Arquivo da tag: Linguística

Rapid Language Evolution in 19th-century Brazil: Data Mining, Literary Analysis and Evolutionary Biology – A Study of Six Centuries of Portuguese-language Texts (Stanford University)

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

Stanford collaboration offers new perspectives on evolution of Brazilian language

Using a novel combination of data mining, literary analysis and evolutionary biology to study six centuries of Portuguese-language texts, Stanford scholars discover the literary roots of rapid language evolution in 19th-century Brazil.

L.A. Cicero Stanford biology Professor Marcus Feldman, left, and Cuahtemoc Garcia-Garcia, a graduate student in Iberian and Latin American Cultures, combined forces to investigate the evolution of Portuguese as spoken in Brazil.

Literature and biology may not seem to overlap in their endeavors, but a Stanford project exploring the evolution of written language in Brazil is bringing the two disciplines together.

Over the last 18 months, Iberian and Latin American Cultures graduate student Cuauhtémoc García-García and biology Professor Marcus Feldman have been working together to trace the evolution of the  Brazilian Portuguese language through literature.

By combining Feldman’s expertise in mathematical analysis of cultural evolution with García-García’s knowledge of Latin American culture and computer programming, they have produced quantifiable evidence of rapid historical changes in written Brazilian Portuguese in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Specifically, Feldman and García-García are studying the changing use of words in tens of thousands of texts, with a focus on the personal pronouns that Brazilians used to address one another.

Their digital analysis of linguistics development in literary texts reflects Brazil’s complex colonial history.

The change in the use of personal pronouns, a daily part of social and cultural interaction, formed part of an evolving linguistic identity that was specific to Brazil, and not its Portuguese colonizers.

“We believe that this fast transition in the written language was due primarily to the approximately 300-year prohibition of both the introduction of the printing press and the foundation of universities in Brazil under Portuguese rule,” García-García said.

What Feldman and García-García found was that spoken language did in fact evolve during those 300 years, but little written evidence of that process exists because colonial restrictions on printing and literacy prevented language development in the written form.

A national sentiment of “write as we speak” arose in Brazil after Portuguese rule ended. García-García said their data shows an abrupt introduction in written texts of the spoken pronouns that were developed during the 300-year colonization period.

Drawing on Feldman’s experience with theoretical and statistical evolutionary models, García-García developed computer programs that count certain words to see how often they appear and how their use has changed over hundreds of years.

In Brazilian literary works produced in the post-colonial period, Feldman said, they have “found examples of written linguistic evolution over short time periods, contrary to the longer periods that are typical for changes in language.”

The findings will figure prominently in García-García’s dissertation, which addresses the transmission of written language across time and space.

The project’s source materials include about 70,000 digitized works in Portuguese from the 13th to the 21st century, ranging from literature and newspapers to technical manuals and pamphlets.

García-García, a member of The Digital Humanities Focal Group at Stanford, said their research “shows how written language changed, and through these changes in pronoun use, we now have a better understanding of how Brazilian writing evolved following the introduction of the printing press.”

Feldman, a population geneticist and one of the founders of the quantitative theory of cultural evolution, said he sees their project as a natural approach to linguistic evolution.

“I believe that evolutionary science and the humanities have a lot to offer each other in both theoretical and empirical explorations,” Feldman said.

Language by the numbers

García-García became interested in language evolution while studying Brazilian Portuguese under the instruction of Stanford lecturer Lyris Wiedemann. He approached Feldman, proposing an evolutionary study of Brazilian Portuguese, and Feldman agreed to help him analyze the data. García-García then enlisted Stanford lecturer Agripino Silveira, who provided linguistic expertise.

García-García worked with Stanford Library curators Glen Worthey, Adan Griego and Everardo Rodriguez for more than a year to develop the technical infrastructure and copyright clearance he needed to access Stanford’s entire digitized corpus of Portuguese language texts. After incorporating even more source material from the HathiTrust digital archive, García-García began the time-consuming task of “cleaning” the corpus, so data could be effectively mined from it.

“Sometimes there were duplicates, issues with the digitization, and works with multiple editions that created ‘noise’ in the corpus,” he said.

Following months of preparation, Feldman and García-García were able to begin data mining. Specifically, they counted the incidences of two pronouns, tu and você, which both mean the singular “you,” and how their incidence in literature changed over time.

“After running various searches, I could correlate results and see how and when certain words were used to build up a comprehensive image of this evolution,” he said.

Tu was – and still is – used in Portugal as the typical way to say ‘you.’ But, in Brazil, você is the more normal way to say it, particularly in major cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo where the majority of the population lives,” García-García explained.

However, that was not always the case. When Brazil was a Portuguese colony, and up until the arrival of the printing press in1808, tu was the canonical form in written language.

As part of the run-up to independence in 1822, universities and printing presses were established in Brazil for the first time in 1808, having been prohibited by the Portuguese colonizers in what García-García calls “cultural repression.”

By the late 19th century, você emerged as the way to address people, shedding part of the colonial legacy, and tu quickly became less prominent in written Brazilian Portuguese.

“Our findings quantifiably show how pronoun use developed. We have found that around 1840, vocêwas used about 10-15 percent of the time by authors to say ‘you.’ By the turn of the century, this had increased to about 70 percent,” García-García said.

“Our data suggest that você was rarely used in the late 17th and 18th centuries, but really appears and takes hold in the middle of the 19th century, a few decades after 1808. Thus, the late arrival of the printing press marks a critical point for understanding the evolution of written Portuguese in Brazil, ” he said.

From Romanticism to realism

Their research revealed an intriguing literary coincidence – the period of transition from tu to vocêcorrelated with the broad change in the dominant literary genre in Brazilian literature from European Romanticism to Latin American realism.

Interestingly, the researchers noticed that the rapid change was most evident several decades after Brazil’s independence in the 1820s because it took that long for Brazilian writers to develop their own voice and style.

For centuries Brazilian writers were forced to write in the style of the Portuguese, but as García-García said, “with their new freedom they wanted to write stories that reflected their national identity.”

“Machado de Assis, arguably Brazil’s greatest author, is a fine example. His early novels are archetypally Romanticist, and then his later novels are deeply Realist, and the use of the pronouns shift from one to the other,” García-García said.

Nonetheless, in Machado’s work there is sometimes a purposeful switch back to the tu form if, for example, the author wanted to evoke a certain sentiment or change the narrative voice.

“The data-mining project cannot ascertain subtle uses of words and how, in some works, the pronouns are ‘interchangeable,’” he added.

Computational expertise was no substitute for literary expertise, and García-García used the two disciplines in tandem to get a clearer picture in his data.

“I had to stop using the computer and go back to a close reading of a large sample of books, and the literary genre change reflects this period of post-colonial social and historical change,” he said.

Feldman and García-García hope to use their methodology to explore different languages.

“Next we hope to study the digitized Spanish language corpus, which currently comprises close to a quarter of a million works from the last 900 years,” García-García said.

Tom Winterbottom is a doctoral candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

As malocas da praça de maio (Taqui Pra Ti)

José Ribamar Bessa Freire

01/06/2014 – Diário do Amazonas


Na Argentina, elas foram reprimidas por baionetas quando indagaram, em 1977, pelos filhos presos. Os generais golpistas debocharam: “son las locas de Plaza de Mayo“. Obstinadas, não desistiram. Desafiaram o terror e continuaram ocupando a Praça de Maio, desfilando o seu protesto semanal diante da Casa Rosada e da catedral até que, finamente, reconhecidas pela sociedade, contribuíram para o fim da ditadura e a prisão dos torturadores.
No Brasil, vários movimentos nos fizeram ouvir a voz de quem foi silenciado. No entanto, como ninguém entende línguas indígenas, nem se interessa por aprendê-las, não se escuta o clamor dos índios, seja de mães indígenas por seus filhos ou de índios por seus pais desaparecidos. Desta forma, os índios, sempre invisíveis na historia do Brasil, ficaram de fora das narrativas e não figuram nas estatísticas dos desaparecidos políticos. Na floresta, não há praças de maio.
Mas agora isso começa a mudar. Relatório do Comitê Estadual da Verdade do Amazonas, que será em breve publicado pela Editora Curt Nimuendajú, de Campinas (SP), dá voz aos índios e mapeia os estragos, comprovando que na Amazônia, mais do que militantes de esquerda, a ditadura eliminou índios, entre outros, Cinta-Larga e Surui (RO/MT), Krenhakarore na rodovia Cuiabá-Santarém, Kanê ou Beiços-de-Pau do Rio Arinos (MT), Avá-Canoeiro (GO), Parakanã e Arara (PA), Kaxinawa e Madiha (AC), Juma, Yanomami e Waimiri-Atroari (AM/RR).
O foco do primeiro relatório, de 92 páginas, já encaminhado à Comissão Nacional da Verdade (CNV), incide sobre os Kiña, denominados também como Waimiri-Atroari, cujos desaparecidos são conhecidos hoje por seus nomes, graças a um trabalho cuidadoso que ouviu índios em suas línguas, consultou pesquisadores e indigenistas, fuçou arquivos e examinou documentos, incluindo desenhos que mostram índios metralhados por homens armados com revólver, fuzil, rifles, granadas e cartucheira, jogando bombas sobre malocas incendiadas.
Os desaparecidos
De noite, nas malocas, os sobreviventes narram a história da violência sofrida, que começou a ser escrita e desenhada por crianças, jovens e adultos alfabetizados na língua Kiña pelos professores Egydio e Doroti Schwade com o método Paulo Freire. Toda a aldeia Yawará, no sul de Roraima, participou do processo, em 1985 e 1986, até mesmo crianças de colo. A comunicação foi facilitada pelo fato de o casal morar lá com seus quatro filhos pequenos, antes de ser expulso pelo então presidente da Funai, Romero Jucá, lacaio subserviente das empresas mineradoras.
Todo o processo de alfabetização ocorreu num clima que iniciou com a narração oral das historias e continuou com a criação dos desenhos, a leitura dos desenhos, a discussão sobre eles e, finalmente, com a escrita alfabética.
Durante esse período, Egydio registrou, com ajuda de Doroti, as narrativas contadas por quem testemunhou os fatos ou por quem ouviu falar sobre eles. Os primeiros textos escritos por recém-alfabetizados, ilustrados por desenhos, revelaram “o método e as armas usadas para dizimá-los: aviões, helicópteros, bombas, metralhadoras, fios elétricos e estranhas doenças. Comunidades inteiras desapareceram depois que helicópteros com soldados sobrevoaram ou pousaram em suas aldeias” – diz o relatório.
Com a abertura da rodovia BR-174 e a entrada das empresas mineradoras, muitas outras aldeias foram varridas do mapa. “Pais, mães e filhos mortos, aldeias destruídas pelo fogo e por bombas. Gente resistindo e correndo pelos varadouros à procura de refúgio em aldeia amiga. A floresta rasgada e os rios ocupados por gente agressiva e inimiga. Esta foi a geografia política e social vivenciada pelo povo Kiña desde o início da construção da BR-174, em 1967, até sua inauguração em 1977” – segundo o relatório.
Alguns sobreviventes refugiados na aldeia Yawará conviveram durante dois anos com Egydio e Doroti.  Lá, todas as pessoas acima de dez anos eram órfãs, exceto duas irmãs, cuja mãe sobreviveu ao massacre. O relatório transcreve a descrição feita pelo índio Panaxi:
“Civilizado matou com bomba” – escreve Panaxi ao lado do desenho, identificando um a um os mortos com seus nomes: Sere, Podanî, Mani, Priwixi, Akamamî, Txire, Tarpiya.
A eles se somaram outros de uma lista feita por Yaba: Mawé, Xiwya, Mayede – marido de Wada, Eriwixi, Waiba, Samyamî – mãe de Xeree, Pikibda, a pequena Pitxenme, Maderê, Wairá – mulher de Amiko, Pautxi – marido de Woxkî, Arpaxi – marido de Sidé, Wepînî – filho de Elsa, Kixii e seu marido Maiká, Paruwá e sua filha Ida, Waheri, Suá – pai de Warkaxi, sua esposa e um filho, Kwida – pai de Comprido, Tarakña e tantos outros.
Quem matou
A lista é longa, os mortos têm nomes, mas às vezes são identificados pelo laço de parentesco: “a filha de Sabe que mora no Mrebsna Mudî, dois tios de Mário Paruwé, o pai de Wome, uma filha de Antônio”, etc. O relatório se refere ao“desaparecimento de mais de 2.000 Waimiri-Atroari em apenas dez anos”. Na área onde se localiza hoje a Mineradora Taboca (Paranapanema) desapareceram pelo menos nove aldeias aerofotografadas pelo padre Calleri, em 1968, em sobrevoos a serviço da FUNAI. Os alunos da aldeia Yawará desenharam casas e escreveram ao lado frases como:
– Apapa takweme apapeme batkwapa kamña nohmepa [o meu pai foi atirado com espingarda por civilizado e morreu] – escreveu Pikida, ao lado do desenho que ilustra o fato.
– Taboka ikame Tikiriya yitohpa. Apiyamyake, apiyemiyekî? [Taboca chegou, Tikiria sumiu, por que? Por que?]
A resposta pode ser encontrada no ofício 042-E2-CONF. do Comando Militar da Amazônia, de 21/11/1974, assinado pelo General Gentil Nogueira, que recomendava o uso da violência armada contra os índios, segundo o relatório encaminhado à Comissão Nacional da Verdade. Era uma política de Estado a serviço de interesses privados, implementada com métodos de bandidagem.
Um mês e meio depois, o sertanista Sebastião Amâncio da Costa, nomeado chefe de Frente de Atração Waimiri-Atroari (FAWA), em entrevista ao jornal O Globo (06/01/1975), assumiu de público as determinações do general Gentil, declarando que faria “uma demonstração de força dos civilizados que incluiria a utilização de dinamite, granadas, bombas de gás lacrimogêneo e rajadas de metralhadoras e o confinamento dos chefes índios em outras regiões do País”.
O resultado de toda essa lambança é descrito por Womé Atroari, em entrevista à TV Brasil, relatando um ataque aéreo a uma aldeia e outros fatos que presenciou:
– Foi assim tipo bomba, lá na aldeia. O índio que estava na aldeia não escapou ninguém. Ele veio no avião e de repente esquentou tudinho, aí morreu muita gente. Foi muita maldade na construção da BR-174. Aí veio muita gente e pessoal armado, assim, pessoal do Exército, isso eu vi. Eu sei que me lembro bem assim, tinha um avião assim um pouco de folha, assim, desenho de folha, assim, um pouco vermelho por baixo, só isso. Passou isso aí, morria rapidinho pessoa. Desse aí que nós via.
Os tratores que abriam a estrada eram vistos pelos índios como tanques de guerra. “Muitas vezes os tratores amanheciam amarrados com cipós.Essa era uma maneira clara de dizer que não queriam que as obras continuassem. Como essa resistência ficou muito forte, o Departamento Estadual de Estradas de Rodagem do Amazonas-DER-AM, inicialmente responsável pela construção, começou a usar armas de fogo contra os indígenas”.
Sacopã e Parasar
O relatório informa que “as festas que reuniam periodicamente os Waimiri-Atroari foram aproveitadas pelo PARASAR para o aniquilamento dos índios”. Conta detalhes. Registra ainda o desaparecimento de índios que se aproximaram, em agosto de 1985, do canteiro de obras da hidrelétrica do Pitinga, então em construção:
“É muito provável que tenham sido mortos pela Sacopã, uma empresa de jagunços, comandada por dois ex-oficiais do Exército e um da ativa, subordinado ao Comando Militar da Amazônia, empresa muito bem equipada, que oferecia na época serviços de “limpeza” na floresta à Paranapanema no entorno de seus projetos minerais. Os responsáveis pela empresa foram autorizados pelo Comando Militar da Amazônia a manter ao seu serviço 400 homens equipados com cartucheiras 20 milímetros, rifle 38, revolveres de variado calibre e cães amestrados”.
Os autores do relatório dão nomes aos bois, esclarecendo que quem comandava a Sacopã no trabalho de segurança da Mineração Taboca/Paranapanema e no controle de todo acesso à terra indígena eram dois militares da reserva: o tenente Tadeu Abraão Fernandes e o coronel reformado Antônio Fernandes, além de um coronel da ativa, João Batista de Toledo Camargo, então chefe de polícia do Comando Militar da Amazônia.
É Rondon de cabeça pra baixo: “Matar ainda que não seja preciso; morrer nunca”, num processo iniciado com o colonizador e ainda não concluído.  Na Amazônia, o cônego Manoel Teixeira, irmão do governador Pedro Teixeira, em carta ao rei de Portugal, em 5 de janeiro de 1654, escrita no leito da morte, na hora da verdade, declara que “no espaço de trinta e dois anos, são extintos a trabalho e a ferro, segundo a conta dos que ouviram, mais de dois milhões de índios de mais de quatrocentas aldeias”.
O relatório é um bom começo, porque evidencia que os índios precisam de uma Comissão da Verdade não apenas para os 21 anos de ditadura militar, mas para os 514 anos de História em que crimes foram e continuam sendo cometidos contra eles. Assim, podem surgir praças de maio dentro das malocas para que o Brasil generoso e solidário cobre mudanças radicais na política indigenista do país, impedindo que o Estado continue a serviço de interesses privados escusos.

Some Monkeys Have Conversations That Resemble Ours (Wired)



A pair of common marmosets. Image: Bart van Dorp/Flickr

The sounds of marmoset monkeys chattering may hint at the mysterious origins of human language.

A new study shows that marmosets exchange calls in a precisely timed, back-and-forth fashion typical of human conversation, but not found in other primates. The monkeys don’t appear to have a language, but the timing suggests the foundations of our own.

“That could be the foundation of more sophisticated things, like syntax,” said psychologist Asif Ghazanfar of Princeton University, co-author of the study, which was published today in Current Biology. “You can’t have any of those other really cool aspects of language without first having this.”

‘If you went back 10 million years, you’d be hard-pressed to predict that an ape would end up with the planet’s most complex vocal communication.’

How language, so complex and information-rich, evolved in Homo sapiens and, as far as we know, no other species, is one of anthropology’s outstanding questions. The traditional, seemingly intuitive answer is that it arose from the vocalizations of ancestors who were capable of a few rudimentary noises and wanted to say more.

Confounding that narrative, though, is the comparatively less-vocal nature of many other primates, including our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. They do vocalize, of course, and even say some interesting things, but not with the same flow expected of some proto-human linguistic capability.

That conundrum has led researchers to propose another possible origin of language, one rooted not in our voices but rather our bodies, and in particular our hands. According to this narrative, gesture would have been as important to our ancestors as sound. Indeed, neurological processes underlying speech and language are also intimately linked with motor skills, raising the possibility that language formed on the cognitive scaffold of gesture — and chimpanzees do have a large repertoire of hand movements.

But many scientists, including Ghazanfar and the study’s lead author, fellow Princeton psychologist Daniel Takahashi, aren’t convinced. If human language did follow on gesture, they wonder, why don’t chimps talk more? There’s also no evidence in chimpanzees for vocal turn-taking, or waiting for another person to finish speaking before replying, which is universal in human languages. “If we don’t take turns, if we’re overlapping, it’s very difficult to understand each other,” said Ghazanfar. “Turn-taking is foundational.”

Yet even if chimps don’t take turns, Ghazanfar and Takahashi found that marmosets do. In the new study, they placed pairs of marmosets in the opposite corners of a room, separated by a curtain that allowed them to hear but not see each other, and recorded the ensuing chatter.

These proved to follow turn-taking patterns, with a pause of several seconds between the completion of one monkey’s whistles and the other’s beginning. And unlike the duets of birds, which are often highly synchronized, the exchanges had nothing to do with mating or territoriality. The monkeys were conversing.

Monkey Conversation:
Whistles encoding information about the caller’s identity are exchanged back and forth according to rules of timing also found in human conversation.

Audio: Takahashi et al./Ethology

As for what they said, marmoset whistles are thought to encode information about a caller’s identity, age, gender and location. Ghazanfar thinks the conversations are a sort of “vocal grooming,” a way of easing stress or conveying affection, but delivered at a distance. It only works when monkeys know they’re being addressed individually, which is conveyed by the turn-taking form.

“It could be a pre-adaptation for language,” said evolutionary biologist Thore Bergman of the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study. Bergman’s own research involveshuman-sounding lip smacks made by monkeys called geladas.

As for why marmosets and humans take turns, but not chimpanzees, Ghazanfar suspects it’s a function of our social systems. Marmosets are cooperative breeders: Group members take care of offspring unrelated to them, creating community-oriented dynamics of behavior and communication. Ancestral humans may have lived the same way.

Without a time machine, of course, questions about the origin of human language won’t ever be settled. As Bergmann noted, the findings don’t exclude the possible importance of gesture. It’s possible that human language arose from the fortuitous interactions of gesture, vocalization and social structure with evolutionary pressure.

Indeterminacy aside, though, it’s fun to speculate, and also to wonder whether the seeds of complex language now exist in animals other than ourselves. Many whales and dolphins, along with syntax-using monkeys and even prairie dogs, communicate in very sophisticated ways.

“If you went back 10 million years, you’d be hard-pressed to predict an ape would end up with the planet’s most complex vocal communication system,” said Thore Bergman. “Why that happened is a really big puzzle.”

Citation: “Coupled Oscillator Dynamics of Vocal Turn-Taking in Monkeys.” By Daniel Takahashi, Darshana Narayanan and Asif Ghazanfar. Current Biology, 17 October 2013.

Orangutans Plan Their Future Route and Communicate It to Others (Science Daily)

Sep. 11, 2013 — Male orangutans plan their travel route up to one day in advance and communicate it to other members of their species. In order to attract females and repel male rivals, they call in the direction in which they are going to travel. Anthropologists at the University of Zurich have found that not only captive, but also wild-living orangutans make use of their planning ability.

Male orangutans face the direction they plan to travel and emit ‘long calls’ in that direction. (Credit: UZH)

For a long time it was thought that only humans had the ability to anticipate future actions, whereas animals are caught in the here and now. But in recent years, clever experiments with great apes in zoos have shown that they do remember past events and can plan for their future needs. Anthropologists at the University of Zurich have now investigated whether wild apes also have this skill, following them for several years through the dense tropical swamplands of Sumatra.

Orangutans communicate their plans

Orangutans generally journey through the forest alone, but they also maintain social relationships. Adult males sometimes emit loud ‘long calls’ to attract females and repel rivals. Their cheek pads act as a funnel for amplifying the sound in the same way as a megaphone. Females that only hear a faint call come closer in order not to lose contact. Non-dominant males on the other hand hurry in the opposite direction if they hear the call coming loud and clear in their direction.

“To optimize the effect of these calls, it thus would make sense for the male to call in the direction of his future whereabouts, if he already knew about them,” explains Carel van Schaik. “We then actually observed that the males traveled for several hours in approximately the same direction as they had called.”

In extreme cases, long calls made around nesting time in the evening predicted the travel direction better than random until the evening of the next day.Carel van Schaik and his team conclude that orangutans plan their route up to a day ahead. In addition, the males often announced changes in travel direction with a new, better-fitting long call. The researchers also found that in the morning, the other orangutans reacted correctly to the long call of the previous evening, even if no new long call was emitted.

“Our study makes it clear that wild orangutans do not simply live in the here and now, but can imagine a future and even announce their plans. In this sense, then, they have become a bit more like us,” concludes Carel van Schaik.

Journal Reference:

  1. Carel P. van Schaik, Laura Damerius, Karin Isler. Wild Orangutan Males Plan and Communicate Their Travel Direction One Day in AdvancePLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (9): e74896 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0074896

Language can reveal the invisible, study shows (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Public release date: 26-Aug-2013

By Gary Lupyan, University of Wisconsin-Madison

MADISON, Wis. — It is natural to imagine that the sense of sight takes in the world as it is — simply passing on what the eyes collect from light reflected by the objects around us.

But the eyes do not work alone. What we see is a function not only of incoming visual information, but also how that information is interpreted in light of other visual experiences, and may even be influenced by language.

Words can play a powerful role in what we see, according to a study published this month by University of Wisconsin–Madison cognitive scientist and psychology professor Gary Lupyan, and Emily Ward, a Yale University graduate student, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Perceptual systems do the best they can with inherently ambiguous inputs by putting them in context of what we know, what we expect,” Lupyan says. “Studies like this are helping us show that language is a powerful tool for shaping perceptual systems, acting as a top-down signal to perceptual processes. In the case of vision, what we consciously perceive seems to be deeply shaped by our knowledge and expectations.”

And those expectations can be altered with a single word.

To show how deeply words can influence perception, Lupyan and Ward used a technique called continuous flash suppression to render a series of objects invisible for a group of volunteers.

Each person was shown a picture of a familiar object — such as a chair, a pumpkin or a kangaroo — in one eye. At the same time, their other eye saw a series of flashing, “squiggly” lines.

“Essentially, it’s visual noise,” Lupyan says. “Because the noise patterns are high-contrast and constantly moving, they dominate, and the input from the other eye is suppressed.”

Immediately before looking at the combination of the flashing lines and suppressed object, the study participants heard one of three things: the word for the suppressed object (“pumpkin,” when the object was a pumpkin), the word for a different object (“kangaroo,” when the object was actually a pumpkin), or just static.

Then researchers asked the participants to indicate whether they saw something or not. When the word they heard matched the object that was being wiped out by the visual noise, the subjects were more likely to report that they did indeed see something than in cases where the wrong word or no word at all was paired with the image.

“Hearing the word for the object that was being suppressed boosted that object into their vision,” Lupyan says.

And hearing an unmatched word actually hurt study subjects’ chances of seeing an object.

“With the label, you’re expecting pumpkin-shaped things,” Lupyan says. “When you get a visual input consistent with that expectation, it boosts it into perception. When you get an incorrect label, it further suppresses that.”

Experiments have shown that continuous flash suppression interrupts sight so thoroughly that there are no signals in the brain to suggest the invisible objects are perceived, even implicitly.

“Unless they can tell us they saw it, there’s nothing to suggest the brain was taking it in at all,” Lupyan says. “If language affects performance on a test like this, it indicates that language is influencing vision at a pretty early stage. It’s getting really deep into the visual system.”

The study demonstrates a deeper connection between language and simple sensory perception than previously thought, and one that makes Lupyan wonder about the extent of language’s power. The influence of language may extend to other senses as well.

“A lot of previous work has focused on vision, and we have neglected to examine the role of knowledge and expectations on other modalities, especially smell and taste,” Lupyan says. “What I want to see is whether we can really alter threshold abilities,” he says. “Does expecting a particular taste for example, allow you to detect a substance at a lower concentration?”

If you’re drinking a glass of milk, but thinking about orange juice, he says, that may change the way you experience the milk.

“There’s no point in figuring out what some objective taste is,” Lupyan says. “What’s important is whether the milk is spoiled or not. If you expect it to be orange juice, and it tastes like orange juice, it’s fine. But if you expected it to be milk, you’d think something was wrong.”

Before Babel? Ancient Mother Tongue Reconstructed (Live Science)

Tia Ghose, LiveScience Staff Writer

06 May 2013, 03:00 PM ET

an old oil painting of the Tower of Babel.The idea of a universal human language goes back at least to the Bible, in which humanity spoke a common tongue, but were punished with mutual unintelligibility after trying to build the Tower of Babel all the way to heaven. Now scientists have reconstructed words from such a language. CREDIT: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) 

The ancestors of people from across Europe and Asia may have spoken a common language about 15,000 years ago, new research suggests.

Now, researchers have reconstructed words, such as “mother,” “to pull” and “man,” which would have been spoken by ancient hunter-gatherers, possibly in an area such as the Caucusus. The word list, detailed today (May 6) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help researchers retrace the history of ancient migrations and contacts between prehistoric cultures.

“We can trace echoes of language back 15,000 years to a time that corresponds to about the end of the last ice age,” said study co-author Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.

Tower of Babel

The idea of a universal human language goes back at least to the Bible, in which humanity spoke a common tongue, but were punished with mutual unintelligibility after trying to build the Tower of Babel all the way to heaven. [Image Gallery: Ancient Middle-Eastern Texts]

But not all linguists believe in a single common origin of language, and trying to reconstruct that language seemed impossible. Most researchers thought they could only trace a language’s roots back 3,000 to 4,000 years. (Even so, researchers recently said they had traced the roots of a common mother tongue to many Eurasian languages back 8,000 to 9,500 years to Anatolia, a southwestern Asian peninsula that is now part of Turkey.)

Pagel, however, wondered whether language evolution proceeds much like biological evolution. If so, the most critical words, such as the frequently used words that define our social relationships, would change much more slowly.

To find out if he could uncover those ancient words, Pagel and his colleagues in a previous study tracked how quickly words changed in modern languages. They identified the most stable words. They also mapped out how different modern languages were related.

They then reconstructed ancient words based on the frequency at which certain sounds tend to change in different languages — for instance, p’s and f’s often change over time in many languages, as in the change from “pater” in Latin to the more recent term “father” in English.

The researchers could predict what 23 words, including “I,” “ye,” “mother,” “male,” “fire,” “hand” and “to hear” might sound like in an ancestral language dating to 15,000 years ago.

In other words, if modern-day humans could somehow encounter their Stone Age ancestors, they could say one or two very simple statements and make themselves understood, Pagel said.

Limitations of tracing language

Unfortunately, this language technique may have reached its limits in terms of how far back in history it can go.

“It’s going to be very difficult to go much beyond that, even these slowly evolving words are starting to run out of steam,” Pagel told LiveScience.

The study raises the possibility that researchers could combine linguistic data with archaeology and anthropology “to tell the story of human prehistory,” for instance by recreating ancient migrations and contacts between people, said William Croft, a comparative linguist at the University of New Mexico, who was not involved in the study.

“That has been held back because most linguists say you can only go so far back in time,” Croft said. “So this is an intriguing suggestion that you can go further back in time.”

Young Children Have Grammar and Chimpanzees Don’t (Science Daily)

Apr. 10, 2013 — A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Nim Chimpsky. (Credit: Image courtesy of Herbert Terrace, who began Project Nim in the early 1970s)

The study also applied the same statistical analysis on data from one of the most famous animal language-acquisition experiments — Project Nim — and showed that Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was taught sign language over the course of many years, never grasped rules like those in a 2-year-old’s grammar.

The study was conducted by Charles Yang, a professor of linguistics in the School of Arts and Sciences and of computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Linguists have long debated whether young children actually understand the grammar they are using or are simply memorizing and imitating adults. One of the difficulties in resolving this debate is the inherent limitations of the data; 2-year-old children have very small vocabularies and thus don’t provide many different examples of grammar usage.

“While a child may not say very much, that doesn’t mean that they don’t know anything about language,” Yang said, “Despite the superficial lack of diversity of speech patterns, if you study it carefully and formulate what having a grammar would entail within those limitations, even young children seem very much on target.”

Yang’s approach was to look at one area of grammar that young children do regularly display: article usage, or whether to put “a” or “the” before a noun. He found a sufficient number of examples of article usage in the nine data sets of child speech he analyzed, but there was another challenge in determining if these children understood the grammar rules they were using.

“When children use articles, they’re pretty much error free from day one,” Yang said. “But being error free could mean that they’ve learned the grammar of article usage in English, or they have memorized and are imitating adults who wouldn’t make mistakes either.”

To get around this problem, Yang took advantage of the fact that most nouns can be paired with either the definite or indefinite article to produce a grammatically correct phrase, but the resulting phrases have different meanings and usages. This makes the combinations vary in frequency.

For example, “the bathroom” is a more common phrase than “a bathroom,” while “a bath” is more common than “the bath.” This difference has nothing to do with grammar but rather the frequency with which phrases containing those combinations are used. There are simply more opportunities to use phrases like “I need to go to the bathroom” or “the dog needs a bath” than there are phrases like “there’s a bathroom on the second floor” or “the bath was too cold.”

This means that the likelihood of using a particular article with a given noun is not 50/50; it is weighted toward either “the” or “a.” Such lopsided combination tendencies can be characterized by general statistical laws of language, which Yang used to develop a mathematical model for predicting the expected diversity of noun phrases in a sample of speech.

This model was able to differentiate between the expected diversity if children were using grammar, as compared to if they were simply imitating adults. Due to the differences of these frequencies, an adult might only say “the bathroom” — never saying “a bathroom” — to a child, but that child would still be able to say “a bathroom” if he or she understood the underlying grammar.

“When you compare what children should say if they follow grammar against what children do say, you find it to almost indistinguishable,” Yang said. “If you simulate the expected diversity when a child is only repeating what adults say, it produces a diversity much lower than what children actually say.”

As a comparison, Yang applied the same predictive models to the set of Nim Chimpsky’s signed phrases, the only data set of spontaneous animal language usage publicly available. He found further evidence for what many scientists, including Nim’s own trainers, have contended about Nim: that the sequences of signs Nim put together did not follow from rules like those in human language.

Nim’s signs show significantly lower diversity than what is expected under a systematic grammar and were similar to the level expected with memorization.

This suggests that true language learning is — so far — a uniquely human trait, and that it is present very early in development.

“The idea that children are only imitating adults’ language is very intuitive, so it’s seen a revival over the last few years,” Yang said. “But this is strong statistical evidence in favor of the idea that children actually know a lot about abstract grammar from an early age.”

Journal Reference:

  1. C. Yang. Ontogeny and phylogeny of language.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1216803110

Cracking the Semantic Code: Half a Word’s Meaning Is 3-D Summary of Associated Rewards (Science Daily)

Feb. 13, 2013 — We make choices about pretty much everything, all the time — “Should I go for a walk or grab a coffee?”; “Shall I look at who just came in or continue to watch TV?” — and to do so we need something common as a basis to make the choice.

Half of a word’s meaning is simply a three dimensional summary of the rewards associated with it, according to an analysis of millions of blog entries. (Credit: © vlorzor / Fotolia)

Dr John Fennell and Dr Roland Baddeley of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology followed a hunch that the common quantity, often referred to simply as reward, was a representation of what could be gained, together with how risky and uncertain it is. They proposed that these dimensions would be a unique feature of all objects and be part of what those things mean to us.

Over 50 years ago, psychologist Charles Osgood developed an influential method, known as the ‘semantic differential’, that attempts to measure the connotative, emotional meaning of a word or concept. Osgood found that about 50 per cent of the variation in a large number of ratings that people made about words and concepts could be captured using just three summary dimensions: ‘evaluation’ (how nice or good the object is), ‘potency’ (how strong or powerful an object is) and ‘activity’ (whether the object is active, unpredictable or chaotic). So, half of a concept’s meaning is simply a measure of how nice, strong, and active it is. The main problem is that, until now, no one knew why.

Dr Baddeley explained: “Over time, we keep a running tally of all the good and bad things associated with a particular object. Later, when faced with a decision, we can simply choose the option that in the past has been associated with more good things than bad. This dimension of choice sounds very much like the ‘evaluation’ dimension of the semantic differential.”

To test this, the researchers needed to estimate the number of good or bad things happening. At first sight, estimating this across a wide range of contexts and concepts seems impossible; someone would need to be observed throughout his or her lifetime and, for each of a large range of contexts and concepts, the number of times good and bad things happened recorded. Fortunately, a more practical solution is provided by the recent phenomenon of internet blogs, which describe aspects of people’s lives and are also searchable. Sure enough, after analysing millions of blog entries, the researchers found that the evaluation dimension was a very good predictor of whether a particular word was found in blogs describing good situations or bad.

Interestingly, they also found that how frequently a word was used was also a good predictor of how much we like it. This is a well-known effect — the ‘mere exposure effect’ — and a mainstay of the multi-billion dollar advertising industry. When comparing two options we just choose the option we like the most — and we like it because in the past it has been associated with more good things.

Analysing the data showed that ‘potency’ was a very good predictor of the probability of bad situations being associated with a given object: it measured one kind of risk.

Dr Fennell said: “This kind of way of quantifying risk is called ‘value at risk’ in financial circles, and the perils of ignoring it have been plain to see. Russian Roulette may be, on average, associated with positive rewards, but the risks associated with it are not for everyone!”

It is not the only kind of risk, though. In many situations, ‘activity’ — that is, unpredictability, or more importantly uncontrollability — is a highly relevant measure of risk: a knife in the hands of a highly trained sushi chef is probably safe, a knife in the hands of a drunk, erratic stranger is definitely not.

Dr Fennell continued: “Again, this different kind of risk is relevant in financial dealings and is often called volatility. It seems that the mistake that was made in the credit crunch was not ignoring this kind of risk, but to assume that you could perfectly guess it based on how unpredictable it had been in the past.”

Thus, the researchers propose that half of meaning is simply a summary of how rewarding, and importantly, how much of two kinds of risk is associated with an object. Being sensitive not only to rewards, but also to risks, is so important to our survival, that it appears that its representation has become wrapped up in the very nature of the language we use to represent the world.

Journal Reference:

  1. John G. Fennell, Roland J. Baddeley. Reward Is Assessed in Three Dimensions That Correspond to the Semantic DifferentialPLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (2): e55588 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0055588

New research discovers the emergence of Twitter ‘tribes’ (University of London)

Public release date: 14-Mar-2013

Tanya Gubbay – University of London 

A project led by scientists from Royal Holloway University in collaboration with Princeton University, has found evidence of how people form into tribe-like communities on social network sites such as Twitter.

In a paper published in EPJ Data Science, they found that these communities have a common character, occupation or interest and have developed their own distinctive languages.

“This means that by looking at the language someone uses, it is possible to predict which community he or she is likely to belong to, with up to 80% accuracy,” said Dr John Bryden from the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway. “We searched for unusual words that are used a lot by one community, but relatively infrequently by the others. For example, one community often mentioned Justin Bieber, while another talked about President Obama.”

Professor Vincent Jansen from Royal Holloway added: “Interestingly, just as people have varying regional accents, we also found that communities would misspell words in different ways. The Justin Bieber fans have a habit of ending words in ‘ee’, as in ‘pleasee’, while school teachers tend to use long words.”

The team produced a map of the communities showing how they have vocations, politics, ethnicities and hobbies in common. In order to do this, they focused on the sending of publically available messages via Twitter, which meant that they could record conversations between two or many participants.

To group these users into communities, they turned to cutting-edge algorithms from physics and network science. The algorithms worked by looking for individuals that tend to send messages to other members of the same community.

Dr Bryden then suggested analysing the language use of these discovered communities.

Dr Sebastian Funk from Princeton University said: “When we started to apply John’s ideas, surprising groups started to emerge that we weren’t expecting. One ‘anipals’ group was interested in hosting parties to raise funds for animal welfare, while another was a fascinating growing community interested in the concept of gratitude.”

Which Way Did the Taliban Go? (New York Times)

Joël van Houdt for The New York Times. Colonel Daowood, left, considered his next move on the Chak Valley road.


Published: January 17, 2013 96 Comments

The village was abandoned. Streets deserted. Houses empty. Behind the central mosque rose a steep escarpment. Behind the escarpment mountains upon mountains. Up there — above the timberline, among the peaks — a white Taliban flag whipped in the wind. Several Afghan soldiers were admiring it when a stunted and contorted person emerged from an alley. Dressed in rags, he waved a hennaed fist at them and wailed. Tears streamed down his face. Most of the soldiers ignored him. Some laughed uncomfortably. A few jabbed their rifles at his chest and simulated shooting. The man carried on undeterred — reproaching them in strange tongues.

A truck pulled up, and Lt. Col. Mohammad Daowood, the battalion commander, stepped out. Everyone waited to see what he would do. Daowood is a man alive to his environment and adept at adjusting his behavior by severe or subtle degrees. He can transform, instantaneously, from empathetic ally to vicious disciplinarian. To be with him is to be in constant suspense over the direction of his mood. At the same time, there is a calculation to his temper. You feel it is always deliberately, never capriciously, employed. This only adds to his authority and makes it impossible to imagine him in a situation of which he is not the master. A flicker of recognition in the deranged man’s eyes suggested that he intuited this. He approached Daowood almost bashfully; only as he closed within striking range did he seem to regain his lunatic energy, emitting a low, threatening moan. We waited for Daowood to hit him. Instead, Daowood began to clap and sing. Instantly, the man’s face reorganized itself. Tearful indignation became pure, childish joy. He started to dance.

This continued for a surprisingly long time. The commander clapping and singing. The deranged man lost in a kind of ecstatic, whirling performance, waving his prayer cap in the air, stamping his feet. When at last Daowood stopped, the man was his. He stood there — breathless and obsequious — waiting for what came next. Daowood mimed the motion of wrapping a turban on his head. Where are the Taliban? Eager to please, the man beamed and pointed across the valley.

Several hours later, as I shared the bed of a pickup truck with an Afghan soldier who manned a machine gun mounted on the roof of the cab, it became evident that we were lost. The rest of the company was nowhere to be seen, though we could hear them, not far off, exchanging rocket and automatic-weapons fire with insurgents who had fled into the mountains and were hiding behind protective crags, shooting down. The driver sped up one narrow rutted path after another. The paths were hemmed in by rock walls — a labyrinth of cul-de-sacs — and the driver grew more panicked and reckless with each dead end. Aside from the occasional night raid, no Afghan or American forces had been to this place in more than a decade. Men stood on top of the walls, watching.

“Where are we going?” I asked the machine-gunner.

He offered the words I had heard time and again — so often, and so predictably, they could be the battalion motto. The words were invoked in response to such questions as: What is the plan? Who is shooting? Where will we sleep tonight? How many dead?

The words are “Mulam nes” — “It isn’t clear.”

Finally the driver stopped and asked a bearded man in a black turban for directions. The man — a Talib? — kindly pointed the way.

Soon we arrived on a bare ridge and found Colonel Daowood almost alone. Two young soldiers stood nearby with rifles. Daowood sat on a rock. A teenage boy knelt before him, kowtowing, wrists cuffed behind his back. Daowood was doing something to his head. As we got closer, we saw that he held scissors and was roughly shearing the boy’s hair. A neat pile of long black locks lay on the ground between Daowood’s feet.

When Daowood noticed us, he smiled and winked. Then he went back to work, screaming in the boy’s ear, “Now do you like being a Talib?”

“No,” the boy whimpered.


“No, no, no.”

Daowood lifted him to his feet and examined with satisfaction the ugly patchwork of uneven tufts and bald scalp. He removed the boy’s handcuffs and said, “Go.”

The boy ran away, forgetting his shoes.

While Daowood was giving the haircut, our driver, who it turned out was a company commander, yelled at a pair of intrepid young soldiers who had taken it upon themselves to scale the mountain and capture the Taliban’s flag. We were leaving soon, and the commander wanted them to come back down. The young soldiers, however, were too high. They couldn’t hear him. The commander yelled and yelled. If only they had radios. If only he had a radio. In lieu of one, the commander drew his sidearm, aimed in the general vicinity of the soldiers, then shot two bullets.

The soldiers ducked, peered down. The commander waved.

It was the third day of a four-day operation being conducted by the Afghan National Army (A.N.A.) in Chak District, Wardak Province. There were no U.S. forces in sight. Every so often, a pair of American attack helicopters circled overhead; otherwise, the Afghans — roughly 400 of them — were on their own. For the A.N.A. — which every day assumes a greater share of responsibility for the security of Afghanistan — the operation was an ambitious undertaking and a test of its ability to function independently. For years now, the U.S. military’s priority in Afghanistan has been shifting from effectively prosecuting the present war to preparing Afghans for a future one in which our role is minimal. But even as American troops return home and American bases across the country close, such a future continues to feel difficult to envision. How will the A.N.A. fare when it is truly on its own? Predictions vary, tending toward the pessimistic. To the extent that assessments of the competency and preparedness of the A.N.A. take into consideration on-the-ground observations, however, they are usually limited to the perspective of American forces working in concert with Afghan units.

After a week with Daowood’s battalion, what I found is that the A.N.A. looks very different when there are no Americans around.

So does the war.

The operation to Chak District was nearly over before it began. Just hours before departure, during a briefing at Combat Outpost Dash-e Towp, the battalion headquarters, Daowood told his subordinate officers: “The only thing we’re waiting on is the fuel. If we don’t receive the fuel, we will not be able to do the operation.” A cohort of American advisers stood in the back of the room, silently listening. In the past, they probably would have offered to provide the fuel themselves. But that paradigm has changed. Increasingly, A.N.A. units must rely on their own supply lines, however inefficient they may be. Nevertheless, as the officers rose from their chairs, an Afghan captain pulled aside one of the advisers and told him the battalion lacked batteries for the metal detectors used to find improvised explosive devices. The adviser sighed. “Come over to our side,” he said, “and we’ll see what we can do.”

The American side of Dash-e Towp is separated from the Afghan side by a tall wall and a door that can be opened only with a code to which the Afghans do not have access. Whereas a close partnership between coalition and Afghan forces was for years considered a cornerstone of the overall military strategy (shohna ba shohna — shoulder to shoulder — went the ubiquitous NATO slogan), recently the Americans have distanced and even sequestered themselves from their erstwhile comrades. The about-face is a response to a rash of insider or “green on blue” attacks that killed more than 60 foreign troops in 2012 (and wounded 94), accounting for 22 percent of all coalition combat deaths. The Americans claim that many of the killings result from cultural differences; the Taliban claim to have infiltrated the security forces; the Afghan government claims “foreign spy agencies” are to blame. Whatever their provenance, the attacks have eroded trust to such a degree that NATO has begun designating some personnel as “guardian angels.” It is the guardian angel’s job to protect the NATO soldier from the Afghan soldier whom it is the NATO soldier’s job to train.

Other concerns abound. When the time comes, for instance, will Afghanistan’s army be able to maintain its own equipment and facilities? Evacuate and treat its own casualties? Overcome ethnic divisions within its ranks? Furnish its units with essential rations like food and fuel? Retain sufficient numbers despite alarmingly high attrition rates? Implement a uniform training doctrine despite alarmingly low literacy rates? Today, according to the Pentagon, exactly one Afghan brigade is capable of operating without any help from the coalition. For better or worse, come Dec. 31, 2014, the other 22 will likely have to do the same.

In anticipation of this reality, the A.N.A. has begun a countrywide realignment of troops that is transforming the battlefield. “Look at the situation,” Gen. Sher Mohamad Karimi, the chief of army staff, told me recently in Kabul. “One hundred and forty thousand international troops, with all the power that they have — the aircraft, the artillery, the tanks, the support — all of that now is going. You cannot expect the Afghan Army to do exactly what the international troops were doing.” As coalition forces diminish, that is, the A.N.A. must decide not only how to fill the gaps but also which gaps to forgo filling. For years, to secure roads and rural areas, Afghan soldiers have manned hundreds of check posts throughout the provinces. Now the A.N.A. plans to relinquish almost all of these in favor of consolidating its forces in significantly fewer locations. General Karimi claims there are two reasons for doing this. First: the Afghans simply lack the wherewithal to keep the more remote posts adequately provisioned. Second: the A.N.A. must move away from defending static positions, toward executing offensive operations. Theoretically, the police will take over check posts as the army quits them. But this will not always be the case; it may seldom be the case. And when vacated posts are not assumed by the police — as has happened in Wardak — it will be hard not to see the ongoing “realignment of troops” as anything other than an old-fashioned retreat.

Chak was one of the first districts in Afghanistan to undergo this change. When Daowood’s battalion woke around 3 a.m. and headed out from Dash-e Towp, the convoy included several large flatbed trailers hauling backhoes and bulldozers that would be used to destroy five of the six A.N.A. check posts in the area. (The last time abandoned posts were left standing in Wardak Province, the Taliban moved into them.) The sun was just starting to rise when the battalion arrived at the first one: a compact fortress of gravel-filled Hesco barriers perched on a squat hill that overlooked the entrance to the district. It was easy to see, from here, why the Taliban liked Chak. Parallel ranges form a wide valley with a river snaking down its middle. Apple orchards and trees with white trunks and bright yellow leaves crowd the basin. Dark canyons branch into the mountains. A single road follows the river deeper into the valley, connecting the lawless foothills of the Hindu Kush to Highway 1, a critical transit route that bridges Kabul and Kandahar, northern and southern Afghanistan.

After being reconstructed by an American firm at an estimated cost of $300 million, Highway 1 was extolled by the U.S. ambassador, in 2005, as “a symbol of Afghan renewal and progress.” Since then it has become one of the most dangerous roads on earth, scarred by bomb blasts, the site of frequent ambushes and executions by insurgent marauders, strewed with the charred carcasses of fuel tankers set alight on their way to NATO bases. As Daowood looked out from the top of the hill, he explained that Chak was an ideal staging ground for attacks on the highway and that the check posts were the only way to protect it. “When we had these check posts, there was good security,” Daowood said. “The people were happy. Of course, when we leave them, the Taliban will come back. As soon as we’re gone, they will own this whole area.”

Already, Daowood said, the road following the river was known to accommodate large quantities of remotely detonated bombs. As the colonel ordered the convoy to start forward, I watched two minesweepers testing out their metal detectors. The devices looked antique: Vietnam-era green with thick black wires connected to bulky plastic headphones. It was the sort of technology that made you remember ham radios, and I confess I was skeptical of their ability to clear the way. But after only a half-mile or so, one of the minesweepers stopped. A skinny, bearded soldier jumped out of a Humvee wielding a pickax. The minesweeper pointed at a spot. The soldier with the pickax attacked it. Soon he called to Daowood: “Found it!”

When C-4 explosive was packed around the bomb and exploded from what was deemed a safe remove, the blast proved much larger than anyone expected. Dirt rained down on those of us who were crouched behind a tree 100 meters away. The crater rendered the road impassable, obliging the Afghans to spend the next half-hour filling it with stones. By the time we started moving again, the minesweepers had begun working on another bomb just around the bend. I found the skinny, bearded soldier standing to the side with his pickax lightly balanced on his shoulder, smoking an immense joint.

His name was Shafiullah. He wore a pair of blue latex medical gloves and a metal helmet several sizes too big that sat low and loose over wide, wild eyes: preternaturally alert eyes bugging from their sockets as if to get a little closer to whatever they were looking at. “Did you see that last one?” Shafiullah wanted to know.

“It was big.”

He nodded rapidly, the helmet bucking forward and backward on his head, now threatening to fly off, now jerked into place by its leather chinstrap.

“Very big! Very nice!” He took another toke, held the doobie upright and became suddenly, deeply engrossed in its glowing tip.

“What are the gloves for?” I asked.

“The human body carries an electrical charge. When you work on the bombs, if you’re not careful, you can ignite them with the electricity in your fingers.”

“Do you always smoke hash before you work on the bombs?”

More vigorous nodding. “It takes away the fear.”

Shafiullah told me he joined the army about five years ago, when he turned 18. He served for three years as a regular infantry soldier in the violent Pakistani border regions before volunteering to become an explosive-ordnance-disposal technician. “I always wanted to be one,” he said. “I love when someone calls me an engineer.” About a year ago, after graduating from a six-month training program taught by French and American soldiers, Shafiullah was deployed to Wardak. Since then, he estimated, he had disposed of roughly 50 bombs. “Thanks to God I’ve never been hurt,” he said.

I asked if any of the other engineers were less fortunate. Shafiullah said that he belonged to a team of 20 technicians and that during the past three months two were killed and eight badly injured. He also said that nine of his friends from the training course were now dead or maimed. Back on the road, one of the minesweepers called for the pickax. Shafiullah took a last drag before joining them. A few minutes later, the valley echoed with a tremendous boom.

The shooting started soon after: rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades. It was too far ahead to see exactly what was happening. Later I learned that a group of insurgents ambushed the lead element in the convoy, strafing a narrow stretch in the road from within a dense stand of trees. The soldiers responded forcefully — with more and bigger weapons — killing six people in the village where the attack originated. A little while later, not far from the first shootout, there was another. This time an Afghan soldier fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a group of gunmen, killing seven. According to the soldiers, all the dead were Taliban.

By the time I reached the site with Colonel Daowood, the convoy had already moved on, resuming its lurching penetration of the valley. Perhaps not coincidentally, the ambushes occurred near a small gas station that was the target of an American airstrike the night before. The owner of the gas station — a Taliban leader named Gulam Ali, who Daowood said commanded several hundred insurgents in Chak — was killed by a missile. Two old fuel pumps still stood out front, but the row of shops behind them was ruined: windows shattered, charred metal bars curled back like the melted tines of a plastic fork. Each shop offered its own little diorama of destruction. Hundreds of pill bottles scattered on a pharmacy floor; emptied shelves hanging vertically in a general store; an iron and a sewing machine standing improbably upright on a tailor’s wooden table, among burned and tattered rolls of cloth.

Next to the gas station was Gulam Ali’s home and headquarters: an immaculate compound centered on a courtyard with rosebushes and a deep freshwater well. An exterior staircase ascended to the bedroom. Inside I was surprised to find the walls pasted with posters illustrating idyllic scenes from some future civilization, in which sleek modern buildings were harmoniously incorporated into rugged natural landscapes. Or maybe it was Switzerland — hard to say. Either way, it was odd to imagine Gulam Ali privately meditating on them. Nor did the inspirational quotes at the top of each poster lessen the oddness. “We love life,” one italicized blurb instructed, “not because we are used to living, but because we are used to loving.” And, “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

When I returned to the courtyard, Daowood announced that he was going to the village where the 13 insurgents had just been killed. “It’s Gulam Ali’s village,” he explained. “I want to pay my respects.” He headed into the trees with no protection other than the two teenage bodyguards who accompanied him everywhere. He wore no helmet or body armor (“I don’t like them; they give me a headache”), and he carried no weapon. Instead he walked with his hands clasped behind his back, casually flipping a string of turquoise prayer beads. When we reached the compound that belonged to Gulam Ali’s parents, where his relatives had gathered to mourn, Daowood told me to wait outside — the presence of a foreigner would offend the family. When he emerged several minutes later, I was happy to be leaving the place. But as we made our way back to the main road, we encountered dozens of men congregated on a low knoll among the plain stone markers and colored flags of the village graveyard. It was a funeral for the Taliban, and the men regarded us with something less than brotherly affection. Daowood said, “Keep walking.” Then he addressed the funeral. “The aircraft are coming back tonight!” he shouted. “The American Special Forces are coming! Leave this area! Don’t stay here! If you stay, you might get killed!”

Immediately, the ceremony began to scatter, the men fleeing down the slope as swiftly as they could without betraying panic. “The helicopters are coming!” Daowood went on. “The Special Forces will be here soon!”

At the time, the colonel’s prompt dissolution of what appeared to be a potentially dangerous situation seemed to me as deft and inspired as his handling of the deranged man would a couple of days later. But something else was going on as well. Expressing his condolences to Gulam Ali’s family, warning the people about a possible airstrike and night raid — it was all part of Daowood’s game. The more time I spent with him, the clearer it became that Daowood was practicing his own version of counterinsurgency, one that involved endearing himself to locals by characterizing as common enemies not only the Taliban but also the Americans and the Afghan government. In almost every village we visited, I watched Daowood rail against Kabul’s political elite to rapt audiences of disgruntled farmers. Once, in a place known to abet insurgents, the colonel told a crowd: “All the high-ranking officials in the government are thieves. They don’t care about the country, the people. They take money from the foreigners and put it in their pockets. They make themselves fat. They go abroad, sleep in big houses, buy expensive cars and never think about the people. They have done nothing for this country.”

As with Daowood’s occasional flights of rage, it was tough to tell just how much of this was theater and how much true belief. My sense was that Daowood was genuinely conflicted: a committed soldier who spent 10 years of his life in the service of a government he was profoundly disenchanted with. And he wasn’t alone. Most soldiers I spoke to conspicuously avoided expressing any fondness for — much less allegiance to — their government. Of course, this is the same with other soldiers in other armies (imagine a U.S. Marine explaining his compulsion to enlist by citing a feeling of fidelity to the Bush or Obama administrations), but the nascency of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan makes its political leadership and national character uniquely synonymous. Put another way, in a government that has had only one president, you can’t distinguish between corrupt individuals and a broken system. All of which raises the question: In such a country, how can you be both a detractor and a patriot, as Daowood and some of his men seemed clearly to be? The Marine ostensibly fights on behalf of American principles and institutions that transcend elected officials; on behalf of what did the colonel and these soldiers fight? Most of them, when I asked, answered with the word “watan,” or “homeland.” But what does the notion of a homeland mean for someone who has seen his ruled by monarchists, dictators, communists, mujahedeen, Islamic fundamentalists and Karzai?

When it grew dark, we occupied a half-built mud house on the outskirts of a small mountain village, and Colonel Daowood told us his story. The owner of the property had killed a chicken and prepared for us a large pot of soup. Daowood and his entourage huddled around the iridescent mantles of a kerosene lamp, passing the ladle around, hugging their wool field blankets against a near-freezing night.

Daowood’s military career began three decades ago, when he fought the Russians in the tall mountains and narrow valleys of his native Paghman District. After the Soviet-backed government collapsed in 1992, rival mujahedeen groups turned viciously upon one another. While Kabul became the epicenter of a ferocious civil war, Paghman, just 20 minutes west of the city, remained relatively peaceful. Daowood stayed home, preferring not to enter a fray that was decimating the capital and its residents, with no end in sight. But in 1996, when the Taliban entered Kabul and ejected with unexpected ease each of its warring factions, Daowood took his wife and children to Panjshir Valley, an anti-Taliban stronghold where the warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud had retreated in preparation for a longer, harder fight. Although Massoud and his men were Tajiks and Daowood was a Pashtun (the ethnicity of the Taliban) — and although the recent civil war inflamed ethnic animosities — Daowood was received with open arms. Massoud gave his family a house and put Daowood in charge of 100 men.

More war followed for Daowood. Years of land mines and rockets, ambushes and close calls. Years of night operations in the orchards of the vast Shomali Plain — a verdant land between Panjshir and Kabul. Years, finally, of much spilled blood but little ground lost or gained. And then came the year everything changed. When Daowood talks about that time — after he and his comrades routed the Taliban with the help of American air power and special operators — he grins the way you might at a memory of your naïver self. It’s the optimism of those days that both embarrasses and saddens him, the feeling that Afghanistan had been born anew.

Daowood was among the tens of thousands of fighters in the so-called Northern Alliance — a loose confederation of anti-Taliban militias loyal to Massoud and other commanders. Although Massoud himself was assassinated two days before 9/11, his successor, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, supposedly a drug trafficker, was installed as the defense minister for Hamid Karzai’s interim government. Under Fahim, a majority of the Northern Alliance, including Daowood and his 100 men, became the first incarnation of the new Afghan military. While the United States remained committed to the “light footprint” approach championed by Bush and Rumsfeld — eschewing any commitment of resources that might be construed as “nation-building” — Fahim presided over the creation of a force that soon came to resemble the factionalism of the past far more than the nationalism of a future so eagerly anticipated by people like Daowood. As the International Crisis Group put it: “Units became organs of patronage, rewarding allies and supporters with officer commissions. The result was a weak chain of command over a mix of militias plagued by high desertion rates and low operational capacity.”

Whatever power-jockeying and cronyism afflicted the fledgling military, the civilian government under President Karzai was looking even worse. After two years, weary and bitter, Daowood resigned. “It was the corruption,” he explained. “It ruined everything. Everything was destroyed.” While Daowood embraced a new life back in Paghman — managing his family’s land and enjoying the company of his wife and sons — a resurgent Taliban began to exploit a growing disillusionment with the government and a meager deployment of security forces outside the capital. By 2006, there was no denying it: The insurgency had evolved from a lingering nuisance to a legitimate threat.

One day, an old friend from Panjshir, who was serving as a corps commander in the A.N.A., visited Daowood at his farm in Paghman. “We argued a lot,” Daowood recalled. “I didn’t want to be in the army anymore. I didn’t want to fight for this government. When I explained this to him, my friend told me: ‘If good men don’t participate, the criminals will take over. We have to reclaim this country from them.’ ” In the end, Daowood was convinced. Once more he left Paghman. Once more he took up arms.

When Daowood finished his story, I asked whether he really believed that the system was reformable. He thought for a while. Finally, he offered another reason for fighting — one that rang somewhat truer. “The government only steals money,” he told me. “At least they aren’t against education or women or human rights or rule of law.”

The next morning, some soldiers found a Taliban flag and brought it to Daowood. It wasn’t much: Arabic script scrawled in blue ballpoint pen on a square of white bedsheet tied with twine to a stick. Daowood slashed it with his knife and tried setting it on fire. The cloth was slow to catch. While the soldiers fussed with cardboard and kindling, Daowood received a call from the American advisers at Dash-e Towp. They wanted to remind him to begin tearing down the check posts. Daowood was incredulous; he still couldn’t believe it. “What nonsense is this?” he said when he hung up. “Do they want to hand Afghanistan to the Taliban?” The other soldiers looked just as galled. They sullenly watched the flag absorb a green lick of flame, shrivel and burn. “After these check posts are destroyed, we won’t be able to enter this valley,” Daowood said.

All the Afghans in Wardak, it seemed, shared Daowood’s contempt for the decision to close the check posts. When I met with Wardak’s provincial governor, Abdul Majid Khogyani, in Kabul, he told me: “I was a strong opponent of this idea. The police commander of Wardak and the National Directorate of Security chief were also against it. We know this will not work. The result of this strategy is that the Taliban have become stronger. Without the check posts, the Taliban will easily penetrate these areas. And once that happens, it is very difficult to clear them out again.” Majid was convinced that the realignment of troops had been forced on the A.N.A. command by NATO — a suspicion held by many Afghan officers I spoke to. “The local population are asking why NATO would deliberately provide the Taliban with such an opportunity,” the governor said. NATO has declined to comment on its involvement.

In Chak Valley, only one A.N.A. position would remain — the most distant outpost from the highway, manned by a contingent of roughly 100. That afternoon, when the convoy reached this last outpost, a fresh company relieved the bedraggled-looking men who had been stationed there for the past 12 months, collaborating with a U.S. Special Forces team, struggling to gain a foothold. Every one of them painted a similarly bleak picture of near-daily fighting against a more numerous guerrilla army. Mile after mile of mountains and forest was owned wholly by the insurgents. Out in that big wilderness, there was even a Taliban weapons bazaar, where insurgent fighters bought and sold Kalashnikovs and rockets and machine guns and grenades.

The question hovered like a bad smell: How would the Afghan soldiers who remained deep in Chak survive (or perhaps more accurately: What would they be able to accomplish beyond merely surviving?) once every check post between them and Highway 1 was razed? Severing entirely their already embattled position from the foot of the valley would be simple enough. After all, there was only one way in and out. As if to highlight this uncomfortable fact, a local informant called Daowood as soon as the convoy started to make its way back in the direction from which it had come. A number of bombs, the informant warned, were buried somewhere up ahead.

Shafiullah and his team headed to the front, and the procession of Humvees and trucks slowed to a crawl. Right away, the engineers found a copper wire attached to a massive I.E.D. buried two feet underground. A few minutes later, they found another. And then another. As soon as Shafiullah blew up the third bomb, Colonel Daowood’s informant called back to say that there were probably “many more,” though he was uncertain where. By now it was dark, and we still had miles to travel before reaching the relative security of an open area nearer the highway, where the battalion was supposed to bed down. Fifty feet or so ahead of the lead vehicle Shafiullah knelt in the dim beams of the headlights scratching at the dirt with his pickax. After a while there was some hollering and a disorderly hustle toward the rear. The explosion that followed was so powerful that bits of earth lashed our backs in a warm wave.

No one was hurt, and the convoy started forward again. Then it stopped again. While Shafiullah went back to work, I joined a group of soldiers sitting on the remains of an old Soviet tank. Someone produced a joint. The mood was jolly. It turned out the soldiers belonged to the company stationed since last winter at the remotest outpost in Chak. They were glad to be rotating out — even if it meant swapping one deadly place for another. Most of them were Pashtuns from eastern Afghanistan who served for many years and had wives and children to whom they sent their salaries and saw once every several months. The soldiers hoped to get some leave when they returned to Dash-e Towp — but visiting home, they said, was a mission in itself. Stretches of the highway between Dash-e Towp and Kabul were treacherous; many soldiers had been abducted and murdered by insurgents on their way to see their families. In the past you could dress in the traditionalshalwar kameez, hire a taxi and pose as a civilian. But now the Taliban had spies who alerted them when soldiers headed out. The only option was to catch a ride on a convoy, and those could be rare. Recently, the soldiers said, one of their lieutenants lost his infant son to an illness: though he was from Kapisa Province — a short drive north by car — it took him 20 days to get back.

Eventually Shafiullah found and detonated the fourth bomb, and the soldiers on the tank — high as kites by then — returned to the road and continued on. It was 1 in the morning by the time they reached their destination. On the way, they had to stop again and again for Shafiullah’s team to excavate and blow up I.E.D.’s — 11 in total. At some point after midnight the engineers got sloppy, igniting the C-4 on one bomb before Shafiullah could escape the blast radius. The pressure wave collapsed a mud-brick wall he was walking by, crushing his ankle. When I saw Shafiullah the next morning, his pant leg was in tatters and he was limping. His leg looked badly swollen. He hadn’t seen a medic yet and didn’t plan to.

The ground froze solid during the night and Shafiullah — who like most of the men in the battalion was never issued a sleeping bag — got no more than a cold hour’s rest. Nevertheless, while he waited in line to collect his breakfast (a plastic bag containing a hard piece of bread and a boiled egg and a mini-carton of coffee creamer), he seemed in high spirits. “I told you I’d never been hurt before, and now I’m hurt,” Shafiullah said with a laugh. “I was close! But God saved me.”

This was the day that Daowood brought his men up the mountain to a village called Ali Shah and found it deserted except for the deranged man who danced for him. Among the Afghan soldiers, Ali Shah was infamous — an insurgent sanctuary where no government forces had dared to venture in more than a decade. (“Even the women are Taliban!” one sergeant told me.) Daowood had received intelligence that there would be a wedding in the village that day with several insurgent commanders in attendance. He said he wanted to pace the operation to crash the wedding in time for lunch.

When Daowood asked where the Taliban went, the deranged man pointed to a distant hillside where a large group of villagers had gathered outside a mosque. Daowood and his men jumped in their trucks and headed that way. I rode in the back of a Toyota pickup with a middle-aged machine-gunner named Fazil. It turned out that Fazil was the lieutenant the soldiers on the tank had mentioned the night before — the one who had been unable to get home in time for his son’s burial. As we talked, there was something deeply familiar about the way Fazil described his village in Kapisa Province. He might have been a U.S. Marine reminiscing about the family ranch in Texas. The river was wide and clear, bountiful with fish. The people were kind; the air was fresh; the fruit was sweet.

Fazil’s education in the peculiarities of war began when he was 12, during the jihad. One day, while he was with his father and uncle at the local bazaar, a foot patrol of Russian commandos — or Russian soldiers who Fazil assumed were commandos because of the ski masks they were wearing — opened fire on the villagers. Fazil’s uncle bled out and died on the ground in front of him; Fazil’s father also took a bullet but survived. Several years later, a jet from the Soviet-backed government launched a missile at Fazil’s home that killed both of his parents; shortly thereafter, Fazil joined the mujahedeen in Panjshir led by Massoud. During a battle with Soviet fighters, Fazil was shot in the leg and had to be taken to a hospital in Kabul. There the government asked him to switch sides. Fazil agreed and for a year fought for the national army against his former comrades. When I asked how he could volunteer for the same force that killed his parents, Fazil said: “The mujahedeen knew I was with the government the whole time. I was giving them information.” After the government collapsed, Fazil went back to Panjshir and rejoined with Massoud.

This capacity for switching sides, betraying sides, playing sides, often simultaneously, always baffled the foreign forces in Afghanistan. The complex logic of Afghanistan’s ever-shifting allegiances is simply inscrutable to most outsiders; we have never really understood whom we’re fighting or why they’re fighting us. I once went on a mission in a volatile eastern province with a platoon of American soldiers and a member of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System — a historian with a doctorate and an assault rifle whose job it was to map which anti-Soviet mujahedeen groups the elders in the area identified with. Some Afghan troops were there as well, and I remember the mystified looks on their faces as this soldier-professor grilled (through an interpreter) one graybeard after another about the commanders they fought under 20 years ago.

Daowood’s method was different. When a fighting-age male struck him as suspicious, the colonel would use his thumbs and index fingers to pull open both of the man’s eyelids. Then he would lean close and stare searchingly. Usually, after several seconds, as though he had suddenly found precisely what he was looking for, Daowood would declare, in mock surprise, “He’s Taliban!”

It was a joke, of course — one that mostly made fun of the Americans. A few years ago, the coalition embarked on an ambitious enterprise to record in an electronic database the biometric information of hundreds of thousands of Afghan citizens, and a hallmark of American patrols has subsequently been the lining up of villagers to digitally register their eyes and fingerprints. Daowood’s faux iris scan was in part an acknowledgment of the A.N.A.’s inferior technology. But it was also a dig at the coalition’s somewhat desperate reliance on technology. Where Daowood’s interactions with villagers were always intimate, it is hard to imagine a more clinical and alienating dynamic between two people than that of the NATO service member aiming his Hand-held Interagency Identity Detection Equipment at the face of a rural Afghan farmer. In such moments, the difference in the field between the U.S. and Afghan soldier is far starker than that of the foreigner and the native. It is more akin to the difference in the ocean between a scuba diver and a fish.

For example: it never occurred to me that Daowood was being entirely serious when he said he wanted to arrive at the wedding in time for lunch. But as soon as we reached the gathering on the hillside in Ali Shah, we were invited into a house and served generous plates of stewed lamb and rice. Daowood dutifully commenced his anti-establishment diatribe, telling me, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear: “These are good people, all of them. If the government worked for them, if the government helped them, they wouldn’t fight us. The government officials should come to places like this. They know nothing of the people’s lives outside of Kabul.” When one villager added that “the ministers put all the money in their own accounts, they build themselves nice houses and buy nice cars,” Daowood nodded in sympathetic agreement.

Just outside, meanwhile, some soldiers standing guard discovered a canvas sack full of rocket-propelled grenades stashed behind a boulder. A group of men were spotted fleeing into the mountains, and the day’s fighting began.

Late that night, after the rest of the battalion went to sleep, Daowood set off into a Taliban-controlled village on foot, accompanied by four guards. He wanted to meet with a local Talib, who was also a paid informant. He never said so explicitly — “he’s an old friend” and “he gives me information” was all he allowed — but I had the sense this was the man who warned Daowood about the bombs in the road. There was not much of a moon and just enough starlight to see the ground beneath our feet. As we made our way over a steep hill, along a creek, through a field and into winding streets, a chorus of dogs began to howl, and the four soldiers Daowood dragged along grew nervous. “Don’t worry,” Daowood kept telling them. “We’re close.”

When we reached the Talib’s house, a young boy ushered us into a long narrow room dimly lighted by a gas lantern. Pink lace curtains hung over the windows; plush cushions lined the walls; gaudily decorative carpets covered the floor. The informant was a middle-aged man affecting the usual beard and turban. He embraced Daowood and gestured for us to sit. The boy brought tea and then platters of rice and meat and bread. After a while, Daowood said: “We’re closing the check posts tomorrow. We’re pulling out of here.”

“That will be fine,” the man said. “The aircraft were searching here last night.”

“Just stay inside,” Daowood told him.

His phone rang. When he hung up, Daowood announced, “There’s going to be an ambush tomorrow.” And to the informant: “Tomorrow we’re going to search this area.”

The informant nodded. “There won’t be any problem.”

The next day, there was in fact an ambush — even while the bulldozers and backhoes were leveling the check posts. We were heading up a tight canyon, along the banks of a shallow stream, when rockets and machine guns echoed up ahead. By now, most of the soldiers were ragged with fatigue. Over the past four days, they had walked some 30 miles, stayed up shivering through frigid nights, eaten little more than bread and rice. And they had fought and killed people, too. As Daowood rushed ahead at a brisk pace toward the gunfire, we passed one soldier after another sitting on the side of the trail, leaning against a rock, flushed and spent. “Don’t stop!” Daowood urged them. “You’re in the enemy’s country now! Move like a lion!”

And for the most part — even if not exactly lionlike — the soldiers got up and pushed on.

It’s too early to tell what the Afghan National Army will look like on Dec. 31, 2014. No doubt its level of readiness for the uncertain future will vary hugely from region to region, unit to unit. But it is a mistake to dismiss or disparage the Afghan soldier, as is often done by foreigners in Afghanistan. After the ambush (three insurgents were injured; no soldiers), I walked toward the highway, which we could see through the bare trees at the foot of the valley, alongside a young medic from Daykundi Province named Abdul Karim. Like most of the people from Daykundi, Karim was Hazara, one of Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities. Because they follow the Shia branch of Islam, and because their distinct facial features make them easily recognizable, Hazaras are uniquely vulnerable to militant Sunni fundamentalists. In Afghanistan, this has certainly been true with the Taliban, who, during their rise to power, massacred Hazaras by the thousands. “For my people,” Karim told me, “it is important to serve in this army.” Almost all of the men in his family, he said, enlisted as soon as they were old enough. Twenty-eight of Karim’s brothers and cousins wore the uniform.

There might have been a time early in the war when most American soldiers and Marines genuinely believed that they were fighting to protect their homeland, their watan. But those days are over now; they have been for a while. You can feel it just as surely as you can feel that for soldiers like Karim they will never end.

Almost as soon as we got back to Dash-e Towp, I overheard some U.S. officers loudly complaining about the inability of Afghan soldiers to make appointments on time. Afghan soldiers do have difficulty making appointments on time, it’s true. They also don’t like to stand in straight lines or dress according to regulation or march in step or do so many of the things intrinsic to a Western notion of professional soldiering. When a lieutenant calls a formation of Afghan privates to attention, they will inevitably resemble, as my drill sergeant used to say, “a soup sandwich.” But they will also accept a much higher level of risk than any coalition force ever has. Their ranks are filled with tough and brave men who run toward the fight without body armor or helmets or armored vehicles and sleep on the frozen ground without sleeping bags and dig up I.E.D.’s with a pickax and often go hungry and seldom complain.

It was dark by the time Daowood returned to the base; he wanted to be the last man in. When I visited him in his room, he was sitting on the floor, drinking tea. A small TV played quietly in the corner, and as we talked I heard a broadcaster mention the news: yesterday, Barack Obama was re-elected president. I pointed this out to Daowood, who wasn’t much interested. “They’re all the same to us,” he said. Then, seeing I was taking notes, he added, “We just want someone who will help Afghanistan.” But the colonel seemed to know that in the end that job would be his.

Luke Mogelson is a contributing writer for the magazine and a co-editor of He last wrote about a lawless Afghanistan border town.

Editor: Joel Lovell

A version of this article appeared in print on January 20, 2013, on page MM28 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Which Way Did the Taliban Go?.

Watch your tongue: Prejudiced comments illegal in Brazil (The Christian Science Monitor)

Brazilian lawmakers and law enforcement have drawn the line on free speech when it comes to racial, religious, or ethnic agitation – even though it is a constitutional right.

Temp Headline ImagePeople leave work at the end of the day in Centro, the business district in Rio de Janeiro, in this September 18 file photo. Brazilian lawmakers and law enforcement have drawn the line on free speech when it comes to racial, religious, or ethnic agitation. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

By Taylor Barnes, Correspondent.

Posted December 4, 2012 at 11:11 am EST

RIO DE JANEIROIn an amateur online video, Afonso Henrique Alves Lobato describes how he and fellow members of his Evangelical church snuck into a spiritual center of Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian faith that venerates deities originating from Africa in services led by a religious figure called a pai de santo.

“I saw a pai de santo, gay, of course, because every pai de santo is homosexual,” the young Mr. Lobato said. “As everyone knows, a [Umbanda] spiritual center is a place where the devil is called upon.”

Brazilian authorities had no tolerance for his remarks. Lobato and his pastor, Tupirani da Hora Lores, who reportedly posted disparaging remarks about other religions online, were swiftly jailed and charged with a crime: religious intolerance.

These men were the first to be jailed for such a crime in Brazil when authorities detained them pre-trial. In July the pair was found guilty and given a sentence of community service and a fine.

“No one should imagine that these religious men are being unfairly punished,” Rio’s prominent crime columnist, Jorge Antonio Barros, wrote in the national O Globo newspaper. “Nobody has the right to disrespect someone else’s religious practices, all the less so in the name of God.”

This kind of ruling may seem entirely foreign to a US audience, used to vigorous freedom of speech protection. But in Brazil, this type of ruling is the norm – especially as social media opens up a new, visible outlet for offensive comments.

Brazil’s diverse ethnic and religious makeup is often compared with that of the United States, and tensions run high. It has a legacy of slavery, a marginalized indigenous population, large immigrant clusters, and a majority Christian population that clashes with Afro-Brazilian religions. But Brazil’s approach to “hate speech” is starkly different than that of the US. From arresting an Argentine soccer player for racist shouts during a game, prosecuting a columnist in the Amazon for writing that government officials “could not stand the odor exhaled by Indians,” and ordering YouTube to remove the infamous “Innocence of Muslims” video due to its potential to incite intolerance – prejudiced comments are simply illegal in Brazil.

Despite a constitutional principle of freedom of expression, Brazilian lawmakers and law enforcement have drawn the line when it comes to agitating racial, religious, or ethnic tensions. And though the legislation is widely accepted as legitimate, even advocates of criminalizing intolerance say the best the law can do is make an offender hold his or her tongue, rather than change the racial and religious tensions that still run deep in Brazilian society.

‘Human dignity’

There are two types of offenses in Brazil when it comes to hate speech. Both are punishable by prison time under the 1990 law, which was passed after two decades of military dictatorship but is increasingly visible today. One has to do with insults directed at a specific person based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. The second is the expression and encouragement of prejudice toward the same groups in general, as was the case of the Evangelicals.

Supporters say that violent hate crimes are a reality in Brazil and that human dignity is as important a principle as freedom of speech. There’s currently a push to include the protection of sexual orientation under the law as well. In April, a gay couple was found tortured and killed inside their home in the state of Alagoas, and 226 gays, lesbians, and transvestites were killed in 2011 alone.

‘A pedagogical effect’ 

In Brazil, freedom of speech “doesn’t mean someone can use that right to impinge on someone else[‘s] rights, like the right to human dignity,” says Henrique Mariano, the president of the Brazilian Bar Association in the northeastern state of Pernambuco.

In 2010 the Pernambuco Bar Association sued law student Mayara Petruso in São Paulo for racist comments on Twitter. She was the first Brazilian to be found guilty of racism expressed over social media when convicted this May. After the election of President Dilma Rousseff in 2010, a wave of anti-northeastern comments struck social networks from opponents who accused the candidate of winning by giving handouts to the poor, especially in Brazil’s economically depressed northeast.

“Give the right to vote to northeasterners and you drown the country of those who worked to support the bums who have a kid so they can get a check,” Ms. Petruso tweeted, in addition to sending messages saying residents of the wealthy state of São Paulo should “drown” a northeasterner.

“I think this sentence has a pedagogical effect,” says Mr. Mariano, who says the case of Petruso – whose prison sentence was converted to community service because she was a first-time offender – was used as an example to emphasize that hate speech on social media can be prosecuted.

“When people see this punishment, this can restrain themselves or in the future prevent others from doing something similar.”

Petruso’s case made national headlines as she went to trial, where she did not deny having sent the tweets. She defended herself in court by saying she was not prejudiced and comparing her remarks to a heated outburst during a soccer game: “My candidate was José Serra [Rousseff’s opponent], it was something in the moment, like in a soccer game between two teams when a player yells: ‘I’m going to kill [São Paulo club] Corinthians!”

‘Disqualifies’ Brazilian democracy?

Daniel Silva, a linguistics professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, says that Brazilians largely do not protest or question the laws against prejudice and that, rather than claiming free speech, defendants typically try to reconstruct their comments as a joke or say they were misunderstood.

But Ricardo Noblat, a popular political columnist who describes himself as a member of the left, warns about the zeal to apply a law that restricts free speech in the name of human dignity but in practice is used to target so-called conservative standpoints.

In a column headlined “The fascism of the well intentioned,” Mr. Noblat defended ultra-conservative Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who routinely speaks out on culture war issues such as abortion rights and a proposed “gay kit” that would be distributed in public schools to counter homophobic attitudes. Noblat noted that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva famously said that the global financial crisis had been caused by “blonde people with blue eyes” without an outcry of racism over his comments.

“I think this [curbing of free speech] disqualifies the Brazilian democracy,” Noblat says. He adds that after a two-decade military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, Brazil does not have a deeply rooted culture of Democracy. Freedom of speech, Noblat says, “only worries a small part of society.”

“The justice system itself takes this position, that freedom of expression is less important than certain other things, like the repression and punishment of opinions that injure certain values,” he says.  

While US courts and officials routinely uphold Americans’ rights to offensive speech, as in the case of the Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones, linguistics professor Silva notes that each society finds its own limits on free speech. He gives the example of the US military investigating a WikiLeaks sympathizer for the crime of “communication with the enemy.”

“The fact that here in Brazil there is this law, it doesn’t mean that people will be any less racist,” says Mr. Silva. “They will at least know that they will be accountable for what they say. In these very fragile racial relations, at least people know that they have rights [to dignity]”

Brazilian Mediums Shed Light On Brain Activity During a Trance State (Science Daily)

ScienceDaily (Nov. 16, 2012) — Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University and the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil analyzed the cerebral blood flow (CBF) of Brazilian mediums during the practice of psychography, described as a form of writing whereby a deceased person or spirit is believed to write through the medium’s hand. The new research revealed intriguing findings of decreased brain activity during the mediums’ dissociative state which generated complex written content. Their findings will appear in the November 16th edition of the online journal PLOS ONE.

The 10 mediums — five less expert and five experienced — were injected with a radioactive tracer to capture their brain activity during normal writing and during the practice of psychography which involves the subject entering a trance-like state. The subjects were scanned using SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) to highlight the areas of the brain that are active and inactive during the practice.

“Spiritual experiences affect cerebral activity, this is known. But, the cerebral response to mediumship, the practice of supposedly being in communication with, or under the control of the spirit of a deceased person, has received little scientific attention, and from now on new studies should be conducted,” says Andrew Newberg, MD, director of Research at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine and a nationally-known expert on spirituality and the brain, who collaborated with Julio F. P. Peres, Clinical Psychologist, PhD in Neuroscience and Behavior, Institute of Psychology at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and colleagues on the research.

The mediums ranged from 15 to 47 years of automatic writing experience, performing up to 18 psychographies per month. All were right-handed, in good mental health, and not currently using any psychiatric drugs. All reported that during the study, they were able to reach their usual trance-like state during the psychography task and were in their regular state of consciousness during the control task.

The researchers found that the experienced psychographers showed lower levels of activity in the left hippocampus (limbic system), right superior temporal gyrus, and the frontal lobe regions of the left anterior cingulate and right precentral gyrus during psychography compared to their normal (non-trance) writing. The frontal lobe areas are associated with reasoning, planning, generating language, movement, and problem solving, perhaps reflecting an absence of focus, self-awareness and consciousness during psychography, the researchers hypothesize.

Less expert psychographers showed just the opposite — increased levels of CBF in the same frontal areas during psychography compared to normal writing. The difference was significant compared to the experienced mediums. This finding may be related to their more purposeful attempt at performing the psychography. The absence of current mental disorders in the groups is in line with current evidence that dissociative experiences are common in the general population and not necessarily related to mental disorders, especially in religious/spiritual groups. Further research should address criteria for distinguishing between healthy and pathological dissociative expressions in the scope of mediumship.

The writing samples produced were also analyzed and it was found that the complexity scores for the psychographed content were higher than those for the control writing across the board. In particular, the more experienced mediums showed higher complexity scores, which typically would require more activity in the frontal and temporal lobes, but this was not the case. Content produced during psychographies involved ethical principles, the importance of spirituality, and bringing together science and spirituality.

Several possible hypotheses for these many differences have been considered. One speculation is that as frontal lobe activity decreases, the areas of the brain that support mediumistic writing are further disinhibited (similar to alcohol or drug use) so that the overall complexity can increase. In a similar manner, improvisational music performance is associated with lower levels of frontal lobe activity which allows for more creative activity. However, improvisational music performance and alcohol/drug consumption states are quite peculiar and distinct from psychography. “While the exact reason is at this point elusive, our study suggests there are neurophysiological correlates of this state,” says Newberg.

“This first-ever neuroscientific evaluation of mediumistic trance states reveals some exciting data to improve our understanding of the mind and its relationship with the brain. These findings deserve further investigation both in terms of replication and explanatory hypotheses,” states Newberg.

Journal Reference:

  1. Julio Fernando Peres, Alexander Moreira-Almeida, Leonardo Caixeta, Frederico Leao, Andrew Newberg. Neuroimaging during Trance State: A Contribution to the Study of DissociationPLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (11): e49360 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0049360

Language is shaped by brain’s desire for clarity and ease (University of Rochester)

Public release date: 15-Oct-2012
By Susan Hagen
University of Rochester

 VIDEO: Translation: “Referee statue pick up. ” Above is one of the 80 animated video clips used to teach an artificial language to study participants. Cognitive scientists are just beginning to use…

Cognitive scientists have good news for linguistic purists terrified about the corruption of their mother tongue.

Using an artificial language in a carefully controlled laboratory experiment, a team from the University of Rochester and Georgetown University has found that many changes to language are simply the brain’s way of ensuring that communication is as precise and concise as possible.

“Our research shows that humans choose to reshape language when the structure is either overly redundant or confusing,” says T. Florian Jaeger, the Wilmot Assistant Professor of the Sciences at Rochester and co-author of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesOct. 15. “This study suggests that we prefer languages that on average convey information efficiently, striking a balance between effort and clarity.”

The brain’s tendency toward efficient communication may also be an underlying reason that many human languages are structurally similar, says lead author Maryia Fedzechkina, a doctoral candidate at Rochester. Over and over, linguists have identified nearly identical grammatical conventions in seemingly unrelated languages scattered throughout the globe. For decades, linguists have debated the meaning of such similarities: are recurrent structures artifacts of distant common origins, are they simply random accidents, or do they reflect fundamental aspects of human cognition?

This study supports the latter, says co-author Elissa L. Newport, professor of neurology and director of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery at Georgetown, and the former George Eastman Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Rochester. “The bias language learners have toward efficiency and clarity acts as a filter as languages are transmitted from one generation of learners to another,” she says. Alterations to language are introduced through many avenues, including the influence of other languages and changes in accents or pronunciation. “But this research finds that learners shift the language in ways that make it better – easier to use and more suitable for communication,” says Newport. That process also leads to the recurrent patterns across languages.

To observe the language acquisition process, the team created two miniature artificial languages that use suffixes on nouns to indicate subject or object. These “case markers” are common to Spanish, Russian, and other languages, but not English. In two experiments, 40 undergraduates, whose only language was English, learned the eight verbs, 15 nouns, and grammatical structure of the artificial languages. The training was spaced over four 45-minute sessions and consisted of computer images, short animated clips, and audio recordings. Then participants were asked to describe a novel action clip using their newly learned language.

 VIDEO: Translation: “Singer hunter chop. ” Unlike English, the artificial languages used in the study have free word order. When the subject and object could be easily confused, participants chose to reshape…

When faced with sentence constructions that could be confusing or ambiguous, the language learners in both experiments chose to alter the rules of the language they were taught in order to make their meaning clearer. They used case markers more often when the meaning of the subject and object might otherwise have caused unintended interpretations. So for example, a sentence like “Man hits wall,” is typical because the subject is a person and the object is a thing. But the sentence “Wall hits man,” as when a wall falls on top of a man, is atypical and confusing since the subject is a thing and the object is a person.

The results, write the authors, provide evidence that humans seek a balance between clarity and ease. Participants could have chosen to be maximally clear by always providing the case markers. Alternatively, they could have chosen to be maximally succinct by never providing the case markers. They did neither. Instead, they provided case-markers more often for those sentences that would otherwise have been more likely to be confused.

The findings also support the idea that language learners introduce common patterns, also known as linguistic universals, conclude the authors. The optional case marking that participants introduced in this experiment closely mirrors naturally occurring patterns in Japanese and Korean—when animate objects and inanimate subjects are more likely to receive case markings.

The history of English itself might reflect these deep principles of how we learn language, says Jaeger. Old English had cases and relatively free word order, as is still true for German. But at some point pronunciation changes began to obscure the case endings, creating ambiguity. In contemporary English, word order has become the primary signal by which speakers could decode the meaning, he says.

“Language acquisition can repair changes in languages to insure they don’t undermine communication,” says Fedzechkina. In light of these findings, new generations can perhaps be seen as renewing language, rather than corrupting it, she adds.

By the same token, says Jaeger, many elements of informal speech can be interpreted as rising from the brain’s bias toward efficiency. “When people turn ‘automobile’ into ‘auto,’ use informal contractions, swallow syllables, or take other linguistic shortcuts, the same principles are at work,” he says. Recent research has shown that these types of shortcuts appear only when their meaning is easily inferable from the context, he adds.

How Language Change Sneaks in (Science Daily)

ScienceDaily (Sep. 4, 2012) — Languages are continually changing, not just words but also grammar. A recent study examines how such changes happen and what the changes can tell us about how speakers’ grammars work.

The study, “The course of actualization,” to be published in the September 2012 issue of the scholarly journal Language, is authored by Hendrik De Smet of the University of Leuven /Research Foundation Flanders.

Historical linguists, who document and study language change, have long noticed that language changes have a sneaky quality, starting small and unobtrusive and then gradually conquering more ground, a process termed ‘actualization’. De Smet’s study investigates how actualization proceeds by tracking and comparing different language changes, using large collections of digitized historical texts. This way, it is shown that any actualization process consists of a series of smaller changes with each new change building on and following from the previous ones, each time making only a minimal adjustment. A crucial role in this is played by similarity.

Consider the development of so-called downtoners — grammatical elements that minimize the force of the word they accompany. Nineteenth-century English saw the emergence of a new downtoner, all but, meaning ‘almost’. All but started out being used only with adjectives, as in her escape was all but miraculous. But later it also began to turn up with verbs, as in until his clothes all but dropped from him. In grammatical terms, that is a fairly big leap, but when looked at closely the leap is found to go in smaller steps. Before all but spread to verbs, it appeared with past participles, which very much resemble both adjectives and verbs, as in her breath was all but gone. So, changes can sneak into a language and spread from context to context by exploiting the similarities between contexts.

The role of similarity in language change makes a number of predictions. For one thing, actualization processes will differ from item to item because in each case there will be different similarities to exploit. English is currently seeing some nouns developing into adjectives, such as fun or key. This again goes by small adjustments, but along different pathways. For fun, speakers started from expressions like that was really fun, which they would adjust to that was very fun, and from there they would go on to a very fun time and by now some have even gone on to expressions like the funnest time ever. For key, change started from expressions like a key player, which could be adjusted to an absolutely key player, and from there to a player who is absolutely key. When the changes are over, the eventual outcome will be the same — fun and key will have all the characteristics of any other English adjective — but the way that is coming about is different.

Another prediction is that actualization processes will differ from language to language, because grammatical contexts that are similar in one language may not be in another. Comparing the development of another English downtoner, far from (as in far from perfect), to its Dutch equivalent, verre van, it is found that, even though they started out quite similar, the two downtoners went on to develop differently due to differences in the overall structure of English and Dutch. Importantly, this is one way in which even small changes may reinforce and gradually increase existing differences between languages.

Finally, this research can say something about how language works in general. Similarity is so important to how changes unfold precisely because it is important to how speakers subconsciously use language all the time. Presumably, whenever a speaker thinks up a new sentence and decides it is acceptable, they do so by evaluating its resemblance to previous sentences. In this respect, actualization processes are giving us a unique window on how similarity works in organizing and reorganizing speakers’ internal grammars, showing just how sensitive speakers are to all sorts of similarities. Strikingly, then, the same similarity judgments that speakers make to form acceptable and intelligible sentences allow their grammars to gradually change over time.

Journal Reference:

  1. Hendrik De Smet. The Course of Actualization.Language, 2012 (in press)

Leaders’ Emotional Cues May Predict Acts of Terror or Political Aggression (Science Daily)

ScienceDaily (Aug. 30, 2012) — Leaders often use rousing speeches to evoke powerful emotions, and those emotions may predict when a group will commit an act of violence or terrorism, according to new research published in the journal Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression.Analysis of speeches delivered by government, activist and terrorist leaders found that leaders’ expressions of anger, contempt and disgust spiked immediately before their group committed an act of violence.

“When leaders express a combination of anger, contempt and disgust in their speeches, it seems to be instrumental in inciting a group to act violently,” said David Matsumoto, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University.

As part of a five-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative, Matsumoto and colleagues studied the transcripts of speeches delivered by the leaders of ideologically motivated groups over the past 100 years. The analysis included such speeches as Osama bin Laden’s remarks leading up to the bombings of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The researchers analyzed the pattern of emotions conveyed when leaders spoke about their rival group and examined speeches given at three points in time before a specific act of aggression. They compared the results with the content of speeches delivered by leaders whose groups engaged in nonviolent acts of resistance such as rallies and protests.

Among leaders of groups that committed aggressive acts, there was a significant increase in expressions of anger, contempt and disgust from 3 to 6 months prior to the group committing an act of violence. For nonviolent groups, expressions of anger, contempt and disgust decreased from 3 to 6 months prior to the group staging an act of peaceful resistance.

Matsumoto says the findings suggest a leader’s emotional tone may cause the rest of the group to share those emotions, which then motivates the group to take part in violent actions.

“For groups that committed acts of violence, there seemed to be this saturation of anger, contempt and disgust. That combination seems to be a recipe for hatred that leads to violence,” Matsumoto said.

Anger, contempt and disgust may be particularly important drivers of violent behavior because they are often expressed in response to moral violations, says Matsumoto, and when an individual feels these emotions about a person or group, they often feel that their opponent is unchangeable and inherently bad.

“Understanding the preceding factors that lead to terrorist attacks and violent events may help predict these incidents or prevent them occurring in the first place,” Matsumoto said. “Studying the emotions expressed by leaders is just one piece of the puzzle but it could be a helpful predictor of terrorist attacks.”

This study was one of the first seven projects funded by the U.S. Department of Defense Minerva Initiative. The Initiative was established in 2008 to fund social science research on areas of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy.

Journal Reference:

  1. David Matsumoto, Hyisung C. Hwang, Mark G. Frank.Emotions expressed in speeches by leaders of ideologically motivated groups predict aggression.Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 2012; : 1 DOI: 10.1080/19434472.2012.716449

Language and China’s ‘Practical Creativity’ (N.Y.Times)


AUGUST 22, 2012


Every language presents challenges — English pronunciation can be idiosyncratic and Russian grammar is fairly complex, for example — but non-alphabetic writing systems like Chinese pose special challenges.

There is the well-known issue that Chinese characters don’t systematically map to sounds, making both learning and remembering difficult, a point I examine in my latest column. If you don’t know a character, you can’t even say it.

Nor does Chinese group individual characters into bigger “words,” even when a character is part of a compound, or multi-character, word. That makes meanings ambiguous, a rich source of humor for Chinese people.

Consider this example from Wu Wenchao, a former interpreter for the United Nations based in Hong Kong. On his blog he has a picture of mobile phones’ being held under a hand dryer. Huh?

The joke is that the Chinese word for hand dryer is composed of three characters, “hong shou ji” (I am using pinyin, a system of Romanization used in China, to “write” the characters in the English alphabet.)

Group them as “hongshou ji” and it means “hand dryer.” Group them as “hong shouji” and it means “dry the mobile phone.” (A shouji is a mobile phone.)

Good fodder for serious linguists and amateur language lovers alike. But does a character script also exert deeper effects on the mind?

William C. Hannas is one of the most provocative writers on this today. He believes character writing systems inhibit a type of deep creativity — but that its effects are not irreversible.

He is at pains to point out that his analysis is not race-based, that people raised in a character-based writing system have a different type of creativity, and that they may flourish when they enter a culture that supports deep creativity, like Western science laboratories.

Still, “The rote learning needed to master Chinese writing breeds a conformist attitude and a focus on means instead of ends. Process rules substance. You spend more time fidgeting with the script than thinking about content,” Mr. Hannas wrote to me in an e-mail.

But Mr. Hannas’s argument is indeed controversial — that learning Chinese lessens deep creativity by furthering practical, but not abstract, thinking, as he wrote in “The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity,” published in 2003 and reviewed by The New York Times.

It’s a touchy topic that some academics reject outright and others acknowledge, but are reluctant to discuss, as Emily Eakin wrote in the review.

How does it work?

“Alphabets used in the West foster early skills in analysis and abstract thinking,” wrote Mr. Hannas, emphasizing the views were personal and not those of his employer, the U.S. government.

They do this by making readers do two things: breaking syllables into sound segments and clustering these segments into bigger, abstract, flexible sound units.

Chinese characters don’t do that. “The symbols map to syllables — natural concrete units. No analysis is needed and not much abstraction is involved,” Mr. Hannas wrote.

But radical, “type 2” creativity — deep creativity — depends on being able to match abstract patterns from one domain to another, essentially mapping the skills that alphabets nurture, he continued. “There is nothing comparable in the Sinitic tradition,” he wrote.

Will this inhibit China’s long-term development? Does it mean China won’t “take over the world,” as some are wondering? Not necessarily, Mr. Hannas said.

“You don’t need to be creative to succeed. Success goes to the early adapter and this is where China excels, for two reasons,” he wrote. First, Chinese are good at improving existing models, a different, more practical type of creativity, he wrote, adding that this practicality was noted by the British historian of Chinese science, Joseph Needham.

Yet there is a further step to this argument, and this is where Mr. Hannas’s ideas become explosive.

Partly as a result of these cultural constraints, China has built an “absolutely mind-boggling infrastructure” to get hold of cutting-edge foreign technology — by any means necessary, including large-scale, apparently government-backed, computer hacking, he wrote.

For more on that, see a hard-hitting Bloomberg report, “Hackers Linked to China’s Army seen from E.U to D.C.”

Non-Chinese R.&D. gets “outsourced” from its place of origin, “while China reaps the gain,” Mr. Hannas wrote, adding that many people believed this was “normal business practice.”

“In fact, it’s far from normal. The director of a U.S. intelligence agency has described China’s informal technology acquisition as ‘the greatest transfer of wealth in history,’ which I regard as a polite understatement,” he said.

Mr. Hannas has co-authored a book on this, to appear in the spring. It promises to shake things up. Watch this space.

Irony Seen Through the Eye of MRI (Science Daily)

ScienceDaily (Aug. 3, 2012) — In the cognitive sciences, the capacity to interpret the intentions of others is called “Theory of Mind” (ToM). This faculty is involved in the understanding of language, in particular by bridging the gap between the meaning of the words that make up a statement and the meaning of the statement as a whole.

In recent years, researchers have identified the neural network dedicated to ToM, but no one had yet demonstrated that this set of neurons is specifically activated by the process of understanding of an utterance. This has now been accomplished: a team from L2C2 (Laboratoire sur le Langage, le Cerveau et la Cognition, Laboratory on Language, the Brain and Cognition, CNRS / Université Claude Bernard-Lyon 1) has shown that the activation of the ToM neural network increases when an individual is reacting to ironic statements.

Published in Neuroimage, these findings represent an important breakthrough in the study of Theory of Mind and linguistics, shedding light on the mechanisms involved in interpersonal communication.

In our communications with others, we are constantly thinking beyond the basic meaning of words. For example, if asked, “Do you have the time?” one would not simply reply, “Yes.” The gap between what is saidand what it means is the focus of a branch of linguistics called pragmatics. In this science, “Theory of Mind” (ToM) gives listeners the capacity to fill this gap. In order to decipher the meaning and intentions hidden behind what is said, even in the most casual conversation, ToM relies on a variety of verbal and non-verbal elements: the words used, their context, intonation, “body language,” etc.

Within the past 10 years, researchers in cognitive neuroscience have identified a neural network dedicated to ToM that includes specific areas of the brain: the right and left temporal parietal junctions, the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus. To identify this network, the researchers relied primarily on non-verbal tasks based on the observation of others’ behavior[1]. Today, researchers at L2C2 (Laboratoire sur le Langage, le Cerveau et la Cognition, Laboratory on Language, the Brain and Cognition, CNRS / Université Claude Bernard-Lyon 1) have established, for the first time, the link between this neural network and the processing of implicit meanings.

To identify this link, the team focused their attention on irony. An ironic statement usually means the opposite of what is said. In order to detect irony in a statement, the mechanisms of ToM must be brought into play. In their experiment, the researchers prepared 20 short narratives in two versions, one literal and one ironic. Each story contained a key sentence that, depending on the version, yielded an ironic or literal meaning. For example, in one of the stories an opera singer exclaims after a premiere, “Tonight we gave a superb performance.” Depending on whether the performance was in fact very bad or very good, the statement is or is not ironic.

The team then carried out functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analyses on 20 participants who were asked to read 18 of the stories, chosen at random, in either their ironic or literal version. The participants were not aware that the test concerned the perception of irony. The researchers had predicted that the participants’ ToM neural networks would show increased activity in reaction to the ironic sentences, and that was precisely what they observed: as each key sentence was read, the network activity was greater when the statement was ironic. This shows that this network is directly involved in the processes of understanding irony, and, more generally, in the comprehension of language.

Next, the L2C2 researchers hope to expand their research on the ToM network in order to determine, for example, whether test participants would be able to perceive irony if this network were artificially inactivated.


[1] For example, Grèzes, Frith & Passingham (J. Neuroscience, 2004) showed a series of short (3.5 second) films in which actors came into a room and lifted boxes. Some of the actors were instructed to act as though the boxes were heavier (or lighter) than they actually were. Having thus set up deceptive situations, the experimenters asked the participants to determine if they had or had not been deceived by the actors in the films. The films containing feigned actions elicited increased activity in the rTPJ (right temporal parietal junction) compared with those containing unfeigned actions.

Journal Reference:

Nicola Spotorno, Eric Koun, Jérôme Prado, Jean-Baptiste Van Der Henst, Ira A. Noveck. Neural evidence that utterance-processing entails mentalizing: The case of ironyNeuroImage, 2012; 63 (1): 25 DOI:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.06.046

With Casino Revenues, Tribes Push to Preserve Languages, and Cultures (N.Y.Times)


Published: June 16, 2012

COARSEGOLD, Calif. — Inside a classroom of some 20 adults and children studying the language of their tribe, a university linguist pointed out that Chukchansi has no “r” sound and that two consonants never follow each other. The comments seemed to stir forgotten childhood memories in Holly Wyatt, 69, the only fluent speaker present, who was serving as a living reference book.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times. Holly Wyatt, a member of the Chukchansi tribe, listens to a conversation and translates it for researchers at California State University, Fresno, who are working to preserve the language.

“My mother used to call Richard ‘Lichad,’ ” Ms. Wyatt blurted out, referring to a relative. “It just popped into my head.”

Using revenues from their casino here in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Chukchansi Indians recently pledged $1 million over five years to California State University, Fresno, to help preserve their unwritten language. Linguists from the university will create a dictionary, assemble texts and help teach the language at weekly courses like the one on a recent evening.

The donation caps efforts in recent years by American Indian tribes across the nation to bring back their tongues before the death of their sole surviving speakers. With coffers flush from casino gambling, dozens of tribes have donated to universities or have directly hired linguists, buttressing the work of researchers dependent on government grants, experts say.The money has given the tribes greater authority over the study of their language, an often culturally fraught discipline. Some tribes wishing to keep their language from outsiders for cultural or religious reasons have retained researchers on the condition that their findings remain unpublished. The control has also persuaded aging speakers — who grew up in an age when they were often punished at school for speaking their language — to collaborate with outside experts.

“There are more people out there who can talk, but they don’t come forward,” said Ms. Wyatt, who with her sister, Jane Wyatt, 67, meets with linguists twice a week. “I was like that, too. My daughter convinced me I should do it.”

Jim Wilson/The New York TimesA worksheet from a class on the language of the Chukchansi tribe, which researchers at California State University, Fresno, are working to preserve.

Nearly all the 300 Native American languages once spoken in North America have died or are considered critically endangered. For many tribes, especially the dozens of tiny tribes in California that spoke distinct dialects and experienced dislocation and intermarriage like their counterparts in other states, language is considered central to their identity.

“The whole reason that outsiders even knew we were a people is because we have our own language,” said Kim Lawhon, 30, who organizes the weekly classes and started running an immersion class for prekindergarten and kindergarten students at Coarsegold Elementary School last year. “Really, our sovereignty, the core of it, is language.”

There was also a more practical matter. Tribes have asserted their right to build casinos in areas where their language is spoken, and have used language to try to fend off potential rivals.

The Chukchansi are opposing plans by the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, whose traditional land lies east of here, to build an off-reservation casino about 30 miles southwest of here. In an interview at the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino here, where he was introducing a new game, Big Buck Hunter Pro, Reggie Lewis, chairman of the Tribal Council, said Chukchansi and other tribes belonging to the Yokut Indian group in this area shared common words.

“But the Mono language, it’s totally unintelligible to us,” Mr. Lewis said. “You have to establish the cultural or ancestral ties to a place to open a casino there, and language is a way to do it.”

The 2,000-slot-machine casino, which opened in 2003, yields $50 million in annual revenues, according to the Tribal Council. Each of the tribe’s 1,200 members receives a $300 monthly stipend, with those 55 and older also getting free health insurance and other benefits.

The gambling revenues have also intensified political infighting here as they have in many other places. Violence erupted early this year after a disputed election for the Tribal Council.

According to the National Indian Gaming Association, 184 tribes with gambling operations took in $29.2 billion in 2010 and made more than $100 million in charitable donations.

Jessica R. Cattelino, an expert on Indian gambling at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it was not “until the late 1990s that with electronic games we begin to see revenues sufficient to allow tribes to explore options for major philanthropy.”

Tribes have become increasingly sophisticated in their gift giving, focusing on their culture and language while often setting the research terms.

“Tribes can control their own intellectual property rights,” said Erin Debenport, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who has worked with Pueblo tribes in the state, including those who do not allow researchers to publish written examples of their language.

The Chukchansi, who had been donating about $200,000 a year to Fresno State’s football program, will reallocate the money to the linguistics department.

“How do we justify supporting athletics when our language is dying?” said Ms. Lawhon, the kindergarten teacher.

Ms. Lawhon had tried to restore the language with the Wyatt sisters and some other community members here, but decided to reach out to Fresno State’s linguistics department for help three years ago.

Chris Golston, who was the department chairman at the time and had been on the faculty for 15 years, had long dreamed of working with one of the local tribes. But given the sensitivity surrounding the research of Indian languages, an older colleague had advised him that the only strategy was to wait to be approached.

“After 15 years, I thought this was possibly the worst advice in the world, but one day three years ago they just called up,” Mr. Golston said.

Four of Fresno’s experts, who had been working with the Chukchansi in their spare time for the past three years, will be able to devote half of their work schedule to the language thanks to the grant, the largest in the department’s history.

On a recent afternoon at Fresno State, Holly Wyatt met with two linguists to try to decipher a five-minute recording that they had found here a month earlier. Two women were heard playing a local game in the 1957 recording, which excited Mr. Golston because it was the “closest to conversation” of the various examples in their possession.

As the linguists played snippets of the tape over and over, Ms. Wyatt slowly made out their meaning. The game revolved around a man climbing up a tree and taking care not to fall.

“What do you get out of that, Holly?” Mr. Golston asked about a difficult word.

“That one word has me confused,” Ms. Wyatt said. “I don’t know what it is.”

She cradled her head in her right hand and shut her eyes.

Maybe some words were already lost. The women on the tape spoke fast, Ms. Wyatt said later. Her hearing was not getting any better, she said, and a hearing aid did not help. The words the linguists kept introducing sounded familiar, but some just refused to be extricated from her mind’s recesses.

“It’s pressure,” she said, “because they’ve come up with a lot of words that I haven’t heard in years.”

Study links biodiversity and language loss (BBC)

13 May 2012

By Mark KinverEnvironment reporter, BBC News

Brazilian tribesman (Image: AP)The study identified that high biodiversity areas also had high linguistic diversity

The decline of linguistic and cultural diversity is linked to the loss of biodiversity, a study has suggested.

The authors said that 70% of the world’s languages were found within the planet’s biodiversity hotspots.

Data showed that as these important environmental areas were degraded over time, cultures and languages in the area were also being lost.

The results of the study have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Biologists estimate annual loss of species at 1,000 times or more greater than historic rates, and linguists predict that 50-90% of the world’s languages will disappear by the end of the century,” the researchers wrote.

Lead author Larry Gorenflo from Penn State University, in the US, said previous studies had identified a geographical connection between the two, but did not offer the level of detail required.

Dr Gorenflo told BBC News that the limitation to the data was that either the languages were listed by country or there was a dot on the map to indicate the location.

“But what you did not know was if the area extended two kilometres or 200 kilometres, so you really did not get a sense of the extent of the language,” he explained.

“We used improved language data to really get a more solid sense of how languages and biodiversity co-occurred and an understanding of how geographically extensive the language was.”

He said the study achieved this by also looking at smaller areas with high biodiversity, such as national parks or other protected habitats.

“When we did that, not only did we get a sense of co-occurrence at a regional scale, but we also got a sense that co-occurrence was found at a much finer scale,” he said.

“We are not quite sure yet why this happens, but in a lot of cases it may well be that biodiversity evolved as part-and-parcel of cultural diversity, and vice versa.”

In their paper, the researchers pointed out that, out of the 6,900 or more languages spoken on Earth, more than 4,800 occurred in regions containing high biodiversity.

Dr Gorenflo described these locations as “very important landscapes” which were “getting fewer and fewer” but added that the study’s data could help provide long-term security.

“It provides a wonderful opportunity to integrate conservation efforts – you can have people who can get funding for biological conservation, and they can collaborate with people who can get funding for linguistic or cultural conservation,” he suggested.

“In the past, it was hard to get biologists to look at people.

“That has really changed dramatically in the past few years. One thing that a lot of biologists and ecologists are now seeing is that people are part of these ecosystems.”

Relação entre interações sociais e mudanças gramaticais (Fapesp)

Contrariando teorias da sociolinguística, estudo sugere que adultos integrados em diferentes nichos sociais acompanham evolução da língua


Por Karina Toledo

Agência FAPESP – Poderia um indivíduo adulto mudar sua gramática ao longo da vida? Para responder a essa pergunta, a professora Maria Célia Lima-Hernandes, da Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas, da Universidade de São Paulo (USP), deu início à pesquisa que resultou no livroIndivíduo, Sociedade e Língua – Cara, tipo assim, fala sério!.

Recém-lançada pela Edusp, com auxílio da FAPESP, a obra é uma versão revista da tese de doutorado defendida por Lima-Hernandes em 2005, no Instituto de Estudos de Linguagem da Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp).

A autora investiga se um mesmo grupo de pessoas poderia ter sua gramática alterada em um espaço de 20 anos. Quatro palavras de base comparativa – “como”, “igual”, “feito” e “tipo” – foram escolhidas para testar a hipótese de que contatos sociais mais extensos desencadeariam mudanças na gramática da língua falada por adultos independentemente da idade, do sexo ou do grau de escolaridade.

“A teoria até então predominante na sociolinguística era a de que as mudanças na gramática seriam resultado da rebeldia adolescente. Os jovens, por acharem os pais caretas, procurariam usos inovadores para as palavras. Isso foi recentemente questionado por William Labov, professor da Universidade da Pensilvânia e precursor da Sociolinguística Quantitativa”, disse Lima-Hernandes.

Já para a corrente teórica liderada pelo linguista e filósofo Noam Chomsky, é a criança a força transformadora da língua. “A criança interpretaria as construções de um modo diferente produzindo uma nova gramática”, explicou Lima-Hernandes.

Mas, nas pesquisas que realizou antes mesmo de dar início ao doutorado, a autora encontrou evidências de mudanças linguísticas na idade adulta em várias línguas do mundo.

A confirmação veio quando comparou entrevistas de um grupo de 36 moradores do subúrbio do Rio de Janeiro que, 20 anos antes, haviam sido objeto de estudo do grupo de sua orientadora, Maria Luiza Braga, professora da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Lima-Hernandes observou inicialmente que usos inovadores da palavra “tipo” podiam ter sua incorporação na fala relacionada ao tipo de vida social que os falantes desenvolviam.

“Algumas pessoas simplesmente haviam parado de usar a palavra “tipo” ou só a usavam em suas categorias e funções normatizadas. Essas eram as que mantinham um círculo social restrito. Já as que tinham contato com pessoas de diferentes idades e participavam de nichos sociais variados usavam todos os tipos de “tipo”, ou seja, acompanharam a evolução da língua mesmo na idade adulta”, disse.

Por meio da análise de documentos históricos que datam do século 13 ao século 20, Lima-Hernandes resgatou também a trajetória de evolução das palavras “como”, “igual”, “feito” e “tipo”, mostrando os diferentes usos que surgiram com o passar dos anos.

“É possível perceber que a mudança no uso das palavras não vai em qualquer direção, não é aberta à criatividade aleatória como se pensa, mas respeita princípios cognitivos. O novo uso tem de estar ligado, de alguma forma, ao seu traço etimológico resiliente, ainda que os falantes não tenham a mínima consciência disso”, disse.

Indivíduo, Sociedade e Língua – Cara, tipo assim, fala sério!
Autora: Maria Célia Lima-Hernandes
Lançamento: dezembro de 2011
Preço: R$ 45
Páginas: 232

Mais informações:

See Dan read: Baboons can learn to spot real words (Guardian)

AP foreign, Saturday April 14 2012 (The Guardian)


AP Science Writer= WASHINGTON (AP) — Dan the baboon sits in front of a computer screen. The letters BRRU pop up. With a quick and almost dismissive tap, the monkey signals it’s not a word. Correct. Next comes, ITCS. Again, not a word. Finally KITE comes up.

He pauses and hits a green oval to show it’s a word. In the space of just a few seconds, Dan has demonstrated a mastery of what some experts say is a form of pre-reading and walks away rewarded with a treat of dried wheat.

Dan is part of new research that shows baboons are able to pick up the first step in reading — identifying recurring patterns and determining which four-letter combinations are words and which are just gobbledygook.

The study shows that reading’s early steps are far more instinctive than scientists first thought and it also indicates that non-human primates may be smarter than we give them credit for.

“They’ve got the hang of this thing,” said Jonathan Grainger, a French scientist and lead author of the research.

Baboons and other monkeys are good pattern finders and what they are doing may be what we first do in recognizing words.

It’s still a far cry from real reading. They don’t understand what these words mean, and are just breaking them down into parts, said Grainger, a cognitive psychologist at the Aix-Marseille University in France.

In 300,000 tests, the six baboons distinguished between real and fake words about three-out-of-four times, according to the study published in Thursday’s journal Science.

The 4-year-old Dan, the star of the bunch and about the equivalent age of a human teenager, got 80 percent of the words right and learned 308 four-letter words.

The baboons are rewarded with food when they press the right spot on the screen: A blue plus sign for bogus combos or a green oval for real words.

Even though the experiments were done in France, the researchers used English words because it is the language of science, Grainger said.

The key is that these animals not only learned by trial and error which letter combinations were correct, but they also noticed which letters tend to go together to form real words, such as SH but not FX, said Grainger. So even when new words were sprung on them, they did a better job at figuring out which were real.

Grainger said a pre-existing capacity in the brain may allow them to recognize patterns and objects, and perhaps that’s how we humans also first learn to read.

The study’s results were called “extraordinarily exciting” by another language researcher, psychology professor Stanislas Dehaene at the College of France, who wasn’t part of this study. He said Grainger’s finding makes sense. Dehaene’s earlier work says a distinct part of the brain visually recognizes the forms of words. The new work indicates this is also likely in a non-human primate.

This new study also tells us a lot about our distant primate relatives.

“They have shown repeatedly amazing cognitive abilities,” said study co-author Joel Fagot, a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Bill Hopkins, a professor of psychology at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, isn’t surprised.

“We tend to underestimate what their capacities are,” said Hopkins, who wasn’t part of the French research team. “Non-human primates are really specialized in the visual domain and this is an example of that.”

This raises interesting questions about how the complex primate mind works without language or what we think of as language, Hopkins said. While we use language to solve problems in our heads, such as deciphering words, it seems that baboons use a “remarkably sophisticated” method to attack problems without language, he said.

Key to the success of the experiment was a change in the testing technique, the researchers said. The baboons weren’t put in the computer stations and forced to take the test. Instead, they could choose when they wanted to work, going to one of the 10 computer booths at any time, even in the middle of the night.

The most ambitious baboons test 3,000 times a day; the laziest only 400.

The advantage of this type of experiment setup, which can be considered more humane, is that researchers get far more trials in a shorter time period, he said.

“They come because they want to,” Fagot said. “What do they want? They want some food. They want to solve some task.”

Government Bureaucrats Still Unable to Write or Speak in Plain Language (Reason/Washington Post)

Ed Krayewski | April 10, 2012

Government transparencyThis week federal agencies are supposed to update Congress on progress made in implementing the Plain Writing Act, passed in 2010, which mandates that government documents be written in clear, plain language, not impenetrable legalese. The Washington Post reports federal agencies are a long way off from compliance.

Why? From the Post:

[W]ith no penalty for inaction on the agencies’ part, advocates worry that plain writing has fallen to the bottom of the to-do list, like many another unfunded mandate imposed by Congress. They say many agencies have heeded the 2010 law merely by appointing officials, creating working groups and setting up Web sites.

In Plain English, that means the law lacks the substance to prevent federal agencies from simply creating new bureaucracies to say they’re in compliance with it, kind of like the “Paperwork Reduction Act” notice at the end of government forms.

*   *   *

Advocates of the Plain Writing Act prod federal agencies to keep it simple (Washington Post)

By Lisa Rein, Published: April 8

Federal agencies must report their progress this week in complying with the Plain Writing Act, a new decree that government officials communicate more conversationally with the public.Speaking plainly, they ain’t there yet.

Which leaves, in the eyes of some, a basic and critical flaw in how the country runs. “Government is all about telling people what to do,” said Annetta Cheek, a retired federal worker from Falls Church and longtime evangelist for plain writing. “If you don’t write clearly, they’re not going to do it.”

But advocates such as Cheek estimate that federal officials have translated just 10 percent of their forms, letters, directives and other documents into “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use,” as the law requires.Official communications must now employ the active voice, avoid double negatives and use personal pronouns. “Addressees” must now become, simply, “you.” Clunky coinages like “incentivizing” (first known usage 1970) are a no-no. The Code of Federal Regulations no longer goes by the abbreviation CFR.

But with no penalty for inaction on the agencies’ part, advocates worry that plain writing has fallen to the bottom of the to-do list, like many another unfunded mandate imposed by Congress. They say many agencies have heeded the 2010 law merely by appointing officials, creating working groups and setting up Web sites.

What’s more, the law’s demand for clearer language seems like make-work to skeptics who say there is no money to pay for the promotion of clarity and that the status quo is the best path to accuracy.

“It’s definitely an ongoing battle,” said Glenn Ellmers, plain-writing coordinator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We’re trying pretty hard. But when you’re talking about something as complex as a nuclear power plant, you can’t get around specialized language. The really technical people take a little pride in using it.”

As a concession to them, the commission is simplifying only the cover letters of plant inspection reports, while leaving intact the highly technical and all-but-impenetrable text of the actual documents.

“Part of this is we have a change in culture,” said Ed Burbol, the Defense Department’s plain-language coordinator, who oversees two full-time staff members assigned to promoting clearer communication. “We’re going to encounter resistance.”

A retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, Burbol acknowledged that “some people here can write very well and some people can’t write at all,” a problem he attributes to the large number of service members who return to work as civilians.

Consider the next sentence: “This subpart identifies those products in which the Administrator has found an unsafe condition as described in Sec. 39.1 and, as appropriate, prescribes inspections and the conditions and limitations, if any, under which those products may continue to be operated.”

And here’s the revision of the sentence, a Federal Aviation Administration guideline, by the nonprofit Center for Plain Language: “Airworthiness directives specify inspections you must carry out, conditions and limitations you must comply with, and any actions you must take to resolve an unsafe condition.”

Cheek, the retired federal worker, still devotes at least 20 hours a week to the tiny nonprofit plain-language center she founded for federal employees. To inspire healthy competition when the law passed two years ago, the group started giving out annual awards for the best and worst of government-speak, including a Turn-Around prize for most improved agency. The annual ClearMark awards banquet, scheduled this year for May 22, is held at the National Press Club.In this era of shrinking government, advocates of plain writing say their causecan actually save money.

They cite Washington state’s “Plain Talk” program: A revamped letter tripled the number of businesses paying a commonly ignored use tax, bringing $2 million in new revenue in a year, according to law professor Joseph Kimble, author of a forthcoming book on the benefits of plain language.

And after the Department of Veterans Affairs revised one of its letters, calls to a regional call center dropped from about 1,100 a year to about 200, Kimble said.“People complain about government red tape and getting government out of your hair,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), House sponsor of the Plain Writing Act. “If every one of these forms was written in plain language, the number of contacts to federal agencies would plummet.” He’s started a “Stop B.S.” (for “Bureaucrat Speak”) campaign soliciting examples of badly written public documents.

The law exempts regulations from its mandate for clearer communication, although last fall the Obama administration ordered agencies to write a summary of their technical proposed or final regulations, and post it at the top of the text.

But Braley says that’s not enough. He’s introduced a bill to extend the law to the full text of regulations so ordinary people can understand them.

Americans have always loved plain talkers. But at some point, scholars point out, inscrutable language became associated with high status.

“A lot of people in government wield their jargon to make themselves seem very impressive,” said Karen Schriver, a plain-language expert at Carnegie Mellon University.

There have been many attempts to turn this trend around, including at the presidential level. Richard Nixon required that the Federal Register be written in “layman’s terms.” Jimmy Carter issued executive orders to make government regulations “cost-effective” and easy to understand. (Ronald Reagan rescinded the orders.)

The Clinton White House revived plain language as a major initiative, and Vice President Al Gore presented monthly “No Gobbledygook” awards to federal workers who translated jargon into readable language.

None of these efforts stuck, although some agencies — including Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service — took the mission seriously. The IRS won the Center for Plain Language’s top prize last year for “intelligible writing in public life.”

And then there is the difficulty of promoting revision while preserving precision. At a January meeting of the Plain Language Information & Action Network, a group of federal employees devoted to the cause, members from 20 federal agencies listened as Meredith Weberg, an editor at the Veterans Affairs inspector general’s office, described how she butted up against an “obstinate” boss.

In attempting to simplify a handbook for auditors, Weberg changed “concur” and “not concur” to “agree” and “disagree.” The manager changed it back.

One of her allies in the cause of plain writing had to, well, concur with the boss’s decision. “A concurring opinion says Justice so-and-so agrees with the conclusion of the court,” said Ken Meardan, who writes regulations for the Agriculture Department. “He may not agree” with the reasoning.

Weberg said she let this one go.

The new law is hitting larger obstacles.

“They didn’t really make it plain as to what my responsibilities are,” said the newly appointed plain-language coordinator at the Department of Transportation, describing her assignment from management. She looked bewildered.

Her counterpart at the U.S. Agency for International Development had an even bigger problem: She could not get behind an electronic firewall for online training.

“We have a lot of classified information,” Christine Brown told the group. “We’re not getting very far with this. No one has the resources.”

USAID has appointed a plain-language committee. But it is just starting to train its members to write plainly.

“A lot of people didn’t think this was the kind of thing you should do a law about,” Cheek said. “We’ll see if it works.”

As linguagens da psicose (Revista Fapesp)

Abordagem matemática evidencia as diferenças entre os discursos de quem tem mania ou esquizofrenia

CARLOS FIORAVANTI | Edição 194 – Abril de 2012

Como o estudo foi feito: os entrevistados relatavam um sonho e a entrevistadora convertia as palavras mais importantes em pontos e as frases em setas para examinar a estrutura da linguagem

Para os psiquiatras e para a maioria das pessoas, é relativamente fácil diferenciar uma pessoa com psicose de quem não apresentou nenhum distúrbio mental já diagnosticado: as do primeiro grupo relatam delírios e alucinações e por vezes se apresentam como messias que vão salvar o mundo. Porém, diferenciar os dois tipos de psicose – mania e esquizofrenia – já não é tão simples e exige um bocado de experiência pessoal, conhecimento e intuição dos especialistas. Uma abordagem matemática desenvolvida no Instituto do Cérebro da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) talvez facilite essa diferenciação, fundamental para estabelecer os tratamentos mais adequados para cada enfermidade, ao avaliar de modo quantitativo as diferenças nas estruturas de linguagem verbal adotadas por quem tem mania ou esquizofrenia.

A estratégia de análise – com base na teoria dos grafos, que representou as palavras como pontos e a sequência entre elas nas frases por setas – indicou que as pessoas com mania são muito mais prolixas e repetitivas do que as com esquizofrenia, geralmente lacônicas e centradas em um único assunto, sem deixar o pensamento viajar. “A recorrência é uma marca do discurso do paciente com mania, que conta três ou quatro vezes a mesma coisa, enquanto aquele com esquizofrenia fala objetivamente o que tem para falar, sem se desviar, e tem um discurso pobre em sentidos”, diz a psiquiatra Natália Mota, pesquisadora do instituto. “Em cada grupo”, diz Sidarta Ribeiro, diretor do instituto, “o número de palavras, a estrutura da linguagem e outros indicadores são completamente distintos”.

Eles acreditam que conseguiram dar os primeiros passos rumo a uma forma objetiva de diferenciar as duas formas de psicose, do mesmo modo que um hemograma é usado para atestar uma doença infecciosa, desde que os próximos testes, com uma amostra maior de participantes, reforcem a consistência dessa abordagem e os médicos consintam em trabalhar com um assistente desse tipo. Os testes comparativos descritos em um artigo recém-publicado na revista PLoS One indicaram que essa nova abordagem proporciona taxas de acerto da ordem de 93% no diagnóstico, enquanto as escalas psicométricas hoje em uso, com base em questionários de avaliação de sintomas, chegam a apenas 67%. “São métodos complementares”, diz Natália. “As escalas psicométricas e a experiência dos médicos continuam indispensáveis.”

“O resultado é bastante simples, mesmo para quem não entende matemática”, diz o físico Mauro Copelli, da Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE), que participou desse trabalho. O discurso das pessoas com mania se mostra como um emaranhado de pontos e linhas, enquanto o das com esquizofrenia se apresenta como uma reta, com poucos pontos. A teoria dos grafos, que levou a esses diagramas, tem sido usada há séculos para examinar as trajetórias pelas quais um viajante poderia visitar todas as cidades de uma região, por exemplo. Mais recentemente, tem servido para otimizar o tráfego aéreo, considerando os aeroportos como um conjunto de pontos ou nós conectados entre si por meio dos aviões.

“Na primeira vez que rodei o programa de grafos, as diferenças de linguagem saltaram aos olhos”, conta Natália. Em 2007, ao terminar o curso de medicina e começar a residência médica em psiquiatria no hospital da UFRN, Natália notava que muitos diagnósticos diferenciais de mania e de esquizofrenia dependiam da experiência pessoal e de julgamentos subjetivos dos médicos – os que trabalhavam mais com pacientes com esquizofrenia tendiam a encontrar mais casos de esquizofrenia e menos de mania – e muitas vezes não havia consenso. Já se sabia que as pessoas com mania falam mais e se desviam do tópico central muito mais facilmente que as com esquizofrenia, mas isso lhe pareceu genérico demais. 
Em um congresso científico em 2008 em Fortaleza ela conversou com Copelli, que já colaborava com Ribeiro e a incentivou a trabalhar com grafos. No início ela resistiu, por causa da pouca familiaridade com matemática, mas logo depois a nova teoria lhe pareceu simples e prática.

Para levar o trabalho adiante, ela gravou e, com a ajuda de Nathália Lemos e Ana Cardina Pieretti, transcreveu as entrevistas com 24 pessoas 
(oito com mania, oito com esquizofrenia e oito sem qualquer distúrbio mental diagnosticado), a quem pedia para relatar um sonho; qualquer comentário fora desse tema era considerado um voo da imaginação, bastante comum entre as pessoas com mania.

“Já na transcrição, os relatos dos pacientes com mania eram claramente maiores que os com esquizofrenia”, diz. Em seguida, ela eliminou elementos menos importantes como artigos e preposições, dividiu a frase em sujeito, verbo e objetos, representados por pontos ou nós, enquanto a sequência entre elas na frase era representada por setas, unindo dois nós, e assinalou as que não se referiam ao tema central do relato, ou seja, o sonho recente que ela pedira para os entrevistados contarem, e marcavam um desvio do pensamento, comum entre as pessoas com mania.

Um programa específico para grafos baixado de graça na internet indicava as características relevantes para análise – ou atributos – e representava as principais diferenças de discurso entre os participantes, como quantidades de nós, extensão e densidade das conexões entre os pontos, recorrência, prolixidade (ou logorreia) e desvio do tópico central. “É supersimples”, assegura Natália. Nas validações e análises dos resultados, ela contou também com a colaboração de Osame Kinouchi, da Universidade de São Paulo (USP) em Ribeirão Preto, e Guillermo Cecchi, do Centro de Biologia Computacional da IBM, Estados Unidos.

Resultado: as pessoas com mania obtiveram uma pontuação maior que as com esquizofrenia em quase todos os itens avaliados. “A logorreia típica de pacientes com mania não resulta só do excesso de palavras, mas de um discurso que volta sempre ao mesmo tópico, em comparação com o grupo com esquizofrenia”, ela observou. Curiosamente, os participantes do grupo-controle, sem distúrbio mental diagnosticado, apresentaram estruturas discursivas de dois tipos, ora redundantes como os participantes com mania, ora enxutas como os com esquizofrenia, refletindo as diferenças entre suas personalidades ou a motivação para, naquele momento, falar mais ou menos. “A patologia define o discurso, não é nenhuma novidade”, diz ela. “Os psiquiatras são treinados para reconhecer essas diferenças, mas dificilmente poderão dizer que a recorrência de um paciente com mania está 28% menor, por mais experientes que sejam.”

“O ambiente interdisciplinar do instituto foi essencial para realizar esse estudo, porque eu estava todo dia trocando ideias com gente de outras áreas. Nivaldo Vasconcelos, um engenheiro de computação, me ajudou muito”, diz ela. O Instituto do Cérebro, em funcionamento desde 2007, conta atualmente com 13 professores, 22 estudantes de graduação e 42 de pós, 8 pós-doutorandos e 30 técnicos. “Vencidas as dificuldades iniciais, conseguimos formar um grupo de pesquisadores jovens e talentosos”, comemora Ribeiro. “A casa em que estamos agora tem um jardim amplo, e muitas noites ficamos lá até as duas, três da manhã, falando sobre ciência e tomando chimarrão.”

Artigo científico
MOTA, N.B. et al
Speech graphs provide 
a quantitative measure of thought disorder 
in psychosis. PLoS ONE (no prelo).