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The Language of Light

Science Festival 2015
by

András Bárány

on 7 June 2015

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Transcript of The Language of Light

What is the “language of light”?
Sound and meaning
Thank you for (g)listening!
kiki
and
bouba
The Language of Light
glitter
glow
glimmer
shine
shimmer
glisten
gleam
sparkle
blink
bling
flash
Hypothesis:
Some sounds, like [gl], can refer to concepts like “light”.
Ferdinand de Saussure argued that signs consist of two parts
Ferdinand de Saussure
1857–1913
Swiss linguist, known for structuralism and semiotics (the study of signs)
a signifier
a signified
the sounds that make up “tree”: [t], [r], [i:]
Words and their meaning
Saussure suggested that the connection between the signifier [tri:] and the concept is
arbitrary
.
In English, is [tri:], but in Hungarian it is [fa] and in Swahili it is [mti].
What makes a word?
Words consist of smaller units: sounds like [t], [r], [i:].
We create meaning from meaningless units:
“duality of patterning”
Etymology: in Proto-Indo-European, spoken 5000 years ago,
*gʰel-
meant “to shine”
Light across languages
Let's play a little game: which words sound (and look!) like light?
Hungarian
csillog
ragyog
szikra
villog
csillag
villany
világ
tündököl
hullám
Which ones refer to light? And why?
Wait a second...
Words that “sound” like light? Light doesn't make a sound...
Words that “look” like light?
Sign languages! They do not relate
sound
and meaning but
gestures
and meaning.
Sources
Glistening snow from http://www.makeitcolourful.com/challenges/challenge-16-sparkling-snow-and-ice
Glitter from http://asphyxiate-stock.deviantart.com/art/Rainbow-Glitter-Texture-194687034 and
http://www.glitterpopupparties.com/glitter-friends/
Glow from http://www.blirk.net/abstract-wallpaper/40/1920x1080/
Ferdinand de Saussure from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_de_Saussure
BSL videos from the BSL sign bank: http://bslsignbank.ucl.ac.uk/
kiki/bouba: Ramachandran, V.S. and E.M. Hubbard. 2001. “Synaesthesia — A window into perception, thought and language”.
Journal of Consciousness Studies
8(12): 3–34.
ABSL: Sandler, W., M. Aronoff, I. Meir and C. Padden. 2011. “The gradual emergence of phonological form in a new language”.
Natural Language & Linguistic Theory
29: 503–543.
Thanks to ReCoS and the ERC Grant No. 269752 Rethinking Comparative Syntax!

But wait! [gl] in
glow
,
glitter
, ... and [sh] in
shine
,
shimmer
, ...?
Iconicity and arbitrariness
Some expressions are more iconic than others.
Animal noises, for example!
There is no obvious link between the sounds and the concept that they refer to.
The use of [tri:] for or [li:f] for is a matter of convention.
Iconicity
What about our “language of light”?
Signs can also be
iconic
.
The sounds used to indicate a meaning somehow express that meaning: e.g.
onomatopoeia
Can you think of an example?
We can try and find out more about iconicity and arbitrariness!
Let's keep on guessing...
And some more...
How does a British dog bark?
How would you describe the following sound?
Which one is more... well.. kiki?
In similar experiments, a large majority agrees.
We do have some idea of how to link sound and meaning...
Even iconic sounds are arbitrary.
Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language: a “young” language that is more iconic and not (yet!) conventionalised.

András Bárány, ab2081@cam.ac.uk —Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, ReCoS project
So? Is there a language of light?
Our hypothesis might have been wrong...
But there are iconic parts of language.
Signs are arbitrary and there is “duality of patterning”.
They are restricted by the inventory of sounds (or signs!).
Full transcript