The UA Magazine delivers news articles, opinion pieces, and long-features on some of the major scientific developments. We cover topics in the field of life sciences, technology, history, social sciences, and many others.
Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky even states that language can shape our cognition and “have far-reaching subconscious effects on how we see the world”. A simple example of that would be grammatical gender differences among various languages in the world. In some languages, such as Germanic and Romance languages, nouns are divided into “masculine versus feminine” or “masculine versus feminine versus neutral”. Other languages, however, may have many more genders. According to George Lakoff, Australian Aboriginal languages can have up to 16 grammatical genders for nouns.
But since when did we have language? Was it invented or were humans born with it?
These questions are among many types of philosophical inquiries that linguists have been pondering for centuries, and there seems to be an endless list of answers to them.
Linguist Arika Okrent states that “theories of language origins have generally been based on hunches”. It is a kind of chicken and egg riddle that has attracted various speculative theories.
As we can see in the graph from Google Books corpus below, debates on the origin of language reached their peak between the 1860s and 1880s. However, a major turning point happened during that period. Research on language origin got off to a bad start when it was banned by the Paris Linguistic Society in 1866.
There have been many theories, with interesting sounding titles (e.g. the bow-wow theory, the pooh-pooh theory, the ding-dong theory, the yo-he-ho theory, etc.) that try to explain where language came from. None prevailed or even came close to the status of the Darwinism theory in biology or the Big Bang theory in physics.
The core of language is symbols. Linguists often use a classification of symbols, icons and indexes, but basically the three refer to the idea of “something that represents something else”. We spend our lives making and perceiving meanings through symbols.
Animals communicate too, but with different and much less complicated symbols than humans do. That also might be the reason that we, humans, do not consider animals to be a part of us. It is largely because we do not understand their symbols. Their “non-human languages” are meaningless to us, so to speak.
Innate or invented?
Human babies have inborn ability to produce some universal or, more precisely, instinctive, symbols such as smiles and cries that mean happiness and sadness respectively.
Babies have inborn abilities to communicate. Kanjanee Chaisin/www.shutterstock.com
Parents do not intentionally teach their kids how to smile or cry. They are just born with it. Scientifically speaking, certain (facial) expressions are examples of symbols that are innate to us.
But beyond facial expressions, humans stand out in terms of their linguistic complexity from other living beings. We have the capacity to interpret, learn, imitate/modify and, more importantly, invent arbitrary symbols, such as words.
Research in linguistics tends to support the idea that words in human languages are invented (and mostly arbitrary).
We might be surprised by the fact that words for calling “mother” or “father” in many languages contain the sounds /m/, /p/, or /b/. Those sounds are called bilabials, produced through the contact between both lips.
Due to their ease of articulation, /m/, /p/, and /b/ are the earliest sounds babbling babies produce. And it makes sense that those first sounds are used and chosen to invent address terms for mothers and fathers in most languages because they’re the first people babies become familiar with.
When grammar came to play
Linguists agree that language does not consist of only symbols but also grammar. It’s basically a set of rules that connect our symbols (words).
If it is true, then language might have started as early as 1.9 million years ago. He bases his hypothesis on the sophisticated social organisations and technology, which might have required a complex system of communication.
Some researchers might argue that Homo erectus did not have fully developed vocal apparatus that enabled them to use language. But that would not have stopped them from communicating. Human communication relies primarily not on the forms (spoken/written) but more on their cognition, which is, as linguist Ib Ulbaek notes, significantly more complex. Sign languages, for instance, all rely on symbolic gestures. They are considered languages due to their complex grammar.
Quests for the first language
It is indeed nearly impossible for us to know or speculate about the earliest human language ever used, especially in spoken or gestural form, since there is no remaining evidence of it today.
Thank you in sign language. Tobb8/www.shutterstock.com
Linguists can trace languages back based on how far their written record goes. With this approach, we can conclude, at least for the moment, that Sumerian is the oldest known written language spanning c. 3300 to 3000 BC.
Another method linguists use to trace the first language is through what is called “comparative linguistics”. In comparative linguistics, linguists basically try to reconstruct ancient proto-languages, which predate written forms, based on the similarities of multiple languages in written records or those that exist today.
The problem with comparative linguistics is that the further back we trace an ancient dead language, the less we can reconstruct and thus the more speculative it is.
A very controversial attempt to reconstruct an ancient parent language to almost all language families worldwide is known as Borean languages. This attempt is of course very hypothetical and requires more proof.
If it is, as mentioned earlier, very difficult or even nearly impossible to trace the origin of language, then why do we bother? The answer is simple: because by nature humans are creatures of questions, and this craving for finding answers to seemingly unsolvable questions is one of the powerful traits that humans possess.
To linguists, answering questions about language and how it began is part of endeavours to understand the very nature of humanity. It is only through the help of philologists and comparative linguists that we are able to better understand our history and, more importantly, lay the foundations for our modern linguistic studies.
Most of us recognize, understand and appreciate music. But music is always out of tune for a few others. Amusics can’t recognize familiar melodies without lyrics, not even “Happy Birthday”. They can’t sing in tune either or detect whether a note within a melody is out of tune or key. They also can’t recognize out-of-tune singing–which can also be a benefit if you think about all those casting shows–and they can’t hold melodies in their head, even if they have heard them moments before. In addition, about half can’t reproduce a rhythm, meaning they can’t clap along or synchronize to music sufficiently well to dance.
A pitch of meaning and emotion
Congenital amusia – the scientific term for tone-deafness – is present right from birth. Amusics can hear normally, they have had no brain trauma and their exposure to music in childhood has been normal. But their brains never learn to process pitch correctly; they have a selective impairment for music perception – or so it was thought for the longest time.
Researchers found that amusia also affects language perception1. The discovery is not surprising as language is also part of the auditory domain and uses pitch and rhythm to convey certain meanings. In so-called tonal languages, such as Mandarin, for example, the pitch of a word determines its meaning. In English, we use pitch changes to denote the stress in a sentence and to signify emotions. Amusia affects statement and question discrimination, emotion perception, and tone language perception.2,3,4. But to music or language teachers, educators, psychologist, speech and language therapists, this disorder and the impairments amusics face are little known.
To some amusics, music is just not interesting and they simply ignore it; to others, music is an annoying banging, and, for the most extreme cases, it means headaches and concentration problems. The lack of music perception can lead to amusing situations. One woman, who was diagnosed with amusia in our Lab, was once in an elevator with friends and started hearing a strange, squeaking noise. Worried that there could be a problem with the elevator, she asked her friends whether they could hear that creak. Her friends, at first puzzled, remembered her amusia and told her what she was hearing was a saxophone.
However funny we find the stories to be, amusia can also lead to social problems with partners, parents or friends, always asking: Why don’t you want to go to your music lessons? Why won’t you dance with me? Why are you not coming to that concert with us? It is a huge relief for amusics to find out their condition. They usually know that they have trouble with music and, no matter how hard they try, they do not get better at it (there is no lasting intervention or cure for amusia yet). However, they are not aware that this is caused by a disorder that has a name and that others are affected. Studies estimate that between 1.5% and 4% of the population is affected by amusia 5,6,7 and more research is looking at different aspects of this disorder.
A growing field
The field of congenital amusia research – a term coined in 2001 – is still a relatively young one, even though the first anecdotal case report was published in 18788. At first, pitch perception and production in music were found to be impaired in music. Now, many other areas are also being investigated, from rhythm perception and beat synchronization to timbre and musical emotion perception. Special attention is also being paid to the underlying cause in the brain: a pitch processing deficit, an auditory memory deficit or a statistical learning deficit. It is still unclear which of these, or more likely, which interplay of these factors causes the disorder. There are just as many theories where and when in the brain something goes wrong.
At the Phonetics Laboratory at the University of Amsterdam and the Phonetics Laboratory at the University of Duesseldorf, we are part of this research effort by investigating how language perception is affected by amusia. We found that amusia affects intonation, word stress, and vowel perception, at least under laboratory conditions. That means if we take away all context, gestures and facial expression, and amusics can solely rely on what they hear, they have a much harder time than unaffected participants. However, in everyday life, they seem to do mostly fine with language and they can’t be recognized by having a monotone intonation, for example. That means they must have somehow learned to produce a normal intonation and to use other cues in everyday communication. We are interested in what those cues might be. To investigate this, we run studies investigating not only the behavioral reactions of amusic to acoustic stimuli but also their reaction time and their brain waves, hoping to gain insights into what their brain is doing differently.
US president Ulysses S. Grant reportedly could not distinguish melodies and generally disliked music
Anthropologist Franz Boas could not learn a tonal language
Revolutionary Che Guevara could not keep a rhythm and dance.
Fifty-four people have been diagnosed with the Ebola Virus Disease since May 8, when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Province of Équateur, which includes the densely populated city of Mbandaka, is the area where more cases have been confirmed.
The authorities, worried about a repetition of the West African outbreak from 2013 to 2016, were quick to promote a vaccination campaign of all the people a patient might have infected. Yet, despite the optimistic results of the vaccination program, the proximity of Mbandaka to the capital Kinshasa is still a matter of concern.
J. Daniel Kelly, from the University of California San Francisco, and his colleagues, established a model, based on past outbreaks, to predict the outbreak size with and without vaccination. In the absence of any vaccination program, the estimated outbreak size was 91 cases. That number dropped to 78 when the vaccination coverage increased to 62%.
The group believes that the epidemic has already reached its peak and will not be similar to the 2013-2016 outbreak. As long as higher vaccination levels are accompanied with stronger surveillance and preparedness, the transmission rates will decline and future cases will be detected much faster.
The New England Journal of Medicine dedicates this week’s editorial to the treatment options for asthma patients. To coincide with this week’s meeting of the American Thoracic Society, the journal published a series of articles about respiratory conditions; two of those articles focus on Dupilumab, a monoclonal antibody that inhibits the action of IL-4 and IL-13. These two small proteins play a crucial role in shaping the immune system and mediate the allergic and inflammatory responses in several respiratory diseases, asthma included.
Dupilumab is likely joining the list of biologics – which, among other characteristics, are grown and extracted from cell cultures and are highly specific for their target molecules – used to treat asthma. The addition of Dupilumab to the biologics list might be an advance for the field. But, as the authors of the editorial, Jeffrey M. Drazen and David Harrington, argue, “progress still falls short of the desired goal” for patients with severe asthma. While the clinical trials show good results for some of these patients, others see no clinical improvements with Dupilumab. Drazen and Harrington ask for more research into finding new biological markers of the disease, and for more “pragmatic, head-to-head trials” with the new biologics available. Only then severe asthma patients can be treated with more precision.
The authors point that even when new markers are researched and found, the treatment decisions are still in the hands of the pharmaceutical companies that sell those treatments. Drazen and Harrington finish by saying that without new data and ethically driven pharmaceutical decisions, “we will end up prescribing the most effective marketing. Our patients deserve better than that”, they conclude.
From agricultural irrigation to energy generation, human activities irreversibly changed the water dynamics; we know that some of it is disappearing, some of it is melting. Using satellite remote sensing, we are now able to see exactly how that change is occurring.
Scientists from the USA and Taiwan conducted the most extensive data analysis on terrestrial water storage (TWS) to date. They used the information collected from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRAVE), from 2002 until 2016, to establish 34 trends in freshwater availability.
On a global scale, the northern regions of America and Europe are accumulating freshwater, while the mid- and low latitudes suffer from freshwater losses. These results are consistent with the observed and expected precipitation trends for these regions: more precipitation in high-latitude regions, and less rain in the middle and low regions.
Trends in TWS (in centimetres per year) obtained on the basis of GRACE observations from April 2002 to March 2016. Source  Rodell, et all
The team reports that humans are leaving a clear ‘fingerprint’ on water reservoirs; for instance, in the world’s most irrigated agricultural regions, freshwater is rapidly disappearing. According to GRAVE, the major areas of water storage depletion are northern India, the North China Plain and the Middle East. The data collected also confirms the glaciers and ice-sheets melt and the increase of water storage in the northern regions of the globe.
“In the face of aquifer depletion, population growth, and climate change”, the authors of the study say, “water and food security will depend upon water-saving technologies and improved management and governance.” Encouraging solutions of water conservation can be seen in Israel, Saudi Arabia and parts of India, while China faces a huge challenge in the face of its ever-increasing population numbers.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you just turned off the light, your head is on the pillow, your eyes are closed, and yet, instead of drifting off to dreamland, you find yourself thinking about something that happened earlier in the day. Surprisingly, this process of reactivating your memories occurs even when you aren’t aware of it, and not only is it normal, it might actually improve your memory.
As a second-language researcher, I am especially interested in harnessing this phenomenon to help people learn new languages. I recently became excited about its potential while attending a symposium at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s annual meeting in New York City, where researchers discussed what they had learned about reactivation of memory.
One avenue of work comes from Columbia University in New York, where the neuroscientist Daphna Shohamy uses fMRI brain scans to measure oxygen metabolism and by association, neural activity. She’s found that when one of two related items are rewarded, the second item becomes wrapped up in the positive memory, too. To give a real-world example, say that you bought a pair of brand Y shoes. If someone then compliments you on the shoes, you are more likely to buy brand Y again, even if the compliment had nothing to do with brand Y. Continuing with our analogy, Shohamy’s lab finds that the amount of activity generated by the compliment (as measured through fMRI) is positively correlated with how likely you are to buy brand Y again. In other words, the memory centre of your brain, the hippocampus, has paired not only the brand and the shoes but also the information associated with both, such as the compliment. All of that is reactivated when you go to buy your next pair of shoes, even if you aren’t aware of it.
Participants in Shohamy’s study were not consciously aware of the effect that such pairings had on their decision – even though they were thoroughly awake. But memory reactivation also occurs during sleep, when we are truly unconscious. At Northwestern University in Illinois, Ken Paller and colleagues have found that slow-wave sleep – more commonly known as deep sleep – can cause memory reactivation because of its periods of heightened neural synchrony, when lots of neurons activate together.
Of particular interest for language-learning, Paller’s lab has found that memory reactivation during slow-wave sleep can be manipulated to improve specific memories. For example, they found that if you pair a sound with a picture while awake, and then play the sound during slow-wave sleep, this improves later recall of that picture – although the effect depends on how well you had learned the pairing the first time. Paller’s lab has found that the effect holds regardless of the type of information cued: everything from playing a melody to unlearning stereotype associations all benefit from reactivation during sleep.
The most obvious application for learning a foreign language would be in retaining new vocabulary. Many people already learn foreign-language vocabulary by pairing it with a translation in their native language. This type of pairing is very similar to what Paller’s lab has already done, and so it is likely that extending this to second-language learning would be successful.
Even more interesting is the possibility that memory reactivation may be instrumental for effective language immersion. I specify effective language immersion because research shows that immersion is hardly a panacea for curing your language-learning ills. Study-abroad experiences are more effective than domestic learning only when learners take advantage of the extra opportunities to use the second language. These opportunities include participating in daily experiences, such as taking the bus or grocery shopping, as well as local cultural experiences – all of it offering a multitude of cues and contexts that are impossible to impart in a typical classroom setting.
But getting this benefit simply by spending time in foreign company can be difficult. Popular tourist destinations such as Florence, where I studied, are used to English-speaking visitors, and the well-meaning people there will often return your attempts to speak Italian with English. One of the ways I got around this was through volunteering at local schools. Even though I was there to help the kindergarteners and first-graders with their English, I taught it to them using Italian. Another way to help yourself practise is by simply staying outside the centre of town. Visiting shops that don’t typically cater to tourists will significantly increase your chances of meeting people who are appreciative of your budding language skills, rather than cynical. That type of positive reinforcement is invaluable: each positive experience I had made me want to keep practising.
Moving beyond the obvious idea that more practise is better, it is likely that practise is most effective when combined with sufficient deep sleep. Paller’s work, extended to language-immersion students, could allow us to stack the deck in terms of which items are reactivated and consequently retained. Of course, understanding the degree to which memory reactivation during sleep can boost language-learning would require testing – for instance, correlating gains in second-language proficiency with the amount of slow-wave sleep during immersion. Such a study would be the first step towards developing strategies to help us maximise our language-learning efficiency.
Shohamy’s finding that memory reactivation can influence our decisions, especially when the memories are tinged with positive or negative emotions, could have an impact, too. One of the most important decisions you make in an immersion context is how much to engage with native speakers. If you imagine that your motivation or persistence is based on past experiences, then you can see the beginnings of a potential positive spiral: motivated learners have positive language experiences, which are more likely to be reactivated due to the positive associations, consequently improving their language skills and allowing them to have more experiences, starting the cycle again.
Even if you aren’t currently learning another language, there is plenty to take away from this research. Memory reactivation appears to improve our recall and guide our decisions. We might be able to manipulate this process to our benefit by sleeping more so that we increase our slow-wave sleep – and simultaneously selectively stimulating memories during that slow-wave sleep, whether for second-language vocabulary or guitar melodies. So the next time you have the option of sleeping in on a Saturday morning, take it. You now have a reason not to set that alarm.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
May 3, 1993: The United Nations members sign the Declaration of Windhoek, in Namibia. The document encourages an independent and pluralistic press in African countries and channels funds to make this happen. In addition, the UN declares censorship a major violation of human rights and hurries leaders to release jailed journalists.
But an “independent and pluralistic press” is a mirage for millions of citizens. In Eritrea, which ranks first in the list of the most censored countries, less than six percent of people have a cell phone and, those who do, have limited access to independent news sources. The government is the sole news and Internet provider and journalists constantly face imprisonment threats.
North Korea follows closely. Under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, cell phones are banned and Internet access is limited to the political elite. The Korean Central News Agency distributes and broadcasts almost all the news in the country.
In the list of the ten most censored countries, organized by the Committee to Protect Journalists, there is also space for Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China, Myanmar, and Cuba.
The deadliest countries
The Philippines may not have its name branded in this dishonorable list, but the threats and attacks to the media by the country’s President, Rodrigo Duterte, are no least dishonorable. During the twenty-two months of his administration, nine journalists were killed, and dozens have faced intimidation, threats, and harassment, making the Philippines the deadliest country for journalists in Asia.
In Africa, Syria takes the lead. Since the Arab Spring Revolution, in 2011, over one hundred journalists have been murdered or killed in crossfire and dangerous assignments. This year, already two journalists and one media assistant died in the bloody field. In Afghanistan, this Monday was one of the deadliest for media agents. Nine journalists were killed in the Kabul’s bombings, while one BBC journalist died in a separate incident in Khost. Worldwide data shows that, since January, twenty-four journalists were killed and 176 are imprisoned.
The 2018 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, reflects “hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies.”
Several leaders of democratic countries no longer see the media as pillars of democracy but have instead adopted a hostile speech towards journalists. The United States of America, for instance, has fallen two positions, to the 45th place, in the World Press Freedom Index, under the presidency of Donald Trump, who labeled the media an “enemy of the American people”.
What I do in my work is to try to understand how and why languages are the way they are. Why are there so many in some places and so few in others? How did languages develop so many different ways of fulfilling the same kinds of communicative tasks? What is uniquely human about language, and how do the human mind and language shape each other? This is something of a new direction in linguistics. The old-school study of language history was more concerned with language for its own sake: understanding the structure of languages and reconstructing their genealogical relationships.
World map of linguistic families / Wikimedia Commons
One of the exciting things happening in linguistics today is that linguists are increasingly connecting with the field of evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biologists ask very similar questions about species to those me and my colleagues want to ask about languages: why they are distributed in a certain way, for example, or looking for explanations for differences and similarities between them.
These similarities in outlook allow us to apply all the modern tools of computational evolutionary biology to linguistic questions, giving us new insights into fundamental questions about the processes of language change, and through that into the nature of language in general.
I recently co-authored a new paper with a set of interdisciplinary colleagues. We use methods adapted from evolutionary biology to investigate how a large group of languages had changed over thousands of years.
We chose to concentrate on the Austronesian language family (a huge family of languages mostly distributed along a broad arc from Taiwan to Easter Island) because quite a lot is known about how it spread. With a decent model of the history of a language family it becomes possible to uncover the processes of change within these languages. This is the same basic logic as when Gregor Mendel inferred the principles of heredity by observing how the patterns of variation in the forms of plants were governed by their ancestry. When we understand how the building blocks of language work, we will be further along the path to understanding the human mind.
Languages are a lot more than just a bundle of words. They also include all the principles for combining those words into meaningful utterances: grammar. And, like words, grammar also changes over time. We wanted to discover whether grammar evolves in the same way as words.
The lexicons of a languages (the set of words each language has) change in two ways over historical time: the sound systems of individual languages change – meaning that their words sound different – and words are replaced by other words through processes including meaning change and borrowing from other languages. Grammars change in similar ways. Gradually, as rules morph into new rules (for example, ways of expression become acceptable which in previous generations were unacceptable – think of the who/whom distinction, which has nearly disappeared from natural speech), and in big jumps, as languages acquire whole new structures through processes like reanalysis or borrowing.
Words and grammar
But how close are the parallels between the evolution of words and the evolution of grammar? Answering this question will move us along the road to answering the big questions about the nature of linguistic and human diversity. Using tools from evolutionary biology, we developed a computational model for estimating at what pace and in what manner the different languages of this family evolved. In particular, the model discerned whether words and elements of grammar were evolving at a fast, medium or slow pace.
The diagram below shows how the lexical and grammatical elements of the Austronesian languages evolved differently over the history of the family. The redder branches of the tree show where change happened more quickly and the bluer branches where it happened more slowly. The crosses mark big shifts in the rate of change.
Lexical and grammatical rates of change in Austronesian.
Simon J. Greenhill, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1700388114, Author provided
What is clear from these results is that the way in which the words and the grammar of these languages evolved is very different. Interestingly, measurements show that splits on a branch — points in when new languages are formed — are accompanied by a much bigger burst of change in the lexicon than in the grammar.
An important question for further work, then, is to ask what drives the differences in rates of change of different grammatical features. There are hints in the data that grammatical features that speakers are consciously aware of tend to change more quickly, and features which are more abstract and less available to conscious reflection change more slowly.
As our estimates of the age of humans as a species get older and older, we are realising that human language is not just a recent add-on. Rather, it’s something with deep evolutionary roots in human (and non-human) consciousness. This is important for the science of human cognition in general, with particular significance in psychology and linguistics.
These large scale studies in linguistic diversity have only recently become possible thanks to parallel improvements in the quality of data we have access to and the quality of the methods we have available to analyse them. Many linguists are embracing the movement towards open data and reproducible science. There are massive interdisciplinary efforts underway to publish open and interoperable data sets in many different domains, and computational tools for studying evolution are becoming richer and more flexible.
But as tools and methods improve, world linguistic diversity is decreasing. Nearly half the people in the world today speak at least one of Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, English or Arabic, and thousands of smaller languages are facing extinction.
Comparative studies of language are therefore becoming more urgent as a window into the diversity of the human mind.
The UN celebrates the English Language on this day. The 23rd of April marks both the birthday and death of William Shakespeare, the great English poet and playwright.
The English Language Day is one of the six official language days celebrated by the UN, each day dedicated to one of the official languages of the UN, with the purpose of recognizing the importance of cultural diversity and multilingualism. Visit the UN’s official website to find resources and information about the English language in the UN.
Visit the UA Magazine in the coming weeks; we will post and republish a selection of scientific articles, essays and news dedicated to Language.
Language bends and buckles under pressure of climate change. Take the adjective ‘glacial’. I recently came across an old draft of my Ph.D. dissertation on which my advisor had scrawled the rebuke: ‘You’re proceeding at a glacial pace. You’re skating on thin ice.’ That was in 1988, the year that the climatologist James Hansen testified before the United States Senate that runaway greenhouse gases posed a planetary threat.
If I repeated my advisor’s admonition on a dissertation today, the student might assume that I was rebuking them for writing too darn fast. Across all seven continents glaciers are receding at speed. Over a four-year span, Greenland’s ice cap shed 1 trillion tons of ice. Some geologists expect the Glacier National Park in Montana to lose the last of its glaciers around 2033, just as the equatorial glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro are also set to disappear. An Icelandic glaciologist calculates that by the end of the next century Iceland will be stripped of ice. Are we moving toward a time when tourists will visit Montana’s National Park Formerly Known as Glacier? When students will read Hemingway’s story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (1936) not as realism but as science fiction? And when Reykjavik will be the capital of DeIcedland?
This shift reminds us that dead metaphors aren’t always terminally dead. Sometimes they’re just hibernating, only to stagger back to life, dazed and confused, blinking at the altered world that has roused them from their slumber. (Dead metaphor is itself a dead metaphor, but we can no longer feel the mortality in the figure of speech.)
During the Little Ice Age, which stretched from the 14th to the 19th century, the median Northern Hemisphere winter was significantly colder than it is today. Glaciers more often advanced than retreated, sometimes wiping out communities as they moved. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Mont Blanc’ (1817) captures the menacing aura that adhered to those frozen rivers of ice:
… The glaciers creep
Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
Slow rolling on …
in scorn of mortal power
Shelley saw glaciers as predatory, immortal forces, eternal beings, before whose might mere humans quaked. But global warming has flipped that perception. We are now more likely to view glaciers as casualties of humanity’s outsize, planet-altering powers.
Glaciers in the 21st century constitute an unfrozen hazard, as receding glaciers and ice packs push ocean levels higher. Just as alarming as the big thaw’s impact on sea rise is its impact on the security of our freshwater reserves. For glaciers serve as fragile, frigid reservoirs holding irreplaceable water: 47 per cent of humanity depends on water stored as seasonally replenished ice that flows from the Himalayas and Tibet alone.
From the Himalayas to the Alps and the Andes, glacial retreat is uncovering the boots and bones of long-lost mountaineers. But such discoveries involve a haunting, double revelation: each reclaimed climber reminds us of the glacier’s own vanishing. Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani troops have battled intermittently since 1984, is, for Arundhati Roy, the ‘most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times’. The melting glacier is coughing up ‘empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate’. This ghostly military detritus is being made visible by a more consequential war, humanity’s war against the planet that sustains us, a war that has left the Siachen Glacier grievously wounded.
Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of dead metaphors as ‘fossil poetry’, noting in an essay in 1844 that ‘the deadest word’ was ‘once a brilliant picture’. If every metaphor involves a tenor (the object referred to) and a vehicle (the image that conveys the comparison), a failure to visualise once-brilliant pictures can result in a multi-vehicle pile-up. As George Orwell put it: ‘The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot.’
In ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), Orwell laid out six rules for writers, the first of which declares: ‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’ An inert metaphor such as ‘hotbed of radicalism’ conveys very little: we can no longer feel the blazing temperature between the bed sheets, just as – prior to public awareness of global warming – we’d stopped noticing the icy fossil poetry in ‘glacial pace’.
As consciousness of climate change has grown, a new class of dead metaphors has entered the English language. We speak routinely of carbon footprints, of wiping species off the face of the Earth, and of greenhouse gases, but we no longer see the feet, the hands, the faces and the backyard sheds that were once vivid when those phrases were newly coined. Geologists now talk of searching for the ‘human signature’ in the fossil record. Some geo-engineers want to inject vast clouds of sulphur aerosols into Earth’s atmosphere in the hopes of ‘resetting the global thermostat’. Many of these coinages attempt to give an intimate, human dimension to planetary phenomena that can seem intimidatingly vast and abstract. Adam Smith in 1759 responded similarly to the massive scale of economic forces by inserting the human body in the form of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. Today, the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson brings that dead metaphor back to life, complaining that, when it comes to the environment, ‘the invisible hand never picks up the check’.
As our planet’s cryosphere thaws, we can detect all kinds of stirrings in the cemetery of dead metaphors. At Austrian and Swiss ski resorts, the natural ‘blankets’ of snow have become so threadbare that resort owners are shielding them with actual isothermic blankets. And in the Arctic, the threat looms of impermanent permafrost from which climate-altering methane will bubble free.
Planet-wise, we’re all skating on thin ice.
‘Calving glaciers’ is shorthand for the seasonal rhythm whereby glaciers amass winter ice, then shed some of that accumulation each summer in the form of icebergs and growlers. When scientists refer to ‘calving glaciers’, we do not typically visualise a Wisconsin dairy herd: as the phrase became routine, the calves have vanished from view. Now that climate change has thrown the balance between glacial accumulation and shedding out of whack, the dead metaphor reasserts itself as a living image. Is the prolific calving we’re now witnessing a fecund or a fatal act, a birthing ritual or a symptom of the death of ice?
Before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015, the sculptor Olafur Eliasson and the geologist Minik Rosing travelled to Greenland, where they lassoed some ice calves that they transported to the Place du Panthéon. There they created Ice Watch, an arrangement of mini-icebergs in the shape of a clock face. Over the duration of the conference, the public could watch time, in the form of ice melt, running out.
Greenpeace, too, has sought to mobilise people through art to act against accelerated calving. More than 7 million people have viewed the Greenpeace video in which the composer Ludovico Einaudi performs his ‘Elegy for the Arctic’ (2016) on a grand piano balanced on a fragile raft. As the raft drifts through the ice melt pouring off a glacier in Svalbard in Norway, the pianist’s plangent chords reverberate in counterpoint with the percussive booming of massive chunks of ice crashing into the ocean.
Have we reached a linguistic tipping point where ‘glacial pace’ is incapable of conveying meaning with any clarity? Under pressure of a warming world, does ‘glacial’ need to be decommissioned and pushed over the climate cliff?
Abrupt climate change challenges not just the capacity of the living to adapt, but also the adaptive capacities of human language. The ‘glacial’ scrawled in the margins of my 1988 dissertation isn’t the ‘glacial’ of 2018, any more than the polar bear that starred in Coca-Cola commercials (tubby, sugared-up, a cheerful icon of the good life) is interchangeable with today’s iconic polar bear – skinny, ribs bared, a climate refugee adrift on a puny platform of ice, impossibly far out to sea. In symbolic terms, the two bears scarcely belong to the same species.
Many years ago, as a graduate student, I encountered and delighted in Franz Kafka’s exhortation that ‘A book should be the ice axe that breaks open the frozen sea within.’ But now I hear his words quite differently. I want to say: ‘Hey Franz, lay down your axe. Go easy on that fragile frozen sea.’
About the Author
Rob Nixon is the Currie C and Thomas A Barron Family Professor of the Humanities and the Environment at Princeton University. His latest book is Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2013).
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.