Tag Archives: Language

Language and Culture

The book, Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, explores the relationship between language and culture. Aiden and Michel asserts that there is a significant change in form of language and the use of language as the culture changes. And in order to improve the study of culture, study of language is crucial. This idea is deeply related with the program they created, the Ngram. They’ve studied how does the use of certain language changes over time. For example, the word ‘tea’ was way more used than the word ‘coffee’ in English history. Yet, since 1970s, coffee has become dominant as the main beverage among common people, and thus has become much more used word than ‘tea’. Such example shows that tracing the use of language can lead to better understanding of culture in general. The book compares the culture to dinosaurs. Both have a common characteristic that through traces from the past it can be found and studied. Just as the study of dinosaur is made through fossils, the study of culture can be improved by its trace from the past, which is introduced as use of language.

The assumption might not be always right. Sometimes language reacts later than the change of trend in culture. Language cannot directly mirror the cultural trend or changes. Yet, it is true that language is the best way to observe cultural changes. Language is easily observable through books or different works of literature. It is the most commonly used method of communication and exchange of ideas. Tracing the culture through language, which is a cultural fossil, may not be the exact way of examination, yet it is definitely a revolutionary method.

Early Ancestors of Big Data

Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel discuss the matter of the evolution of language and came to the conclusion that something similar to natural selection might be affecting modern forms of communication. They use the example of how in  English, the “-ed” past-tense ending of Proto-Germanic  replaced the Proto-Indo-European form of indicating tenses by vowel changes. The only words unaffected by this change were irregular verbs. To test their theory  Aiden and  Michel came up with an idea they dubbed culturomics, meaning the use of large amounts of digital information  and big data to track changes in language and culture.

In Aiden and Michel’s book, Uncharted, they make the claim that language is the primary method for communicating culture around the globe. Since it has written form they state that it is a convenient data set for scientific analysis. Language is the basis for communication but not the only method to communicate the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.The author’s seem to make the assumption that language is the primary form of sharing culture. What I question is whether there is a way to test their theory on other forms of expression to see if a form of Darwinian evolution affects not only our genes, but our culture as well.

The Evolution of Language

In Aiden and Michel’s “Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture”, several arguments and claims are made concerning language. It focuses on specific words and develops an idea that states that culture can be defined by our use of words in a language. The article focuses specifically on a man by the name of George Kingsley Zipf, who came up with this theory. It was his idea that words were not all equal, and that there were certain words that a culture valued more than others in a language. In an experiment, Zipf counted every time that a word was used in the book, Ulysses, and recorded it, rating its importance, only to find that his theory was proven to be true. People tend to value words such as “the” and “I” much more than ones like “quintessence”. From my own perspective, this seems obvious considering the first two words portray ideas and connections that are needed in our everyday lives, whereas the latter word is not always necessary to all scenarios because of how specific its definition is. However, what was interesting is this: Zipf found that “There was in inverse relationship between a rank of a word and its frequency of use” (Aiden 34). In other words, the higher up on the list a word appeared, the less important to the language it was.

Now, think about the American language. The reason why many people say it is so hard to learn is because of all the irregulars that are present within it. These irregulars seem to follow no rules and conjugate as they please. In this article, it points out something interesting. The words that appear toward the top of Zipf’s list, or the ones that are more important, tend to have irregular qualities while those near the end of the list all tend to follow the same rules and conjugate accordingly. Now, there’s another theory that I want to bring up that is mentioned quite a bit in this article. This theory states that irregular words and conjugations will change with time. More simply, words will be conjugated differently in the future than they are now. How close does this come to the truth, though? While this theory makes sense considering the evolution from “old english” to current language, I do not believe that our language will change that drastically in the future. The transformation from old English to current English involved the creation, if you will, of an entire new language. The way people pronounced words was different, and the words themselves were completely different as well. The word “thou” is not the same as “you”. I agree with the idea that language may change over time; however, I strongly doubt that conjugations will be the only things that change in our language. If our language is going to change, it will all have to change together, for as long as the past generations are teaching current generations, the word “stinked” will always be incorrect.