Last week, the new edition of Concise Oxford English Dictionary—the user-friendly version of the massive, encyclopedic guide to English—debuted with 400 new words, many of them not unknown to those of us here on teh Interwebs. Here’s a selection of the goodies:
cyberbullying: n. the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.
denialist: n. a person who refuses to admit the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence.
domestic goddess: n. informal a woman with exceptional domestic skills, especially cookery.
Biwu English kokafo wapisi? That’s “Will English kick the bucket?” in a new language called ROILA (Robot Interaction Language). Perhaps it’s an apt question of my mother tongue. Under development by a group of researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, ROILA is a language made specifically for human-robot communication.
The language hopes to make up for speech-recognition software’s shortcomings by modifying human language to be more comprehensible for machines. Using an algorithm, it takes parts of natural and artificial languages and combines them to make sure that no two words sound too similar.
But a quick look at its grammar shows that ROILA goes a step further: when it comes to sentences, ROILA has cut out all the patap (English: the crazy). Irregular verbs? No. Most gendered words? No. Most punctuation? No. From the grammar website:
Every sentence will conclude with a full stop: “.” Question marks can be used in sentences where a question is asked. We do not support commas, apostrophes and quotation marks.
We’re not that special.
At least, not for the reasons we thought we were. Our knack for acting altruistically, for communicating, for putting a complicated brain to good use: We’ve claimed all these as our own, as the things that set humans apart from every other species.
But recently, science has shown that we have a lot more in common with other animals, from bonobos to bees, than you might expect. On Saturday, five researchers helped set the public record straight by busting up a few humanocentric myths during “All Creatures Great and Smart,” a panel event at the World Science Festival in New York.
Myth #1: Humans are the only altruistic animals.
From proffering a shovel in the sandbox to writing a check to our favorite charity, humans commit altruistic acts whenever they do something for someone else without any concrete benefit for themselves. But you can cross sharing off the “uniquely human” list; in a simple experiment, anthropologist Brian Hare demonstrated that bonobos do it, too.
Alone in a room with some delectable snacks, each bonobo in the study had two choices: Enjoy the snacks on his own, or open a door to let another bonobo in an adjoining room come share the feast. Hare found that, time and again, bonobos in this situation chose to voluntarily share.
“It could be that they feel bad for the other guy, or maybe they’re just being politicians,” sharing now with the expectation they’ll be shared with later, Hare said. “Or maybe they just want to go on a blind date.” The fact that altruism might come with an agenda doesn’t make the bonobos’ actions any less remarkable, Hare added. These same motivations prompt a lot of the sharing we do, too.
Do you see a hovering white triangle in this picture?
This optical illusion employs “illusory contours”–pieces of an image purposefully arranged to trick your brain into seeing the whole thing. Neuroscientist Jamshed Bharucha says that we play similar tricks with our ears: “The brain is basically a pattern-recognition machine. We are desperate to find patterns.”
Bharucha spoke on a seven-person panel last Thursday at “Good Vibrations: The Sound of Science,” a World Science Festival event in New York.
Bharucha asked a crowded auditorium at Hunter College to identify a sound. Shouts of “birds” rang out. One person yelled, “R2D2.” Bharucha followed the clip with a similar sounding song, and then another. After playing a combination of the three, whispers rose from the audience. Read More
How many yakking people does it take to drive you freaking nuts? Not two. Not three. Researchers say it only takes one–if they’re talking to someone else you can’t hear.
Cornell University scientists monitored how well 41 college students could perform concentration exercises (like tracking moving dots on a computer screen) in different listening environments.
They compared their skills while working in silence to working while listening to a monologue, a conversation between two people, or a half conversation—called a “halfalogue.” In a paper to appear in Psychological Science, they say that this last case, listening to only one side of a conversation, was the most distracting. Read More
• Gardak! To learn about children and language, Dad speaks to son only in Klingon for first three years of the child’s life.
• In Soviet Russia, blog writes you! Maksim Suraev, a Russian cosmonaut, joins the blogosphere with a healthy dose of cold war humor about life on the International Space Station.
• Wisconsin looks to become the first state to recognize an official state microbe. Of course the bacterium, Lactococcus lactis, ferments the state’s $18 billion per year cheese industry.
• An Italian art collector found a mummified tooth, thumb, and finger of Galileo Galilei that have been missing since 1905, according to Florence’s History of Science museum.
In a new study in yesterday’s edition of the journal Nature, researchers analyze the speech-connected gene called FOXP2—both in the variant found in we talkative humans and that found in our close relatives the chimpanzees, who despite great genetic similarity to us are not a linguistic bunch. The team notes that only two amino acids separate the human and chimp versions. So a post over at io9 came out with the headline, “One Gene Tweak Could Make Chimps Talk.”
It has a nice poetic ring to it, and we can understand why a sci-fi blog would theorize that tinkering with this important gene could turn our fair home into Planet of the Apes. But we have to play the fun police on this one: The headline is just so wrong.
FOXP2 certainly is important. The scientists say in the Nature study that “so far, the transcription factor FOXP2 (forkhead box P2) is the only gene implicated in Mendelian forms of human speech and language dysfunction.” They say that scientists don’t know for sure whether this two-amino-acid change in human FOXP2 occurred around the same time we developed language and is connected us beginning to talk, but their study teases the idea: “These data provide experimental support for the functional relevance of changes in FOXP2 that occur on the human lineage, highlighting specific pathways with direct consequences for human brain development and disease in the central nervous system (CNS).”
But the fact that FOXP2 is connected with human language, and that chimps have a slightly different version of the gene, doesn’t mean chips would start reciting Shakespeare if we swapped our version for theirs. For one thing, there are unavoidable physical differences in the voicebox and the size (and non-speech functions) of the brain. And FOXP2 isn’t “The Speech Gene.” Rather, it exerts some control over a series of other genes that all work in concert—at least 116 of them in humans.
The New York Times reports:
Several of the genes under FOXP2’s thumb show signs of having faced recent evolutionary pressure, meaning they were favored by natural selection. This suggests that the whole network of genes has evolved together in making language and speech a human faculty.
So talking chimps aren’t coming just because of one genetic tweak. But maybe I’ll move Planet of the Apes up to the top of my Netflix queue—original version, of course.
Discoblog: Chatty Chimps Use Human-Like Connection Center
Discoblog: “Bro-Mance” For Chimps? Male Apes Form Long, Lasting Friendships
DISCOVER: Great Mysteries of Human Evolution
Image: flickr / King Chimp
• Where’s my fur coat? Hairless bear in Germany is the saddest thing you’ll see today.
• “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination” opens at the California Museum of Science. On display is a giant Darth Vader mask made of old electronics. All lesser nerds tremble in its presence.
• I did what last night? Woman has a terrible case of the morning afters—transient global amnesia to be exact—that can be triggered by sex.
• Will learning foreign languages be irrelevant one day? Space-age glasses that translate foreign languages are under development.
• If the hairless bear weirded you out, then put a smile on your face with these cute little narcoleptic meerkats that fall asleep while standing up.
In the recent Pixar movie Up, a group of dogs wear collars that translates their barks into humans words. Such a device is no longer just the stuff of animation: One is about to be, er, unleashed by a Japanese company that claims its collar can give humans a glimpse into Fido’s emotions.
But although the device would certainly be useful—wouldn’t it be helpful to know how your pup is feeling?—most experts are skeptical about whether the collar, called Bowlingual Voice, actually works. ABC reports:
The device includes a microphone worn around a dog’s neck and a separate digital reader that — the company says — translates barks into one of six emotional states: happy, sad, frustrated, threatening, needy or assertive…. [The developers] provided “research and development and consulting as well as aiding speech, acoustics and radio waves” for the Bowlingual Voice’s creation….
“It’s a cute idea,” said [organismic and evolutionary biologist] Kathryn Lord… “But it’s hard to see the world or feel the world like [dogs] do. When we say a dog feels something, it’s probably not exactly that.”
A consensus of experts agrees that while many humans have long yearned for the ability to communicate with animals, the concept is a myth that is both “crude” and “simplistic.” Still, that likely won’t keep pet-lovers from trying…
Discoblog: Looking to Immortalize Your Pet? Now You Can Turn Muffy’s DNA Into a Diamond
Discoblog: Weird Science Roundup: The Pet Survival Edition (Plus a Rap about Isotopes)
Discoblog: Animal Fun Looks a Lot Like Human Fun: Games of Catch and Spa Visits
Image: flickr / TheGiantVermin
For many people, texting serves as a useful tool. But for British student Caroline Tagg, a study of text-messaging earned her a PhD.
That’s right, Dr. Tagg now has a doctorate of philosophy in texting—the first of its kind.
To earn the degree, Tagg spent nearly four years studying a total of 11,000 text messages containing 190,000 words and sent by 235 people, all of which she compiled and analyzed in a database. The Telegraph reports:
[Tagg] discovered that people text in the same way as if they were talking, using unnecessary words such as ‘oh’, ‘erm’ and often use grammatical abbreviations like ‘dunno’….
And she discovered from her 80,000 word thesis that there is more to texting that just abbreviations—something most people associate with texting.
“Actually, not many people use abbreviations,” she said. “People use playful manipulation and metaphors. It is a playful language. Not only are they quite creative, it is also quite expressive.”
She found that the average text message contains 17.5 words and that (shocker) some texts can be about incredibly mundane matters—”Hi. I know you are at work but I just wanted you to know I found my pen lid” being a prime example. She also called the experience “enlightening.”
So what do you think: Was the research a waste of time, or is Tagg a pioneer in exploring the linguistics of our newest communication method?
Discoblog: Watch Those Thumbs Go! Champion Texter Wins $50,000
Discoblog: Speaking French? Your Computer Can Tell
Discoblog: Chatting With Aliens? Researcher Aims to Create Alien Translator
Image: flickr / samantha celera