When facing unexpected world changes, as in the case of the current pandemic, the language system adapts to the challenge to express a new reality. How? By forging new words! Let’s find out how this happens by looking at one of the most powerful engines we can count on: our brain.
Sounds are the basic ingredients of spoken language, and the human voice can produce an infinity of different sounds. However, we have only a limited number of possibilities for speech sounds, like consonants and vowels. How do we transform infinity in an alphabet? Let’s dive into categorical perception.
In my previous post, I wrote about recursion – self-same replication, when a rule or procedure is applied to its own successive results. Some linguists argue that recursion is a defining aspect of human language: our grammar allows us to combine words into more complex structures, which are in their turn combined into even more complex structures, similar to Matryoshka dolls. I, however, argued that recursion in grammar does not quite live up to its current central status in theory of language as this hierarchical use of rules is present in most if not all aspects of life. But does this mean that recursion is something trivial and boring? By no means! Like a magic wand, it allows us, notoriously social animals, to understand and communicate with each other in a very efficient and flexible way.
In Slavic villages, when a young girl wanted to know what her future husband would look like, she would go to a dark, dark barn in the middle of the night, put two mirrors facing each other and light two candles. Next, she would stare at the endless “tunnel” formed by the reflections until she could see a face. This divination method is based on recursion.