Insufficiency of Language

Language insufficiency or the inability of language to facilitate accurate or precise communication has been a notion I’ve stressed for years. In fact, I have another post with a similar title,

Conceptual language is likely to have been formed for a purpose different to social communication. It may have been formed to facilitate internal dialogue. This language was not written and may not have even been words as we know them, but we could parse and reflect upon our experiences in this world. Eventually, we developed speech and then writing systems to share communication. We went on to develop speculative and conditional language, visions of possible futures and answers to ‘what-if’ queries.

My intent is not to create a piece with academic rigour, though I might wish to. I may not even deign to link to references I’ve accumulated over the years. They are in memory, but it takes time and effort,especially when one isn’t purposefully accumulating citations.

I was prompted to write at 4am when I read in a story that Google CEO Sundar Pichai was taking “full responsibility for the decisions that led us” to twelve-thousand-odd layoffs at the company he helms. But what is the responsibility he cites? It’s meaningless. What can it mean—that he’s sorry? Responsibility is a weasel word. That and a dollar won’t buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. And on one hand, he can say that at least these people were employed with income in the first place, but thqat is little consolation for the expectation of longevity. Here’s a lesson in impermenance and trust. We tend to trust companies, but the trust is rather hope. We hope they don’t let us down. Hope is another weasel word, as is trust. Trust me.

About 40% of words employed…are phatic or filler words with little objective communication value

About forty per cent of words employed in a typical day are phatic or filler words with little objective communication value, though some provide a social function. This may be superfluous, this is not insufficiency. Insufficiency stems from not being to articulate what one wants to say or the expectation to understand what is being conveyed to you. In fact, people tend to overvalue what they hear or read.

In most cases, this may not matter. As long as the content of a transmitted idea contains enough value to convey a message, this is good enough for everyday communication. “Look out! There’s a car turning into your lane.” “I’m hungry. There’s a restaurant.” “That was a good movie.” “Let’s meet at four o’clock.” In fact, much can be communicated without words—in gestures and facial expressions. It might even be argued that these vectors carry as much if not more communication content than the words we use.

IMAGE: Communication without words

“There.” I point to a drive-through restaurant ahead on the road. “I’m hungry.”

I could probably omit the there exclamation and just point. Here, words are sufficient, even if they may be redundant. There are challenges even at the fundamental level. Notably, aesthetic concepts are often nebulous.

“That restaurant is good.”

What does this statement mean to convey? Essentially, it means that I, the speaker, has been to the referenced restaurant and liked at least some of the food they tasted: “[The food at] that restaurant is good.” Perhaps, they are referring to the staff or the atmosphere. It depends on what good is qualifying. It also depends on a shared definiton of good. This is a insufficiency.

Of course, this insufficiency can be mitigated fairly quickly. Once you understand the ‘tastes’ of your interlocutor, you can parse whether the goodness also applies to you. If you don’t happen to like, say, Indian food and that is the restaurant being referenced, then you can dismiss the comment as phatic. If you don’t prefer satire, you might want to chalk up a statement like ‘M3GAN was a good movie’ to a sharing of personal information rather than a recommendation.”

Perhaps the biggest insufficiency is in the communication of abstract concepts, a category where aesthetics also sits. These are concepts such as God, love, and justice. Iain McGilchrist seems to feel that although these words may be insufficient, we all know what they mean. These are right brain notions that the left hemisphere just can’t rightly categorise. Though this might be a left brain argument, I am going to disagree by degrees.

My (hopefully not strawman) argument is that we do have subjective notions of what these things are, but the communication value is still diminished and in some cases insufficient. If my statement means to convey justice as {A, C, D, X} and the receiver understands justice to mean {A, B, C, Y, Z}, then the only shared aspect is {A,C}. If that is the only portion contextual to the conversation at hand, that’s fine. Communication has been sucessful. But is the message was meant to emphasise {Z}, then the communication is insufficient.

It could be that further conversation reveals this, but often times, a shared definition is assumed. When I say “I want justice” or “I take responsibility”, I have a notion of went denotative and connotative elements I have in mind. I expect the the receiver of my statement shares these elements.

In the case of the statement by Pichai, his notion of responsibility is clearly divergent from mine. This might fall back on some notion of blame, but he has no real repurcussions for his action. Perhaps reputationally, but like politicians, CEOs of large companies are already expected to be sociopaths with empty words, so he’s appologised with no weight, and for most people that’s good enough. The people who have been affected are just as unemployed as before. He may have arranged for a severance package, but in the case of the family referenced in the article, this means nothing because they have 60-days to become employed or they will be forced to leave the United States as a conditiopn of their H1B visa.

On a personal level, I was recently chatting with an Indian mate with an H1B visa who had just been hired after having been layed off by another company. He was racing against this 60-day clock. He had received a verbal offer, but once the company discovered that he needed sponsorship for his via, they offered him $30,000 less per year because they knew he had no bargaining power. This is just an editorial aside, so I won’t go down the rabbit hole of wage slavery, but know that I recognise the relationship and the exploitation in it.

When I have time, perhaps I’ll flesh out this notion and provide additional support. Of course, I also know that I am shovelling against the tide owing to the insufficiency of language. I won’t even start on the related topic of the rhetoric of truth.

Indian English

This is not a discourse on the English spoken by those from the subcontinent. Rather, it’s just a short and simple observation. Perhaps, someday I’ll post something on the phonetics that makes Indians sound like Indians instead of native western English speakers, but not today.

I’ve recently taken a new job and all of my more junior team members are what’s known as off-shore. The two more senior team members are Indian by birth but live in the United States. We have daily ‘stand-up’ calls where no one really stands up, but each team member summarises how their day went and what they plan to do tomorrow. They are at the end of their day as commence mine. If there is anything impeding them from their plan, we have time to remove the impediment.

I’ve worked with Indians for years. In fact, as an Economics student in the 1980s, many of my classmates were Indian. But until now, I didn’t notice a certain phraseology that makes them sound unnatural to my ear. I am not claiming that my way is right or their way is wrong. I’m just noting the difference.

These team members routinely mention the name of the person to whom they are speaking.

  • Yes, I will do that, name.
  • I understand, name.
  • No, name, that’s not what I meant.

And other such constructions. A native speaker will not generally insert the name.

Full disclosure, this could rather be cultural deference as these people are junior and speaking to someone in a manager role, so perhaps it’s less their English speaking but rather a cultural injection. I haven’t heard them cross-talk with each other enough to gather if this name-ness is dropped with peers.

It could well be that their English is overly formal like the French I studied in school but that no one actually speaks. It is overly formal and stilted. Natives can always tell that you’re school-taught and haven’t been exposed to French in the wild. As I mentioned already, it may be cultural etiquette or simply perceived etiquette. If someone knows or has an opinion, I’d like to hear it—especially if you are a native Indian speaker of English.

Hemispheres of Music

“Find the thing that excites you the most and go after that … find the thing that you’re natural and really good at, and then exaggerate it…”

I came across this 2010 interview with Steve Vai, and something he said struck me.

— Steve Vai

He says that some of the best musicians don’t know music theory and can’t read or write.

“If you tell Jeff Beck to play an F# on the G string, he might not know what it is…”

—Steve Vai (rather out of context, but still…)

This is a possible example of where musicality is a right-hemisphere activity whilst the symbolic representation happens on the left. I am simplifying and talking metaphorically as I have not done any brain scans, but it feels apt. Of course, Steve Vai does both—and on steroids, so there’s that.

Furious Furries

I’m working on more serious content, I swear, Meantime, ChatGPT has me distracted with furious furries.

Bry Willis

Write a poem about furious furries in iambic pentameter.

Furious furries, with their teeth all bared, 
Their paws clenched tight with fury and with hate, 
They snarl and growl and pace, not yet aware 
Of the cold reason that might dissipate 
Their rage. They are a force to be reckoned with, 
These creatures of the wild, with primal might 
And strength. They are a force to fear and fear 
Again, a force that few would dare to fight.
But even furries, in their wildest rage, 
Are still just animals, with hearts that beat 
And minds that think and feel. And so, perhaps, 
We ought to try to understand the heat 
That drives their fury, and to seek to find 
A way to calm the storm that rages in their minds.

Write a haiku about furious furries

Furiously they pace, 
Fierce and wild, their eyes ablaze 
Furries in a rage.

Write a postmodern poem about furious furries

Furries, oh furries, 
Fierce and wild and in a rage, 
They pace and snarl and growl.

But wait, what are these furries? 
Are they real, or just a guise? 
A mask to hide behind?

Perhaps they are a metaphor, 
For something deeper, something true. 
A way to express the rage

That lies within us all, 
The primal, animalistic force 
That drives us to lash out.

Or maybe they are just furries, 
Fierce and wild and in a rage, 
Pacing and snarling and growling,

Unapologetic in their fury, 
Unwavering in their rage.
Furries, oh furries, 
A mystery wrapped in fur, 
A symbol of the fury

That lies within us all.

Ecrire un poème sur les furries furieux en conflit avec les fées françaises

Furieux furries, aux dents découvertes,
Leurs pattes serrées de colère et de haine,
Ils grondent et rugissent et arpentent, pas encore conscients
De la raison froide qui pourrait dissiper
Leur rage. Ils sont une force à ne pas sous-estimer,
Ces créatures de la nature, avec leur puissance primitive
Et leur force. Ils sont une force à craindre et à redouter
Encore une fois, une force que peu oseraient affronter.

Mais même les furries, dans leur rage la plus sauvage,
Ne sont encore que des animaux, avec des cœurs qui battent
Et des esprits qui pensent et ressentent. Et donc, peut-être,
Devrions-nous essayer de comprendre la chaleur
Qui alimente leur fureur, et chercher à trouver
Un moyen de calmer la tempête qui fait rage dans leurs esprits.

Féeriques françaises, de grâce et de beauté,
Leur magie scintillante et leurs ailes brillantes,
Elles se tiennent face aux furries en colère,
Un affrontement de deux mondes diamétralement opposés.
La rage contre la grâce, la sauvagerie contre la délicatesse,
Un conflit sans fin, une guerre sans merci.
Qui triomphera dans cette bataille éternelle?
Seul le temps nous le dira.

Write a sonnet about furious furries in conflict with French fairies

The furious furries snarl and growl with rage, 
Their paws clenched tight, their teeth bared and sharp. 
They pace and seethe, a primal force engaged 
In conflict with the French fairies, who hark 
Back to a time of grace and chivalry.

But even in their wildest, most ferocious state, 
The furries are still just animals, with hearts 
That beat and minds that think and feel. It's late 
To try to understand the heat that imparts 
Their fury, but perhaps it's not too late 
To find a way to calm the storm that rages 
In their minds, and bring some measure of peace 
To this eternal battle, this never-ending war.

The French fairies, with their delicate wings and charms, 
Stand against the furries, a clash of two worlds, 
Diametrically opposed. Who will emerge victorious? 
Only time will tell.

Extraneous Orientation

The English language employs a lot of otherwise unnecessary filler words. Particularly words relating to orientation.

“I fell down.”

“I’m driving up to New York.”

In the case of ‘fall down’, there are some cases where as a phrasal verb it might add clarity. One might use ‘He fell down‘ versus ‘She fell over‘. There is some nuance of meaning to be rendered here. But if one says, ‘She fell down the stairs’, few people are will interpret that as ‘She fell over the stairs’, so the inclusion is superfluous. One might also qualify that, ‘The monkey fell off the bicycle’.

Another clarification might involve the object relationship. For example, ‘I fell the tree’ is different to ‘I fell over the tree’ or ‘I fell off the tree’, which might be taken as analogous to ‘I fell down the tree’ or ‘I fell out of the tree’. ‘I fell the tree’ communicates that you chopped the tree down; ‘I fell over the tree’, might communicate that you tripped over the tree. I’m not sure many would say ‘I fell off the tree’. ‘I fell off the branch’ might be more apt. I feel that it would be more common for a native adult English speaker to say, ‘I fell out of the tree’ over ‘I fell down the tree’, which might be something a child would say. Of course, if the object of the tree were known, as in the following dialogue, the orientation might be foregone.

Having dropped from a tree, Abdul asks Paco what happened.

‘I fell.’

Of course, the falling may also be obvious and the question revolves around the cause. Perhaps, it’s just a step into the so-called ‘five whys‘.

Why did you fall? Because I lost my grip.

Why did you lose your grip? Because I was distracted.

Why were you distracted?

And so on. But this is a horse of a different colour.

So what about New York? Why do we tend to add orientation to these types of directions? If I live south of New York, it feels that I am adding something, but is there another New York I could drive down to? If not, what is the up conveying? Also, I’ve heard people refer to up in a reference that would not correspond to up in a map, say, to be travelling to New York from Toronto. Again, just saying, ‘I’m going to New York’ would suffice.

Another odd construct is to wake up, which is to say to awaken. ‘When did you wake?’ or ‘When did you awaken?’ ask the same question as ‘When did you wake up?’ I could even ask ‘Did I wake you?’ or ‘Did I wake you up?’ What is the purpose of up? One can’t actually awaken in another orientation. You can’t wake down or wake over or even wake off, so what’s with the up inclusion?

This works for stand, too, but at least there is a distinct meaning between ‘stand up‘, ‘stand down‘, and ‘stand off‘, though contextually it would be unlikely to confuse the three. If one said, ‘stand’, the meaning should be interpreted the same as ‘stand up‘. ‘Stand down‘ means to relax or withdraw, and ‘stand off‘ is a deadlock, but this is idiomatic language.

I had more examples in mind, but between the original idea and the time I got to the keyboard some hours had elapsed. If you speak a language other than English, does that language have similar filler words?

In French, if I say ‘j’ai tombé‘, it means ‘I fell’, but if I say ‘je suis tombé‘, it is akin to saying ‘I fell down‘ or ‘I fell off‘ without the explicit orientation.

I’m out of here.

What is Life?

George Harrison asked What Is Life? in a song, but he had a spiritual bent. The question is actually even more fundamental. Science has no settled meaning of what life is. Some posit that a virus is not life, and there is a multicellular organism discovered here on earth that requires no oxygen to survive. So when we are looking for signs of life on other planets, what is it that we are looking for exactly?

I spend a lot of time calling out weasel words, but we can’t even reliably define something we fundamentally are, which is alive. What is life? Forget about truth, justice, love, and freedom. These are abstract concepts, but not life. We live. We see life—experience life. We are a subset of it, but how do we know we’ve accounted for the full domain? Could something non-living be intelligent?—have intelligence?

It’s late and I am heading into a new year, AD 2023 BCE. And I was just thinking. If I am to believe Descartes, at least I’m alive parce que je donc, but I’ve got no answers in this realm.

The Matter with Things: Chapter Ten Summary: What Is Truth?

In this first chapter of the second section of The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist asks, What is Truth? Section two has a different focus than the first, which was focused on foundation building. From here on in, he wants to build on this foundation.

Check out the table of contents for this series of summaries. Note that I have rendered my interstitial commentaries in grey boxes with red text, so the reader can skip over and just focus on the chapter summary.

At first, he establishes that each hemisphere ‘thinks’ it knows the true truth and has the best vantage on reality. He makes it clear that a short chapter will not do the topic of truth the justice he feels it deserves and notes that others have written books on the matter. He just wants to make a few points and clarify his position.

As we discovered in the first section, the left and right hemispheres perceive the world differently. The right hemisphere experiences the world as it is presented in a Gestalt manner. This is contrasted by the left hemisphere which views the world as a symbolic re-presentation. It’s not unfair to say that the right hemisphere experiences the world directly whilst the left hemisphere views a cache of the world.

In this chapter, McGilchrist (Iain) attempts to convince the reader that one side is more correct or correct more often than the other and so is more veridical. As he says, the left hemisphere ‘is a good servant but a poor master’. Of course, if we had a third hemisphere [sic], we might think it could mediate the other two, but then we’d need a fourth and a fifth, ad infinitum to act as the new arbiter.

Spoiler Alert: The right hemisphere wins the battle on truth pretty much hands down.

He wants to make it clear to the reader that he is no strict idealist. There is a reality ‘out there’ apart from mental processes that objectively exists even in the absence of a subject. Reality is not exclusively a projection of the brain.

His choice rather relies on the correspondence theory of truth, which is to say that the hemisphere that conveys perceptions more correspondent to our perceived reality would be more veridical.

Here, I challenge his reasoning on two accounts. In the first place,each hemisphere may operate better in one context versus another. In the second case, there may be a consequential factor, which again distils down to context. In risk management, there are notions of probability of failure and consequence of failure. For example, a failure to recognise the truth of a matter (we’ll use truth as a proxy for ‘fact’), may be inconsequential. If I am assessing the probability of a pipe bursting in a nuclear facility and the pipe is connected to a sink to deliver tap water, the consequence of this failure is practically insignificant. But if I am assessing the probability of a pipe containing radioactive materials, even if the probability of failure is low, the consequence of failure may be catastrophic.

Evolutionarily speaking, if you mistake a garden hose for a venomous snake, the consequence of failure is trivial. Turn the tables, and mistake a snake for a garden hose, the consequence may be fatal. I am not attempting to claim that one hemisphere interprets the low consequence scenario and the other interprets the high. I simply want to raise this nuance.

He makes the point that if we compare some known authentic object to a recollection, we want to retain the one that is more accurate.

I see a similar challenge. Hypothetically, let’s say I present a red disc and manipulate the hemispheres to activate only one at a time, asking to recall the object. If the left says it’s red and the right says it’s a disc, which is more correct? Again, I am not claiming that this is a real scenario, but if one side possesses facts unavailable to the other side, we’ve got a problem in making a truth claim.

To reiterate, the left hemisphere is more analogous to a photograph or a video account whereas the right hemisphere is to be in the place that is being photographed. The right hemisphere is duratively presenced whilst the left is re-presented. We move from a nominative form to a verbial form of representing reality. This leads him to ask if ‘truth’ is a thing or a process.

He shifts to a linguistic argument. When people view ‘truth’ as a noun, as a thing, the expectation is that it is static. Moreover, the descriptors of truth are rendered mainly in the past tense—representation, fact, perfect, precise, certain, and concluded. He provides definitions. When viewed duratively, ‘truth’ becomes a process. It is an active relationship. It flows. It’s an intercourse.

We may not ever get to an agreed truth, but neither is every position valid. Interpreting a text, for example, may have several conflicting meanings, but the possible meanings are relatively finite.

Take a simple sentence such as, “The dog bit the hand that feeds him.” This could be meant literally or figuratively. We might imagine different dogs, hands and person to whom the hand is attached. Perhaps the hand is attached to a bonobo. Perhaps, it’s a robotic hand. These are among various possible interpretations, and we may not ever agree on the truth of the matter. However, we can rule out that a giraffe or a watermelon were central to this narrative for what it’s worth.

The bookgoes on to discuss the etymology of the word ‘truth’ and of its relationship to the word ‘true’ (faithful) which is further related to ‘trust’. I won’t exhaust his explanation.

He does discuss correspondence and coherence theories of truth and discounts others such as consensus theory and social constructivism. He cautions not to equate truth with correctness. This is a left hemisphere game insisting on dichotomising things.

The book declares the despite a general agreement on the source or nature of truth, there is something there, so don’t give up un it. In the end, he seems to settle for a Pragmatistic version à la William James.

Personally, I feel he and others are over-invested in the nature of truth. And inflate its meaning over ‘fact’. To me, Capital-T Truth is an archetype, but it doesn’t otherwise exist. We have facts, and truth is sort of a perfect version of a fact. Love is in the same category, though I know Iain would disagree with this assertion. Of course, James dismissed semantic argument as petty and insisted that people simply know the truth of something. I’ve always found this take to be dismissive. I also feel that Pragmatism is too steeped in Empiricism and loses hold of the notion that what happened yesterday may not in fact manifest today or not in the same way.

I’ll also argue as others have before me that (besides being archetypal) the term is a redundant filler word. On a minuscule level, if I say ‘The cup is red’, saying ,’It’s true that the cup is red adds nothing’. The equation was already asserted. This leaves one to wonder what the purpose of it is.

Returnng to the asymmetry of the hemispheres he cautions up not to take a position that one of the other side is correct. Rather, even though there is an asymmetry in value, there is still a synthesis.

Iain uses the example of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. At one point, they are practically synonymous and interchangeable. Only as we reach the speed of light does Newtonian physic exceed the bounds of its scope. He also educated the reader on the difference between precision and accuracy.

I like to view this in a musical context. If I play two notes together, say a B over an E, neither is more correct than the other. Notionally, I am playing an E5/B. This is neither an E or a B. The chord is the result of the two playing simultaneously. In this case E and B are both true and not true because the E5 is a synthesis. If I add a G# I get an E-major chord, subsequently adding a D renders an E7. In each of these cases, the truth of the notes, B, D, E, and G# remain true to their identity, but the fact is that the individuality is subsumed by the collective. This is the prevailing truth even though a person with perfect pitch can still individually identify the constituents of the chord. I don’t know if this is more confusion than necessary, but it helps me.

I’ve always like this illustration with target grouping, but this was not referenced by the book.

Image: Precision and Accuracy Chart

Interestingly, he cites Jay Zwicky’s definition: “Truth is the asymptotic limit of sensitive attempts to be responsible to our actual experience of the world … ‘sensitive attempts to be responsible’ means truth is the result of attention. (As opposed to inspection.) Of looking informed by love. Of really looking.” He accedes that there are degrees of truth.

Truth is the asymptotic limit of sensitive attempts to be responsible to our actual experience of the world

Jay Zwicky

This asymptosis is how I describe Truth in my Truth about Truth post.

As the chapter comes to a close, he leaves us with a twisted categorical syllogism,

  • [p1] All monkeys climb trees
  • [p2] The porcupine in a monkey
  • [ c ] The porcupine climes trees

This structure presents a valid argument. However, it is not sound. It follows the Socratic logical syntax:

  • [p1] M a P
  • [p2] S a M
  • [ c [ S a P

Because of our exposure to and experience with the external world, we can assess this argument to be unsound, which is to say untrue by observation. Without this context, we could not render this assessment. He discusses the way right- and left-hemisphere occluded subjects respond to this discrepancy. In summary, an isolated left hemisphere with defend the logical syntax over the lived experience.

In conclusion, the hemispheres take different paths to assess truth and often end up at different destinations. The left hemisphere sees truth as a thing whilst the right views it as a process.

Language Perception

The link between language and cognition is interesting though not entirely grasped.

VIDEO: TED Talk on YouTube — Lera Boroditsky

“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”

― Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (probably not, but whatevs…)


In the West, we tend to be quite self-centric. We are the centres of our universes, and this has several implications. Firstly, we orient conversation around ourselves; occasionally, we orient conversation around others. Instead, some cultures orient themselves around their world.

Self as Centre

Ordinarily, if a Westerner is asked which is their dominant hand, they might answer left or right. If they are asked to describe where something is spatially, one might answer on my left or right or above or below me. If the person asking is present, they may simply point to the object as a gesture.

Other as Centre

In some cases, we might feel it necessary to orient relative to another? The answer to the question, “Where is the book?” might be, “On your left”, or “You’ve got something on your left cheek”.

Terrain as Centre

In the West, we have notions of cardinal directions—North, East, West, and South—, but we still tend to orient communication around ourselves or others. In some regions, the use of cardinal directions is more prominent than in others. For example, when I am in Boston, I didn’t find many people reference places by cardinal directions, but when I am in Los Angeles, much conversation is relative to head north or head east. I notice that Google Maps tend to employ this. It’s often confusing when I am in an unfamiliar place, and the voice instructs me to travel west toward Avenue X. If I happen to have remembered where Avenue X is, I might internally orient toward that. Otherwise, I head in some direction until Google reinforces my choice or it rather recalculates based on my bad choice, if even nonjudgmentally.

In some cultures, this cardinality includes the body, so in comparison with the aforementioned self-as-centre dominant hand query, the response would depend on which way the subject was facing. Were they a southpaw (lefthander) facing north, they would respond that their west hand is dominant. But if they were facing south, it would be their east hand. This may seem to be confusing to a Westerner, but to a native, they would explicitly understand because they would be intimately oriented. As Lera relates in the video, someone might point out an ant crawling on your southwest leg.

To be fair, this space is not entirely alien to some Westerners. For example, mariners can shift the conversation from themselves to their ship or boat. Rather than left and right, relative to themselves or another, they might refer to port and starboard relative to the vessel. Being on the vessel and facing front (the bow), left is port and starboard is right; however, facing the rear (the stern), left is not starboard and right is now port. So, if someone asks where the lifeboat is, landlubbers may say it’s on their left whilst a sailor might say it’s on the starboard side.

Centring Time

Time is another aspect we centre on ourselves. I won’t even endeavour to raise the circular notion of time. If an English speaker thinks about a timeline, we would likely configure it from left to right equating with past to future. This aligns with our writing preference. For native Arabic or Hebrew speakers, they might naturally opt to convey this from right to left in accordance with their preferred writing system.

For the Aboriginal Kuuk Thaayorre in Australia, their rendition of time was contingent on their orientation in the world. Essentially, time flows from east to west, perhaps in accordance with the apparent movement of the sun across the sky relative to Earth. Facing south or north, they rendered time left to right and right to left, respectively. When they faced east, time came toward the subject, with time moving away from the body when facing west.


So-called modern or advanced societies have developed number systems, but some cultures either have no counting or limited counting, having systems that might extend 1, 2, many, or 1, 2, 3, many. This means that tasks we learn like accounting, inventory management, or comparing counts of apples and oranges are not only not available to these people, they are irrelevant to them.

Categorical Imperitive

Lera tells us about the blues. Not B.B. King Blues, but the categorisation of blue, blues, and colours more generally. I’ve discussed this before in various places. As with numbers, some languages have a lot and some have few; some have only distinctions for light and dark, or equivalents of white, black, red, and so on. Colour names are typically added to a language in a similar order based on the frequency within the visual colour spectrum. I may have written about that earlier as well if only I could find it.

Different cultures and languages categorise colours differently, subdividing them differently. In many non-English languages, pink is simply light red. English opts to assign it a unique label. On the other hand, blue is basically one colour name in English whilst it is further broken down in Russian to goluboi (light blue, голубой) and siniy (darker blue, синий). This mirrors the pattern of pink (lighter red) and red (darker red) in English, a distinction not prevalent in other languages. Of course, we also have variations of reds and blues such as crimson or cyan, but this is rather second-order nuance.

Interestingly, in neurological studies, when measuring a person with a language that splits a colour, say a Russian looking at blues, the instruments capture the event of the subject having noticed the category shift. No such shift occurs in speakers without such a switch. I would be interested to know what the results would be for a bilingual speaker to be asked to respond in each language. Informally, I asked a Russian mate of mine if he experienced anything differently seeing blue whilst thinking in Russian versus English. He said yes, but couldn’t really provide any additional information. If a reader happens to be fluent in two or more languages, I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences.

One last note on colour, I’ve read studies that claim that women on balance have more colour names than men, which is to say where a typical male only sees shades of blue, the typical woman sees periwinkle, ultramarine, cyan, navy, cobalt, indigo, cerulean, teal, slate, sapphire, turquoise, and on and on. Of course, many English-speaking males may be defensive about now, arguing, “I know cyan. I know teal. Who doesn’t know turquoise?” Knowing is different to employing, and perhaps you’re not typical. You’re an atypical male. Let’s not get into gender challenges. Rather, let’s.

Gender Problems

Yet again, gender rears its ugly head. I am wondering when people are going to start demanding fluidity among gendered nouns. Sticking with Lera’s examples, a bridge happens to be grammatically feminine in Germans and masculine in Spanish. When asked to describe a bridge, German speakers are more apt to choose stereotypically feminine adjectives, beautiful or elegant whilst Spanish speakers opted for stereotypically masculine terms, strong or long. I suppose she was reaching for laughter on that last reference.

Structured Events

Objects and subjective injection are other possible conventions. Lera mentions a tourist bumping into a vase. In English, one would be comfortable declaring, “The man knocked the vase off the pedestal.” In Spanish, the same event might more often be described as “The vase fell off the pedestal”. Notice the shift in agency and dispersion of blame. In English, we have some apparent need to inject not only a cause but an agent as a source of the cause. As I see it, one might have these several (possibly inexhaustive) options:

  1. He knocked the vase off the stand.
  2. Someone knocked the vase off the stand.
  3. The vase got knocked off the stand.
  4. The vase fell off the stand.

I decided to note the relationship between the case and the stand. I suppose this is not strictly necessary and might seem superfluous in some contexts.

In case 1, a specific agent (he) is responsible for knocking off the vase. This does not suggest intent, though even negligence carries weight in many circles.

In case 2, the agent becomes indefinite. The speaker wants to specify that the vase didn’t just fall over on its own.

In case 3, agency is not only indefinite, but it also may not have a subject. Perhaps, a cat knocked it off—or the wind or an earth tremor.

In the final case, 4, the agent is removed from the conversation altogether, All that is conveyed is that the vase fell from a stand.

One might want to argue, “So what?” but this is not simply a convention of language; it stems from perception—or perhaps perception was altered by language through acculturation, but let’s not quibble here. It determines what someone pays attention to. When an event was witnessed, people from cultures where agency is a strong component, the witness is more apt to remember the culprit, whereas a non-agency-focused witness, would not be as likely to recall attributes about the person who may have knocked it over. Practically, this leads to issues of blame and culpability. Clearly, a culture with an agent orientation might be quicker to assess blame, where this would be further removed from the conversation from a different cultural perspective. I am speculating here, but I don’t feel it’s a large logical leap.

In a retributive justice system, the language that assigns agency is more likely to mete out harsher punishments because he broke the vase, it wasn’t simply broken. The use of language guides our reasoning. This leads me to wonder whether those who are ‘tough on crime‘ use different language construction than those who are more lenient.


I just wanted to share my thoughts and connect language with cognition. I don’t think that the connection is necessarily strong or profound, but there is something, and there are more language nuances than noted here.

What is real? What is true?

An online colleague published an essay on another essay (en français). The gist was to say that their ideas were the same save for whether a core foundation was reality or truth. I am going to stylise these and derivatives in capital initials, e.g., Real and Truth. I am not sure I see the connexion, and perhaps Lance will chime in here directly to correct any misunderstandings and fill in any holes.

Podcast: Audio rendition is this page content

At least in English vernacular, True and Real are close synonyms. I don’t feel they are as close as we may assume at first glance. I think each of these terms carries with it its own ambiguity and connotation, so a meaningful discussion may prove to be difficult.

I’m not sure if it’s a fair characterisation, but I feel that most people consider Real as what they can sense or experience. Some may not even allow for the experiential component. In my mind, metaphorically thinking, of course, a book might be real; an idea might be real; even the idea of a unicorn might be real, but unicorns are not real. If we want to claim unicorns as part of Reality or include it in the set of Reality, then it would be a second-order sort. Substituting Harry Potter for unicorns, the idea of Harry Potter is real, but Harry Potter is a figment. Of course, Harry Potter may be the name of a human or your pet otter, but this is not the manifest Harry Potter of the idea. And Harry Potter is not a unicorn.

Harry Potter is not a unicorn

I mention Harry Potter and, indeed, unicorns, because I have had people argue that these things are real. For me, they are off the table, whether real or imagined. I feel that some people may also reduce Real to material, so a Realist would be the same as a Materialist. That’s fine except we end up with obvious non-material stuff on the cutting room floor. What do we do with emotions and so-called qualia? Sure, some might equate emotions with biochemical reactions and some synaptic exchange in some parts of the brain, further articulated through facial and bodily expressions and gestures. For the Materialist, we may not yet know the mechanism, but it’s only a matter of time—in the same manner as atoms became protons and electrons, which became quarks with spins and colour, and this morphed into fields.

Being sympathetic to Analytic Idealism, I might argue that none of this is real because all we can experience is what we can sense, but what we sense is a second order of Reality. We can’t even experience the first-order variety. The usual analogy is to look at computer bits or the funky Matrix code, and it doesn’t reveal what we see or experience through the interface. In the case of the Matrix, the interface is their perceived reality. But perception isn’t Reality. At least Descartes suggests as much. If first-order Reality is unattainable, we can either consider this sensed and experienced world second order. This leaves our unicorns and Harry Potter to be third order. In this case, we might idiomatically consider the first-order to be understood to exist, but our use of Reality extends only to the second-order variety.

In any case, I don’t expect to resolve the mystery of Reality here and now, but it is a dialogue where accord is necessary to be on the same proverbial page.

But then what is True? What is Truth? I’ve written about this previously. Here, we are explicitly invoking the capital-T version of Truth, not the minuscule-t version where it’s synonymous with pedestrian ‘facts’ and tautologies. By True, are we asking what is objectively real—unadulterated by subjective experience, some universal and invariable condition? And is this Truth what is Real? Are there Truths that are not Real?

To sum it up, it is quite standard—although not universal by a long shot—to consider Real what we can experience whilst True is something that requires proof. A physical table might be real. Like unicorns, mathematic concepts may be true—I’d argue that this is tautological whilst others might defend some Platonic ideal—, but they are not real. They are an abstraction. I suppose my point is to not take these words for granted and presume they can be directly interchanged. I suppose in the adjective form, they are more apt to coincide—Is that a true Picasso? Is that a real Picasso? Clearly, when we are asking if it is real, we are asking if it is truly genuine rather than questioning its materiality.

It may be true that I am wittering away online in some masturbatory pseudo-intellectual frenzy, and the results may be virtually real, but I needed to let my mind wander for a bit. If you’ve gotten this far, bless your heart, and leave a comment.

And so it goes.

Music Property

The topic of intellectual property gets me every time. As much as I am opposed to the notion of property in general, intellectual property is a complete farce. Along with Rick Beato and David Bennet, Adam Neely is one of my three main music theory staples on YouTube. Here, he goes into more depth than I would have expected, but it’s worth hearing the perspective of a musician. I won’t break down his video fully because it speaks for itself. Instead, I’ll share my thoughts and pull out highlights.

Podcast: Audio version of this page content.

November 8th, 1548 is the day in history that the French King Henri II opened the door to intellectual property, an obvious giveaway to a benefactor, creating a publishing monopoly. He turned community cultural knowledge into property, turning the benefit of many into the benefit of one. This is the crux of capitalism—favouring the one over the many.

Before continuing, it seems that there is a schism in the legal system itself. In fact, it is very fractured even within this small domain. At the same time it wants to be precise and analytical, it’s dealing with a subject that cannot be analysed as such. To add insult to injury, it exempts musicians and musical experts and requires music consumers to decide the outcomes of trial cases. To be fair, even relying on so-called experts would lead to mixed results anyway. They might as well just roll the dice. This is what happens when right hemisphere art enters a left hemisphere world.

nature + work = ownership

Adam establishes a grounding on the theory of property rights à la John Locke’s ‘sweat of the brow’ concept, wherein nature plus work equates to ownership. He then points out how intellectual property has even shakier ground to stand on. It relies rather on notions of originality and creativity, two concepts that have no intersection with the left-hemisphere heavy legal and jurisprudence systems. Moreover, like pornography, these things cannot be defined. They need to be divined. Divination is no place for lay jurists. It’s a recipe for disaster. The entire English court system is rife with problems, but the left-brainers feel these are just trivial devils in the details. I beg to differ, yet I am voiceless because I won’t participate within their frame.

Adam also points out how out of date the law is insomuch as it doesn’t recognise much of the music produced in the past few decades. Moreover, the music theory it’s founded on is the Romantic Era, white European music that often ties transcriptionists in knots. If the absence of certain words to emote experience is a challenge, it’s even worse for musical notation.

In any case, this is a hot-button issue for me on many levels, and I needed to vent in solidarity. This video is worth the 30 minutes run time. His ham sandwich analogy in part V works perfectly. It’s broken into logical sections:

  1. 0:00 Intro
  2. 1:45 Part I – Rhythm-A-Ning
  3. 7:07 Part II – Property Rights
  4. 11:25 Part III – Copyright
  5. 15:58 Part IV – Musical Constraints
  6. 22:18. Part V – HAM SANDWICH TIME
  7. 26:51 Part VI – Solving copyright….maybe?

Give it a listen. Cheers.

The cover image for this is of Thelonius Monk (circa 1947), who features heavily in the video.