More and less.

I bring to your attention, once again, the Transition, as currently featured in the Oven Glove news.  While I have my doubts as to just how roadworthy this plane would be in ‘bad weather’, particularly in icy or stormy conditions, it’s still awesome.

Also awesome is an article that recently came to my attention about the Pirahã.  Of course you say it like pee-da-HAN, but who really looks at the letters in a word, anyway?  Certainly not THESE Amazonians.  Considering that they don’t have letters.  Or art.  Or MATH (that one’s for you, Alex).  From my brief days of teaching language, I know how important it is to be able to work from shared concepts – concrete nouns, pantomimed action verbs, visible adjectives.  But what if these concepts are not shared, or cannot be communicated?  What then?  What happens when  a culture with words for ‘one’, ‘two’, and ‘many’ cannot conceive of or count to three, even in a language different from the native one? How do you communicate?

There is some debate as to whether the term for our number one is really a number at all – it could simply mean ‘a small amount’ or ‘few’, as opposed to the words for ‘some’ (two) or ‘many’.  The only thing that is real is the concrete, the immediate, the observable.  There is no recursion in sentences, no abstraction in terms, no hypothesizing or future planning.  What decoration or art there might be is solely for immediate purposes – the model of a plane just seen carelessly tossed away once the actual plane has left, or some other instant expression of an event or action.  Nothing is meant to last.  What is emotion, in this context?  Is it too abstract, or something transitory that is very real in the moment?  In a language where stress and tone matters more than syllable, vowel, or consonant, where singing possibly says more than saying, what does music mean?

Finally, in this article on linguistics and other wonders of the world, I was laughing at a Boston reference – Noam Chomsky as interviewed by Spare Change news.  Next time you see one of those guys asking for a dollar, just think about it.  You never know what gems might be on the inside.

My brain, your brain.

I barely remember the one college Calculus class I was required to take to complete my undergraduate degree.  I could say it’s because I wasn’t really interested in the class – it was only a requirement, not a passion.  I could say it was because i wasn’t applying myself, or because the lecturer who taught it was from Eastern Europe and i missed half of what he said in trying to puzzle out the first half of the words coming out of his mouth.  I could say it was because my first semester of college I barely slept and calc was just another place to rest my head for a few weary minutes.  But the truth is something far more far-reaching – I never saw math as a worthwhile skill.

I have a poet’s soul.  I can listen to a physics professor talk about the wonders of the universe or an inventor talk about his new Idea, or a designer talk about a current project and be totally enthralled.  But I am more enthralled with the words, the person, and the passion they show than the ideas behind them.  I do have my own curiosity and love of learning.  I do still have some interest in the less word-oriented aspects of life.  But to me they remain subject matter, rather than goals in and of themselves.

A part of this preference is probably due to old prejudices.  Language is a female sphere.  Hard sciences are male.  Despite the growing numbers of girl students doing just as well as boys in analytical subjects such as math, there remain underlying preferences that are not necessarily based on ‘natural’ tendencies.

There have always been questions as to whether or not boys are predispositioned or socially conditioned toward certain subject matter.  Obviously boys and girls are biologically different.  Most likely certain parts of our brains either start out different as well, or at least adapt differently due to slightly different bodily functions.  At the same time, there are countless ways in which that brain function is identical, or at least very similar, between a wide variety of individuals.  What then does it mean that most engineers are still men?  What does it mean that I consider myself a nerd, but still feel superior to the science nerd?

If there is a brain difference between girls and boys that makes one or the other less strong in certain sciences, that’s one thing.  There will always be outliers anyway.  But I would guess the difference is more ‘personal preference’ than actual skill.  And if so, are we as a society telling our sons and daughters to value very different skills and even modes of thinking?