Friday, March 19, 2010

Thoughts on the Evolution of Language In Western Society.

I only say 'Western' society because I'm absolutely and completely clueless about 'Eastern' society (never mind that the Earth is spherical).

The Evolution of language is something I've been interested in for a number of years because it so closely resembles the evolution of life. Group A who speaks a language starts moving around the world forming group B, C, and D. The longer they go without a lot of contact, the more local colloquialisms make it into their speech, the more the language starts to change until eventually groups B, C, and D would have a little difficulty communicating with group A and with each other, even though they're very similar. The more time that passes, the more differences crop up.

This can be illustrated in the extremely subtle differences between British English and American English and Canadian English. Canada's English is in the middle of these two examples, which I believe can be increasingly called by different names - English and American. Americans are speaking a language called American which they are developing through unique colloquialisms, cultural influences and preferred spelling. Think 'tonite' versus 'tonight'. Increasingly, words like 'tonite' and 'thru' are gaining acceptance as correct.

I've wondered how the evolution of language would progress now that geographical separation isn't as much as an impediment as it's been in the past.

For a brief time last year we had a teenager living with us and I hated the way she talked. Her vocabulary was pitiful, her spelling and grammar appalling, her pronunciation sub-par. The worst part, the part I was really worried about my son picking up (and he has) was the constant use of the word 'like'. I like to think that everyone knows what I'm talking about. Saying 'and I was, like, whatever,' as opposed to 'I dismissed his statement out of hand.'

For decades this brutal truncating of civilized discourse has been decried by self-appointed defenders of language (really who's going to appoint them?). Today as my son struck a pose and said he was 'all like fwash' I realized that there was a dimension to this kind of communication that I hadn't considered before.

It's very efficient.

As long as you understand the context and the people in the story, you can make out what's going on. People who pepper their speech with statements such as 'he was all like' and 'I was all like' aren't using words to convey a story - they're conveying a story with pantomime! They are acting out incidents rather than attempting to grasp at words they can't think of at just that moment.

It would be interesting to see if hand gestures became part of the equation, since internet memes are already being incorporated into daily speech.

A bizarre sci-fi language isn't far off, I think.



Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Answers to a fundie I used to work with.

In all honesty, he wasn't a fundie, but a guy that I used to work with (and then worked for), was raised in a Jehovah's Witness household. He was a pretty cool and taught me a lot about music, window installation, and how to make it look like you were installing windows while napping all day long. This was back in 2002-2003 in a time before I cemented my atheism and started trying to think scientifically.

He didn't really believe in the Jehovah's Witness party line, telling his mother at a young age "Ma, I know I'm going to hell, but I wanna fuck!" (other women, of course, you dirty people (Hah! No one reads this blog))

I wanted to take this opportunity to address a few of the objections he'd been trained to raise, whether he believed in them or not, because apparently no one had ever set him straight or called him on anything.

1. Evolution is just a theory! It's never been proven!

There's a common misconception that after a certain amount of evidence is offered, a theory gets 'upgraded' to fact. This isn't the case. In scientific language the word 'theory' isn't used like it is in daily speech to describe a thought or an idea yet to be tested. In scientific language the word 'theory' describes an entire discipline of science and the continued study of the subject at hand. To be called a theory it must be able to explain something about the world or the universe, it must be a reliable tool to make predictions, it must have a condition that, if met, would prove the theory wrong, and it must be well-supported by the evidence. Evolution is a theory, but only in as much as relativity, newtonian physics, gravity, and atoms are theories. No one's ever proven those other theories either because the theory is the study of those phenomenon. We know gravity exists and we know how it behaves, the theory is the study of why gravity behaves the way it does.

That evolution happens is a fact.

2. If we are evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?!

Another common misconception about evolution, and one that dates back to the victorian era when Darwin first published the Origin of Species, is that it is a steady upwards progression toward something better. On The Origin of Species was published in the whirlwind of the industrial revolution when 'progress' was the buzzword of the day and Darwin's theories were immediately seized upon by people who wanted the idea of progress to be applied to all things. Naturally, if evolution were an upward progression, then mankind must be the ideal that all other creatures aspire to. Thus we even have a slew of science fiction writers who have, over the years, written about the 'next stage' in our evolution, usually into some creature made entirely of thought or energy or something else ill-defined (I'm looking at you, X-Men). But evolution isn't an upward progression.

Evolution means 'change over time'. When we're talking about biology, evolution is the adaptation of species to their environments over successive generations through variations in genetic allele frequencies (I have very little idea what that means). Evolution doesn't aim upwards to perfection, it aims for good enough to compete and no further.

So why are there still monkeys? Because monkeys are modern animals. They're evolved to function in their environments, and they do it quite well. All creatures on earth are evolving at the same rate, more or less, and all creatures are modern. We may have evolved from smaller, less intelligent primates, but environmental conditions, natural and sexual selection favored bigger, bipedal bodies and big brains. To quote one of my YouTube heroes, "Asking why there are still monkeys is like asking 'if Americans are descended from Europeans, then whey are there still Europeans?'"

3. There was a scientist who set out to disprove the bible by chronicling all the inaccuracies and he ended up converting himself!

Oh really? What was his name? When was this? I call bullshit on this one, outright.

As previously stated in my blog, science isn't a religion. One does not convert from science to christianity. There are plenty of scientists out there who also happen to believe in god. There's nothing wrong with that, they just tend to believe that God is either a powerful force that got the ball rolling but doesn't interfere (deism) or that even if God does interfere in daily affairs, that reality is still explainable according to natural laws. Studies show that the more educated a person is, the less likely that person is to be religious, but the two aren't exclusive. I have a very hard time believing that there was just some scientist out there, of no particular discipline, who, being moved by scripture, was inspired to abandon science and place his faith in Christ. One does not convert from science to christianity, one converts from atheism to christianity.

Besides, even if it were true, it wouldn't prove anything nor would it automatically lend complete credibility to religion. One isolated case of conversion does not prove the bible right and science wrong because the institutions of science have no exalted leaders who speak for everyone, like a Pope or a Dalai Lama.

I'm sure there were other things my friend and boss used to 'win' arguments, but I can't remember any of them right now.

Thanks for reading the airing of some of my dirty laundry.