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A podcast about words, language, and why we say the things we do

Last Build Date: Fri, 14 Mar 2014 14:35:41 +0000


By: Alistair

Tue, 13 Jun 2006 09:52:00 +0000

You got to the point where you don't need language for memory (which I agree with), but along the way Dave, I think, said something along the lines of "you can remember smells, but can't verbalise them". I would suggest that this is more a reflection of the (lack of) importance of smell in everyday conversation. If smell was more regularly discussed (i.e. more "important") then we would most likely have the categories and labels to be able to more accurately describe smell. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if there was some group of researchers that had already created the categories and labels, i.e. the jargon, to describe smell. Which makes me think that it would be great to have an episode on categorisation and language, what categories mean, how they influence our language and our thought. If you're interested in this sort of thing, "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things - What Categories Reveal about the Mind" is a fascinating read, be warned though, it is heavy going. Christoph wondered whether it is possible to think without language. My answer would be "yes, but not as well". We must have started thinking to be able to develop language. Our ability to think clearly and to take in new concepts obviously depends heavily on our language. I'd argue that ideas that form in your mind without having thought about them are derived from our unconscious (which is capable of processing language) and of the human's mind to make associations. Thanks again guys for a great podcast.

By: luci

Mon, 12 Jun 2006 21:23:12 +0000

Just a comment about the forgetting parts or words of your native tongue. First off just so you know I'm not bilingual but I think it may help. Anyways, I am currently studying several different languages and I find it helps to keep a log/journal in those languages just to keep my practice up and to help remember the things I have learned. Now granted I am not very adversed in most of those languages at all so they aren't that interesting of entries but it helps. So maybe that can help you out to remember your native tongue as you spend time speaking or in the area of another language. Well gtg study. Ciao -Luci

By: Paul Lawler

Sat, 03 Jun 2006 21:13:32 +0000

A very interesting take on your question of whether it is possible to "think" without language is explored in a science fiction series by Orson Scott Card which begins with the novel, "Ender's Game." The series revolves around what does (or does not) constitute a "sentient" being... so the related questions are... can we be sentient without language? Does language alone make us sentient?

By: Christoph

Thu, 01 Jun 2006 07:36:15 +0000

Dave, Howard, I was at first sceptical when I read the title of your show -- but this was one of the best, in my view because you managed to link your discussion about words to other fields of study, such as psycology and neuroscience. I agree with you and Dan (above) that memory exists very well without words; and isn't the "Scent of a Woman" something we can't forget? However, what I have been wondering about for decades now is wether it is possible to *think* without language. My preliminary conclusion is that it is not, at least not if you define thinking in the stricter sense as "deriving logically". For that matter you would have to count math as a language but that is probably uncontroversial. The relation of spoken language to thinking can be seen also from the common assertion that "German is the language of philosophy" (while English is the language of trade and French that of diplomacy). Of course ideas can form in your mind without having *thought* about them. That would then have to be called intuition, would it not? Or "gut feeling": Recent research has found that the amout of nerve cells in and around the human gastrointestinal tract is very, very large -- comparable to that of the brain. Journalists in *Geo*, a German pendant to *National Geographic* have called this the "Bauchgehirn". What I find very interesting, too, is that often my subconsciousness will work out problems for me "overnight", obviously without words, or at least without my knowledge of it using words. Nevertheless the result can be such that I suddenly know what to *say*, e. g. in an upcoming interview. PS: I can also connect to what Ellen (above) and you both said. That's one reason why I listen to American/English podcasts. ;-)

By: Skinny White Boy

Thu, 01 Jun 2006 02:32:39 +0000

Bi-langual??? Bi-Lingual!! I... not A!! Sheesh!

By: Skinny White Boy

Thu, 01 Jun 2006 02:30:58 +0000

The above comment about having to relearn English after having spend time in a foreign country reminded me of my own experience being bi-langual. I am originally from the Netherlands but have lived in the US for going on 8 years. I often find myself searching for words when I speak to my family and friends back home and lately I have developed the "habit" for using americanisms directly translated into Dutch. My Dutch friends always laugh when I say things (again, directly translated into Dutch) like: I have to get back to work and make some money. Make in Dutch means manufacture and not earn (which is what you would say in Dutch). The other day I found myself saying that I was "off the hook" which means absolutely nothing in Dutch and often I get asked if I have a sweet tooth because "a piece of cake" is not something that's very easy but something that is eaten. Luckily most of my friends and relatives know me well enough and have enough English language skills to figure out what my butcherings mean!

By: Dan

Wed, 31 May 2006 00:48:57 +0000

Hey guys, I'd like to add my responses to your show on memory. It triggered in my thoughts this theory I seem to remember, but not from where, that smell is the sense linked strongest to memory. Maybe this is an evolutionary trait? Which then had me wondering about animals, like dogs with their keen senses of smell, obviously must have sense memory that may or may not be linked to forms of communication. And then that snowballed into me wondering about bees who don't have an oral tradition but communicate through "dance." And then there's ants who use chemicals to communicate. Which then has me questioning what really composes the bones of language. Is it sound, is it visual cues, like accepted pictograms [i.e. characters/letters], or both, or not necessarily either? Hmmm, I'm flummoxed. I would like to give a shout out to one of my fave sites, "" I normally use it to check my spelling, due to my lack of memory on such issues. That brings up the whole "mnemonic" issue. Seems you have to remember that it isn't spelled like it sounds. And then there's going to be all those darling, little eggheads on television spelling their brains out this week. That must take a lot of memory too. Maybe memory is a way we organize information in our brains and then language is a way that we convey that information? I'm still flummoxed, but that's okay. At least it got me thinking. Which is why I love your show. Thanks for your time, effort and consideration.

By: Ellen

Sun, 28 May 2006 11:45:37 +0000

Re special: Is it just me or does the name Special Olympics sound a little sugar-coated. Re language when returning to your home culture: I have a friend who went to Mexico one summer and apparently when she came back had to remember how to speak English. I must say, I'm jealous!

By: Charles Hodgson

Sat, 27 May 2006 15:12:28 +0000

I want to remember to thank you for another solid show, enjoyed as I dice and taste in prep for a dinner party tonight. I was thinking about how you, as teachers represent an excellent conduit for the rest of us to learn new word meanings as used by teenagers. Also it's interesting to think about the spectrum of long term adoption of those meanings. Some will stick because the students will age and perpetuate them. In other cases the weight of history of a meaning for a word will force people to revert as they break from their school culture and merge with their career culture environments. But they won't forget the old (new) meanings.

By: Jolly Mercenary

Sat, 27 May 2006 13:38:37 +0000

What’s the differences between “faucet” and “sidespray”? Thanks!