KNAW Language Conference: Diversity and Universals in Language, Culture, and Cognition

[ 0 ] October 25, 2013 |

The constant research conducted by a translation firm such as ours cannot be reduced to finding innovative software and organizational methods, albeit important tasks. The Alpha Omega Translations blog is a testament to the world languages, etymologies, and writing systems that we explore, trace and attempt to decipher. While the stories of these jewels of humanities are interesting individually, there is definite excitement with the news of a conference in Leiden, Netherlands that proposes cross-disciplinary research on language diversity and human thinking.

Indeed the Royal Netherlands Academic of the Arts and Sciences (KNAW) is funding a revolutionary linguistic initiative which will occur October 24-26. The presenting team, including Dutch and foreign researchers, will draw from the humanities, which encompasses the majority of the disciplines involved, and neuroscience. The former field will provide its valuable and fascinating historical input on how languages evolved to become what they are today, and the latter will balance the discussion with an approach on the universality of languages.

This is where neurologists differ from anthropologists in the measure where they see the brain as identical in all cultures dominated by a “psychic unity”, while their counterparts focus on the diversity of human traditions. There has been considerable rift in past research on the subject between those claiming language acquisition , competence, and processing are universal traits and those outlining the differences in how language is expressed. The subjects will be skeptically unraveled at the conference in regards to human perception, grammar, whether spoken or signed, structure, evolution, and diversity. This last concept, diversity, is a supposedly strong tradition in Dutch research, not surprising for a globalized nation seated between linguistic giants, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

The basic scheduling of the three-day conference will oversee the mornings dedicated to plenary lectures and the afternoons to various workshops. Of special interest to the readers of our series of articles on whistled languages is the presence of Julien Meyer at the conference with his important contributions to whistled language phonology. Together with presenters on musical languages and signed languages, there will be a rupture from the common conception that a language must be the vocal cord “workout” most people know it as. Fortunately, the aforementioned academic fields will certainly shed light and debate where it is due.

A series of abstracts allow attendees to preview the various discourses of the academicians of which a few summaries can be included here. Universalist Mark Baker, of Rutgers University, sees a paradox in how closely languages are related that have completely different grammatical and structural differences. His reasoning is based around, in laymen’s terms, a similar pattern of differences.

The fact that in Mohawk the direct object is inside the verb phrase explains other grammatical differences that exist with English, for example. Didier Demolin of the Université de Grenoble is clear in his deliberation of language development due to environment. His anthropological study of human anatomy provides his explanation for the variation in speech patterns and pronunciation. A likely interesting presentation is that of Asifa Majid of the Radboud University Nijmegen. Her brief abstract outlines her discoveries on the properties of meaning. Meaning could be innate and universal or reflect specific cultural preoccupations. She seems to suggest that a human acquires language before having a conception of meaning. Of the same University in in Nijmegen is Peter Muysken who is dedicated to the survival of linguistics, not arbitrarily, rather, using integrative approaches. Within the available workshops a few of the same researchers are present. Didier Demolin focuses on the Central African pygmy whose phonological way of speaking is quite peculiar and distinctly musical.

Julien Meyer follows with some information on whistled languages, till now, almost unheard of. News of an Amazonian and a Southeast Asian whistled language will be shared to eager audiences. Another workshop topic, central to the conference, deals with the universal properties of languages in a micro- and macro- setting. Mark Baker returns with detailed scientific research on syntactic and morphological variation in the hopes of clearing doubts on his universalist opinions. A slightly lighter presentation will take place with Vincent de Rooij from the University of Amsterdam. He argues that body language gives socio-cultural meaning to linguistic forms. Presentations following his are specific to uncommon individual languages and the knowledge issues that denote them from common ones. Thus Lokono, Maniq, Papuan languages, and one from Suriname are covered. Probably in the same register as Demolin’s studies of anatomy and language are Dan Dediu’s ( Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics) studies of genetic foundations. To conclude the array of knowledge displayed at the conference, the neurologists take the stage at the workshops to present cognitive topics, including but not restricted to “semantics in Parkinson’s disease”, a reference to Alzheimer’s disease, and “nouns and verbs in the brain”.

This conference will shed light on anthropology, phonology, and neurology in regards to languages as
Arapesh_02_049-1your access to study material and perhaps attendance at future events.  The never ending debate between relativism and universalism which may well have started with the ancient Biblical story of the “Tower of Babel” is an open-ended question which our firm will not attempt to answer but instead will relish as an opportunity to research the very fundamentals of human language and why it is so important in shaping history. Remember that keeping linguistic diversity is of upmost importance and we’ll provide the bridge with translation and interpretation services.

For an overview of our translation expertise, visit our medical and life science translation service page.

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