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Word power: thoughts on language

Verbal Overshadowing

Verbal overshadowing is a process by which a person’s memory of faces and other hard-to-describe perceptions becomes compromised by speaking or writing about the perceptions.  Witnesses to crimes are less likely to correctly identify the perpetrator if they have made a description than if they have not – especially if the description is made within the first ten or fifteen minutes.

Research on verbal overshadowing challenges the popular notion held by philosophers and psychologists that language lies at the core of thought.  Various forms of inexpressible knowledge may be best served by avoiding the application of language. Shall I abandon this blog?

Zipfian Distributions 

If you count the frequency of words used in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the word “the” emerges as the most frequently used word, with a frequency of about 9%.  The word “I” ranked tenth, and has a frequency of 1%.  The word “say” has the rank of 100, and has a frequency a tenth of that.  This power ratio between how frequently a word occurred and how it ranked compared to the frequency of other words was discovered by a linguist named Howard Zipf (who apparently had a lot of time on his hands, as he went around counting the words in very large books…but perhaps it was just that he found Ulysses to be so impermeable that he gave up trying to understand it, and  decided that quantity and quality were in some way interchangeable), and was later discovered to apply not just to Joyce’s writing, but to all language and even to the frequency and intensity of earthquakes, among other physical phenomena.

And the physical and linguistic worlds are not the only ones to have dynamics of scale. In the world of sociology we find Zipfian distributions, where the rank of the most populous city is proportional to its density.  This is to say that the most populous city has seven times as many people as the seventh most populous city, no matter if you count in 1863 or 2002. No matter if the biggest city is New York or Detroit. If you think about it, it suggests that we are all communicating with each other, coordinating how many people should move from one city to the other, in order to keep the power ratio in balance. Kinda spooky.

words on the brain

The area of the frontal lobe of the brain known as Broca’s Area, usually develops only in the left hemisphere, and allows words to be formed by coordinating the movements of the lips and tongue.  When the area is damaged a person can make sounds and simple words such as “yes” and “no” , but can not say longer words or speak in sentences.

The tertiary association area receives and integrates information from other association areas.  Its temporal portion is called Wernicke’s Area after a nineteenth century German physician.  Wernicke’s Area uses memory to extract meaning from patterns of sensory information.  Damage to this area prevents comprehension of thoughts expressed in written or spoken sentences.  An affected person would experience something like listening to a foreign language.  Electrically stimulating this area can elicit such vivid recall that people feel like an event is actually happening all over again. Its interesting to note that people with Asperger’s Syndrome often have difficulty understanding written information, and often have an affinity for the visual arts.

Gehlek Rimpoche’s take on verbal overshadowing

A few people, the honest ones, will tell you “I am angry.” Most people say “I’m not angry, but…” Or “I don’t have a problem, but, somebody else has a problem.” You have a problem as large as an elephant inside, however much you deny it.  By denying, you can build up your anger a little more, and you can manipulate a few other people in between; create a little more trouble and negative karma.

That’s what we do.  Instead, try to acknowledge it.  If you can acknowledge that you’re angry and give yourself a minute or two to watch your own mind, you will feel a little embarrassed, a little soft, a little bit sheepish, too.  And when that happens, the power of your anger has been cut tremendously.

The ten precepts

Dont Kill

Don’t Steal

Don’t engage in illicit sex

Don’t tell lies

Don’t speak divisively

Don’t speak abusively

Don’t engage in idle chatter

Abandon greed

Abandon ill will

Cultivate right views.


Gossip conveys interesting information about sex, violence, money, vices, virtues and foibles.  These themes, of much concern to us individually, are also the subject of gossip columns (and blogs?…) The objects of gossip fall into three major groups: 1) people in our immediate surroundings, 2) famous people and 3) people whose intimate and personal lives are unique.  Insofar as gossip does not require intellectual knowledge of the abstract, but awareness of the specific, it is similar to literary fiction.  The curiosity satisfied by gossip differs in important respects from intellectual or scientific curiosity, but this difference in itselfis irrelevant to the moral evaluation of gossip.

Average people talk about things. Above average people talk about people. Superior people talk about ideas. Lets not forget that fully half the population is below average (and, presumably, silent. But how could that be?).

A question of grammar

When we say “The clouds gathered and then it began to rain”, what is the “it” to which we refer?

The expletive “it” is always followed by a singular verb:

It is the little maestro and his hangers on.

Its was the vampires who paid a visit to the schloss.

It is the ingenue who has such panache.

The gerund phrase is used as a noun, and that’s the only way it will ever consent to find itself in a sentence you write.  It may  function in any way a noun does:

Ogling stevedores is his penchant. (subject)

He relishes ogling stevedores. (direct object)

His proclivity is ogling stevedores. (subjective complement)

He indulges in ogling stevedores. (object of preposition “in”)

Language development in children

At 2-3 years children leap from communicating simply to identify a need to communication for communication’s sake. At around 18 months toddlers undergo a watershed or threshold of consciousness of time, delayed actions, speculation about the future and etc.  One of the threshold functions of this period is called “object permanence”, or “out of sight, out of mind.”  Before reaching the watershed period a child can not find an object, no matter how attractive, when it is covered by another object (e.g. candy under a blanket or a doll behind a pillow).  Only after a certain point in neurobiological maturation can the child find the hidden object.  Before then, the child can not be taught to think of the object as merely hidden from view.

This is a spatial memory function that requires an operating temporal lobe and hippocampal place-mapping system.  Regardless of the information, the teaching or the training, the nervous system can notperform the operations that underlie language, symbolic gestures, drawing, artistic expression, internal imagery, etc., until the brain reaches a stage of functioning that produces object permanence behavior.

A successful politician is one who willfully abandons object permanence behavior. In fact, in today’s political arena indifference and ignorance have been cast as virtues.  People feel they are right to be ignorant, right to be parochial, right, by God, just to be American. They are adept, too in the art of concealing what is not worth finding.


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