Thursday, December 18, 2008

One fish, two fish...

"When we transform thoughts into speech, we do something that no other animal ever achieves." So begins a review article in Science (November 14) on the biological and neurological bases of language. And what a thing it is that I can sit here with my laptop weaving a pattern of words that has never been expressed before in the history of human language. Indeed, I can go to Goggle, and type in almost any list of ten (say) consecutive words that I have ever written -- and with this blog alone I have committed more than a million words to the web, not to mention a thousand Globe columns and I don't know how many other articles and reviews that my publishers have posted -- and -- bingo! -- there they are, uniquely identified out of upwards of 10 billion web pages.

There are about 7000 languages spoken in the world, remarkably diverse, but with deep similarities that many (most?) linguists believe are genetically based. Certainly, children learn to speak without being taught, something no chimp can do, and genes have been identified with certain language deficits. But the mystery of how thoughts get converted into meaningful strings of spoken or written words remains to be unraveled. Live scans show the brain lighting up like a Christmas tree when we express a thought. Goggle that last sentence and see how long it takes Google to index it.

If you want to appreciate the virtually infinite diversity of language, consider just this one stanza from Robert Pinsky's poem Jersey Rain:
The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather...
List those seven towns in any other order and you haven't changed the semantics, but you will certainly have changed the magical thing Pinsky is doing with words -- the end rhymes, the internal rhymes. Let those syllables roll off the tongue and you'd be reasonable to guess that you are tapping into brain structures that have to do with music too. We are a ways here from "One fish two fish red fish blue fish," but just watch those lights flashing in that astonishing few pounds of meat that is the human brain.

(BTW, in case you didn't know, this site or any site can be Google searched with this format: "search term")