Saturday 2 January 2010

The brain, reading and language...

This article over at the NY Times got me thinking this evening as I sat comfortably on our couch, stuffed full of homemade tortillas and the last of the bubbly wine from New Years. It started a catalystic process and bought together a few ideas that have been lying around for a while waiting to be a quasi-intelligent blog post around the ideas of reading and language.

Reading, according to the book at the centre of the article in question, is not something our brain was evolved to do, which given the voracity with which the majority of us consume information visually (books, internet, signs, menus...) is quite something. However, it seems that the reason that we do despite this fact is that our brains are nothing if not adaptable little buggers that will have a crack at most anything and rise to any occasion. So much so, it seems that the brains of each successive generation are markedly different to the previous ones - quite something to get your head around if you'll excuse the unintentional pun.

Another thing the book talks about is the arbitrariness (or not) of words. As it says in the article:

"In one of the most interesting chapters, he argues that the shapes we 
use to make written letters mirror the shapes that primates 
use to recognize objects. After all, I could use any arbitrary squiggle 
to encode the sound at the start of “Tree” instead of a T. But actually 
the shapes of written symbols are strikingly similar across many languages.
It turns out that T shapes are important to monkeys, too. 
When a monkey sees a T shape in the world, it is very 
likely to indicate the edge of an object — something the monkey can grab 
and maybe even eat. A particular area of its brain pays special 
attention to those significant shapes. Human brains use the same 
area to process letters. Dehaene makes a compelling case that 
these brain areas have been “recycled” for reading. “We did not 
invent most of our letter shapes,” he writes. “They lay dormant 
in our brains for millions of years, and were merely rediscovered 
when our species invented writing and the alphabet.”

If I haven't completely missed the mark here, and do keep in mind that leftover bubbly already in my system, then it sounds like Dehaene (the author of the book on reading and neurology) is saying that there is some connection between the physical shape of words and their meaning, something which directly contradicts the theory of Saussure who claimed that "the connection between the signifier (the word) and the signified (the concept for which this word stands) is arbitrary."

This is where my own jumbled musings come in - before I had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of the Chinese language I would have heartily agreed with Saussure, whom I studied in the first year of my Masters in the dreaded literary theory class. Logically, it seemed there was no more reason that "cat" should signify the fluffy, occasionally demanding domestic creature that goes meow anymore than the word "bleft" should. It just seems that the word cat was chosen and for some reason, stuck. Then I started to learn to read for the second time in my life and found that this theory didn't always necessarily hold true. There  are a few choice examples from written Chinese I'd like to point to:

This first one means middle. A line through the centre of a box - you can see how this means middle.

This one means tree and looks like a tree too!

These two words, separately, mean woods and forrest. The one with 2 trees is woods and the one with 3 trees means forrest (more trees - bigger - forrest). Again - it just makes sense!

Finally, this one means big - imagine a person stretching their arms to describe a fish they caught - "It was thiiiiiiis big!"

There are others of course and in turn, not all chinese words look like their meaning, but enough of them do to make me wonder what Saussure would make of this. It's just a mild curiosity I've been nursing for a wee while and this NY Times article kind of brought it all together for me. Maybe the written language isn't so arbitrary after all? How can it be - we are after all creatures who crave meaning and pattern so language surely must have developed from this desire in some way.

In any case, I think that's about the extent of my linguistic musings for this evening. It's far too large a subject area for me to tackle with any seriousness and I don't claim to be anything but an interested observer - reading a few articles here and there surely doesn't make you an expert. It's fun to speculate though! Any thoughts?


  1. What an interesting thing to explore. The Chinese words do make more sense than ours since they are so close to being drawings.

  2. Hi Lisa! Thanks for the comment :) It's just been something that's been swirling around in my head for a while - nothing wildly coherent but it's an interesting point to ponder!