our sources.

Related Content: 

Everything is a Remix: A Video Series Exploring the Sources of Creativity

Malcolm McLaren: The Quest for Authentic Creativity

Where Do Great Ideas Come From? Neil Gaiman Explains

Quentin Tarantino’s Copycat Cinema: How the Postmodern Filmmaker Perfected the Art of the Steal

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Download 280 Pictographs That Put Japanese Culture Into a New Visual Language: They’re Free for the Public to Use

“One of the biggest considerations when traveling to Japan is its inscrutable language,” writes Designboom’s Juliana Neira. But then, one might also consider making that language more scrutable — and making one’s experience in Japan much richer — by learning some of it. Kanji, the Chinese characters used in the written Japanese language, may at first look like small, often bewilderingly complex pictures, and many assume they visually evoke the meanings they express. In fact, to use the linguistic terms, they’re not pictograms, representations of thoughts or ideas, but logograms, representations of words or parts of words.

Resemble miniature works of art though they often do, kanji aren’t entirely unsystematic. This helps beginning learners get a handle on the first and most essential characters of the thousands they’ll eventually need to know.




So does the fact that some of them, in origin, really are pictographic — that is, they look like the meaning of the word they represent — or at least pictographic enough to make them teachable through images. The Japanese word for “mountain,” to cite an elementary example, is 山; “river” is 川; “tree” is 木. Alas, most of us who enjoy the 山, 川, and 木 of Japan — to say nothing of the 書店 and 喫茶店 in its cities — haven’t been able to visit them at all in this past pandemic year.

“After experiencing years of tourism growth, tourists to Japan are down over 95% due to the pandemic,” writes Spoon & Tamago’s Johnny Waldman. “Graphic designer Kenya Hara and his firm Nippon Design Center have self-initiated a project to release over 250 pictograms — free for anyone to use — in support of tourism in Japan from a visual design perspective.” Collectively bannered the Experience Japan Pictograms, these clear and evocative icons represent a wide range of the places and activities one can enjoy in the Land of the Rising Sun: skiing and surfing, calligraphy and open-air hot-spring bathing, Ginza and Asakusa, Tokyo’s Skytree and Osaka’s Tsūtenkaku Tower.

The Experience Japan Pictograms hardly fail to include the glories of Japanese cuisine — sushi, tempura, soba, and even the Japanified hanbāgā — which piques so many foreigners’ interest in Japan to begin with. Click on any of them and you’ll see a brief cultural and historical explanation of the item, activity, place, or concept in question, along with the relevant Japanese term (in kanji where applicable) and its pronunciation. You can also download them in the color scheme of your choice and use them for any purposes you like, including commercial ones. The more widely adopted they are, the more convenient Japanese tourism will become for those who don’t read Japanese. Those who do can hardly deny the pleasure of having another Japanese language to learn — and a truly pictographic one at that.

via Spoon & Tamago

Related Content:

Learn Japanese Free

Vintage 1930s Japanese Posters Artistically Market the Wonders of Travel

Discover Isotype, the 1920s Attempt to Create a Universal Language with Stylish Icons & Graphic Design

The Hobo Code: An Introduction to the Hieroglyphic Language of Early 1900s Train-Hoppers

Google Makes Available 750 Icons for Designers & Developers: All Open Source 

Braille Neue: A New Version of Braille That Can Be Simultaneously Read by the Sighted and the Blind

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Tour of U.S. Accents: Bostonian, Philadelphese, Gullah Creole & Other Intriguing Dialects

You don’t have an accent — or rather, everyone has an accent, but we don’t notice our own, especially if we associate mostly with people of similar cultural backgrounds. For however we might like to describe ourselves, the way we speak reveals who we are: as dialect coach Erik Singer puts it in the Wired video above, “Accent is identity.” Among the forces shaping that identity he names not just geography but socioeconomic background, generation, ethnicity and race, and other “individual factors.”  The result is that a large and varied continent like North America has given rise to a wide variety of accents in the English language alone.

In the video Singer and four other specialist language experts demonstrate a great many of these North American accents, identifying the most distinctive characteristics of each. The classic Boston accent, for example, is “non-rhotic,” referring to the dropping of “R” sounds that make possible such classic phrases as “pahk yah cah in Havahd Yard.” It differs in many ways from those common in places like Rhode Island and New York City, relatively close together though all three areas may seem: the diversity of accents on the U.S. east coast versus its more recently settled west coast underscores the fact that regional accents need time, usually a matter of generation upon generation, to emerge.




The way Philadelphians talk illustrates what Singer calls “the ‘on’ line,” north of which most pronounce “on” as if it rhymes with “don,” and south of which — Philly and below — most pronounce “on” as if rhymes with “dawn.” You don’t even have to cross the Pennsylvania border to find another unique accent. Only in Pittsburgh do people “smooth the ‘mouth’ dipthong,” a dipthong being a syllable composed of two distinct vowels — here, the “ou” in “mouth” — the “smoothing out” of which turns it into a single (and to non-Pittsburghers, unusual-sounding) vowel.

By the end of these 20 minutes, Singer and his crew have made it only as far as the “Piney Woods Belt” of the American south, whose accents bring to many of our minds the voice of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois. They’ve also touched on such linguistic curiosities as Gullah creole; the Elizabethan inflection of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina,” previously featured here on Open Culture; and in some ways the most curious of all, the broadly designated “general American” speech that has emerged in recent decades. This is only the first video of a series [update: it’s now available below], so keep an eye on Wired‘s Youtube channel for the next installment of the linguistic journey — and keep an ear out for all the subtle varieties of English you can catch in the meantime.

Related Content:

Mapping the Differences in How Americans Speak English: A Geographic Look at Words, Accents & Dialects

A Brief Tour of British & Irish Accents: 14 Ways to Speak English in 84 Seconds

One Woman, 17 British Accents

The Speech Accent Archive: The English Accents of People Who Speak 341 Different Languages

Meet the Americans Who Speak with Elizabethan English Accents: An Introduction to the “Hoi Toiders” from Ocracoke, North Carolina

Why Do People Talk Funny in Old Movies?, or The Origin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch 36 Short Animations That Tell the Origin Stories of Mexico’s Indigenous Peoples in Their Own Languages

In our efforts to preserve endangered species we seem to overlook something equally important. To me it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization where tree huggers and whale huggers in their weirdness are acceptable while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.

 – Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World

Trees and whales aside, we suspect the ever quotable Herzog would warm to fellow director Gabriela Badillo’s 68 Voices, 68 Hearts, a series of one-minute animations that preserve indigenous Mexican stories with narration provided by native speakers.

“It was created in order to help foster pride, respect, and the use of indigenous Mexican languages between speakers and non-speakers, as well as to help reduce discrimination and foster a sense of pride towards all communities and cultures that are part of the cultural richness that makes up Mexico,” Badillo says in an interview with Awasqa.




The project stemmed from a realization in the wake of the death of her grandfather, a Maxcanu from Yucatan:

Aside from losing a loved one, I realized that an enormous wisdom had also been lost: a language, stories, traditions and customs, a whole world had dissolved with him.

Each animation involves collaboration with the National Institute of Indigenous Language and the community whose story is being shared. Community members choose the subject, then supply narration and translation. Their children draw scenes from the selected story, which steers the style of animation.

Prior to being released to the general public, each film is presented to its community of origin, along with a booklet of suggested educational activities for parents and teachers to use in conjunction with screenings. Boxes of postcards featuring artwork from the series are donated to the community school.

Some of the entries, like the above About Earthquakes and the Origin of Life on Earth, narrated in Ch’ol by Eugenia Cruz Montejo, pack a massive amount of story into the allotted minute:

They say many years ago Ch’ujtiat, the Heaven’s lord, created the Earth with 12 immortal men to carry it. And it is when they get tired that the Earth moves, provoking earthquakes.

At the same time he created the first men, who were ungrateful, so Ch’ujtiat sent the flood and turned the survivors into monkeys, and the innocent children into stars. He then created our first parents, na’al, Ixic y Xun’Ok, who multiplied and populated the Earth. 

That’s how life on Earth began.That’s how the Ch’oles tell it.

Variants of “that’s how we tell it” are a common refrain, as in the Cora (also known as Náayeri) story of how the Mother Goddess created earth (and other gods), narrated by Pedro Muñiz López.

Here is the written version, in Cora:

E’itɨ tiuséijre cháanaka

Yaapú ti’nyúukari tɨkɨn a’najpú ɨtyáj náimi ajnáana Náasisaa, Téijkame jemín ɨ cháanaka ajtá ɨ máxkɨrai, góutaaguaka’a ɨ tabóujsimua yaati’xáata tɨkɨn mata’a já guatéchaɨn majtá tyuipuán iyakúi cháanaka japuá.

Muxáj kɨmenpú góutaaguaka’a tɨ’kí nájkɨ’ta gojoutyájtua. Áuna me’séira aɨjme taboujsimua matákua’naxɨ.

Tɨ’kí aɨjna tanáana Náasisaa, ukɨpuapú guatákɨɨnitya’a, yán guajaikagua’xɨjre uyóujmua matɨ’jmí jetsán guatyáakɨ yán miye’ntiné tajapuá. Kapú aɨn jé’i, matákua’naxɨ máj akábibɨɨ yán juté’e, makaupɨxɨɨ ujetsé matɨ’jmí chuéj kɨj tentyóu metya’úrara, ajtá ɨ Taja’as xu’rabe’táana tiuɨrɨj tyautyájtua ajpúi tanáana Náasisaa tsíikɨri guatyákɨstaka ukɨpuá kɨmen. Japuanpú aɨjna chuéj utíajka tɨ’kí goutaíjte aɨjme tabóujsimua guatáijte máj atapa’tsaren metya’tanya’tɨkɨ’káa ayaapú tiutéjbe máj tiunéitan.

Ayaapú tiuséijre cháanaka. Ayáj tigua’nyúukari Náayeri.

Badillo’s educational mission is well served by one of our favorites, The Origin of the Mountains. In addition to mountains, this Cucapá story, narrated by Inocencia González Sainz, delves into the origin of oceans and the Colorado River, though fair warning—it may be difficult to restore classroom order once the students hear that testicles and earwax figure prominently.

To watch a playlist of the 36 animations completed so far with English subtitles, click here.

68 Voices, 68 Heart’s Kickstarter page has more information about this ongoing project. Contributions will go toward animating stories in the three languages that are at the highest risk of disappearing—AkatekoPopoloca, and Ku’ahl.

As Badillo writes:

When a language disappears, not only a sound, a way of writing, a letter or a word goes away. Something much deeper than just a form of communication disappears – a way of seeing and conceiving the world, stories, tales, a way of naming and relating to things, an enormous knowledge that we should relearn because of its deep respect with nature.

via Boing Boing

Related Content: 

200+ Films by Indigenous Directors Now Free to View Online: A New Archive Launched by the National Film Board of Canada

Peruvian Scholar Writes & Defends the First Thesis Written in Quechua, the Main Language of the Incan Empire

Optical Scanning Technology Lets Researchers Recover Lost Indigenous Languages from Old Wax Cylinder Recordings

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Speak: Watch the Lecture on Effective Communication That Became an MIT Tradition for Over 40 Years

In his legendary MIT lecture “How to Speak,” professor Patrick Winston opens with a story about seeing Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton at a Celebrity Ski Weekend. It was immediately clear to him that he was the better skier, but not because he had more innate athletic ability than an Olympic gold medalist, but because he had more knowledge and practice. These, Winston says, are the key qualities we need to become better communicators. Inherent talent helps, he says, but “notice that the T is very small. What really matters is what you know.”

What some of us know about communicating effectively could fill a greeting card, but it’s hardly our fault, says Winston. Schools that send students into the world without the ability to speak and write well are as criminally liable as officers who send soldiers into battle without weapons. For over 40 years, Winston has been trying to remedy the situation with his “How to Speak” lecture, offered every January,” notes MIT, “usually to overflow crowds.” It became “so popular, in fact, that the annual talk had to be limited to the first 300 participants.”




Now it’s available online, in both video and transcript form, in the talk’s final form from 2018 (it evolved quite a bit over the decades). Professor Winston passed away last year, but his wisdom lives on. Rather than present us with a dry theory of rhetoric and composition, the onetime director of the MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory offers “a few heuristic rules” distilled from “praxis in communication approaches that incorporate Neurolinguistics, Linguistics, Paleoanthropology, Cognitive Science and Computer Science,” writes Minnie Kasyoka.

Winston’s research on “creating machines with the same thought patterns as humans” led him to the following conclusions about effective speaking and writing—observations that have borne themselves out in the careers of thousands of public speakers, job seekers, and professionals of every kind. Many of his heuristics contradict decades of folk opinion on public speaking, as well as contemporary technological trends. For one thing, he says, avoid opening with a joke.

People still settling into their seats will be too distracted to pay attention and you won’t get the laugh. Instead, open with an analogy or a story, like his Mary Lou Retton gambit, then tell people, directly, what they’re going to get from your talk. Then tell them again. And again. “It’s a good idea to cycle on the subject,” says Winston. “Go around it. Go round it again. Go round it again.” It’s not that we should assume our audience is unintelligent, but rather that “at any given moment, about 20%” of them “will be fogged out no matter what the lecture is.” It’s just how the human mind works, shifting attention all over the place.

Like all great works on effective communication, Winston’s talk illustrates his methods as it explains them: he fills the lecture with memorable images—like “building a fence” around his idea to distinguish it from other similar ideas. He continues to use interesting little stories to make things concrete, like an anecdote about a Serbian nun who was offended by him putting his hands behind his back. This is offered in service of his lengthy defense of the blackboard, contra PowerPoint, as the ultimate visual aid. “Now, you have something to do with your hands.”

The talk is relaxed, humorous, and informative, and not a step-by-step method. As Winston says, you can dip in and out of the copious advice he presents, taking rules you think might work best for your particular style of communication and your communication needs. We should all, he emphasizes, hone our own way of speaking and writing. But, “while he never explicitly stresses the ultimate need for rhetorical devices,” Kasyoka points out, he demonstrates that they are imperative.

Professor Winston masterfully uses persuasive techniques to hammer on this point. For example, the use of anadiplosis, that is the repetition of a clause in a sentence for emphasis, is very manifest in this snippet from his talk: “Your careers will be determined largely by how well you speak, by how well you write, and by the quality of your ideas… in that order.” 

How do we learn to use rhetoric as effectively as Winston? We listen to and read effective rhetoric like his. Do so in the video lecture at the top and on the “How to Speak” course page, which has transcripts for download and additional resources for further study.

Related Content:

Literary Theorist Stanley Fish Offers a Free Course on Rhetoric, or the Power of Arguments

Novelist Cormac McCarthy Gives Writing Advice to Scientists … and Anyone Who Wants to Write Clear, Compelling Prose

The Shape of A Story: Writing Tips from Kurt Vonnegut

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Groundbreaking Linguistic Theories

Most people who know Noam Chomsky know him equally as a giant in academic linguistics and a longtime leftist dissident and political commentator. Only a committed few, however, read much of his work in either—or both—fields. He is one of those thinkers whose major concepts enter the discourse unmoored from their original context. Phrases like “universal grammar” and “manufactured consent” tend to pop up in all kinds of places without reference to Chomsky’s meanings.

If you simply haven’t got the time to read Chomsky (and let’s face it, there’s a lot going on in the world these days), you might familiarize yourself with his media theory in an amusing video here. For an entry into Chomsky’s work in linguistics, see the brief animated TED-Ed video above. The explainer revisits the Chomskyian revolution of 1957, when he articulated his ideas about the universal properties of language in his first book, Syntactic Structures.




Chomsky, the video says, explored the questions, “are there universal grammar rules and are they hardwired into our brains?” He did not invent the concept of “universal grammar”—the idea can be found in the 13th century writing of Roger Bacon—but Chomsky’s specific meaning of the term applies uniquely to language acquisition. Rather than suggesting that language exists as an abstract universal property, Chomsky argued that its basic structure, shared across the world, derives from structures in the brain that take shape in infancy.

Humans physically evolved to acquire and use language in strikingly similar ways that accord with universally observable and applicable rules, Chomsky argued. As the lesson points out, a claim this broad requires a mountain of evidence. At the time, many languages around the world had not been sufficiently studied or recorded. Since Chomsky’s initial arguments, ideas about linguistic similarities have been significantly revised.

Several critics have argued that no amount of data can ever produce “universal” rules. After decades of critique, Chomsky revised his theories, explaining them in different terms as “Principles and Parameters” that govern languages. He has further simplified and specified, proposing one universal criterion: “Recursion.” All languages, he argues, can nest ideas inside other ideas.

Recursion, too, has been forcefully challenged by the study of an Amazonian language that shows none of the characteristics Chomsky globally outlined. The other part of Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar—the idea that the brain develops innate, isolated language-making faculties—has also been refuted by neuroscientists, who have not found evidence of any such specific structures.

Why, then, is Chomsky still so critically important to linguistics, cognitive science, and other fields of study? For one thing, his work encouraged the study of languages that had been neglected and ignored. The debates Chomsky generated pushed the field forward, and broke the spell of the Behaviorism that dominated the human sciences into the mid-20th century. Even where he was wrong, or overconfident, his work remains an essential reference for the kind of thinking that revolutionized linguistics and brain science.

Related Content:

Noam Chomsky Talks About How Kids Acquire Language & Ideas in an Animated Video by Michel Gondry

An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent and How the Media Creates the Illusion of Democracy

Noam Chomsky Defines What It Means to Be a Truly Educated Person

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.