A new study shows that naming conventions will change how infants represent objects in their memories.
- Humans begin to encode for categories and individuals at an early age.
- A new study shows that language, specifically naming conventions, plays a role in how infants' memories encode objects either within groups or as individuals.
- Even before we speak our first words, the way words are used around us begin to shape our representation of the world.
The human mind brims with fascinating mental tools. One such tool is our ability to perceive and categorize the world for both groups and individuals. Because we are so accustomed to our minds, that may not seem remarkable but it's quite something. Even more remarkable, we develop this capacity at an incredibly young age.
Children understand, for example, that bunnies have long ears, fast feet, cotton-ball tails, and fluffy coats. But a child also understands that Sir Flops is both a bunny but an individual. He has a star-shaped patch on his rump, likes broccoli more than carrots, and enjoys a good scratch behind the ears. Children manage this distinction before they have acquired an encyclopedia's worth of names and details to check and cross-reference to ensure proper mental categorization. But how?
Drs. Alexander LaTourrette and Sandra Waxman, psychologists at Northwestern University, have proposed that language, specifically naming conventions, determine how infants encode objects into memory—whether as part of a group or as an individual. Their new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests they are on to something.
A parade of boffs
An image showing the stuffed animals introduced during the training phase followed by the new ones introduced in the test phase.
To test their hypothesis, LaTourrette and Waxman did what all good scientists do: set up an experiment. They enlisted the help of 77 infants, each between eleven-and-a-half and twelve-and-a-half months old, and trained them to recognize stuffed animals. They showed the infants a parade of stuffed animals and introduced them with a novel name.
During this training phase, the infants were divided into three groups. The first group, the consistent name group, was introduced to the stuffed animals with a single signifier. For example, even though the stuffed animals were a piglet, kitten, duckling, and panda, each one would be referred to as a "boff."
The second group, the distinct name group, was also presented with the four stuffed animals. But this time, each one was given a unique signifier. The kitten would be called a "boff," but the duckling an "etch," the piglet an "arg," and the panda a "dov."
The third group was enlisted as the control. For this group, each stuffy introduction was paired with a monotone voice. This is because tone, unlike names, has been shown to not facilitate categorization.
The researchers' goal was to determine how each naming convention encoded the stuffed animals within the infants' memories over several training trials. When the stuffies were introduced as a "boff," then the infants' memories should encode them as a unified category. Like in our bunny example above, they would perceive the commonalities of "boffness"—big round eyes, soft fury, and cuddly tummies.
Conversely, when the stuffies were introduced by distinct labels, then the infants' memories should encode for individuation. As with Sir Flops, they would perceive distinguishing features and tag those in their memory for later recall—etch has yellow fur and wings while arg sports pink fur and a snout.
A boff by any other name?
Of course, LaTourrette and Waxman couldn't ask the infants how they remembered their colorful compatriots. So, they utilized a recognition memory test to find out. The researchers reintroduced the infants to the stuffed animals from the previous training alongside a never-before-seen fuzzy friend. The researchers then recorded the children's gazes.
They theorized that if infants stared equally at both "boffs," then they recognized the commonalities between them and had encoded for a category. However, if the infants stared longer at the new toy, that indicated that the infant recognized the original object and was spending time memorizing the new, individualized, object.
That's exactly what they found. Infants from the consistent name group stared at both stuffed animals for equal time, suggesting they recognized the commonalities at the expense of distinctive features. The distinct name group recognized the individuals more readily and turned their attention to the new stuffy. The control group only recognized the more recent stuffed animal.
"Our findings reveal a powerful and sophisticated effect of language on cognition in infancy: the way in which an object is named, as either a unique individual or a member of a category, influences how [twelve-month-old] infants encode and remember that object," the researchers write. "Hearing a consistent name applied to a set of objects focuses infants on the commonalities among them, while hearing distinct names applied to the same objects focuses infants on the uniqueness of each object."
The researchers expressed hope that their research would help cognitive psychologists gain a deeper understanding of how names influence people, from infancy to adulthood, in their conceptual representations. They also hope that this evidence opens further investigations, such as how familiar nouns (rather than novel names) influence infant representations.
They conclude, "Even a single naming episode can have a lasting impact, influencing how infants encode that object, represent it in memory, and remember it later."
The English Department is instituting a series of reforms that cuts across the entire university.
- Rutgers University's English department is instituting anti-racist policies, workshops, and initiatives in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
- Linguistic diversity and less emphasis on "traditional" grammar will be honored across the department's courses.
- Jonathan Holloway, the college's first Black president, said the school name will not change despite slaves having built the original institution.
Black Lives Matter Protests Around the World<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ed4639cbe7898cc2539d6c15704b1f70"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/4Vl4I0weXPU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Undergraduate English</strong> will require that English majors take a course in African-American Literature (more on this below). During the coming semester, the department is offering 14 such courses, including Black Speculative Fiction and Afro-Futurism. </p><p><strong>Creative Writing </strong>will offer a class about reading and writing on race and require professors to take a workshop on creating an anti-racist classroom.</p><p><strong>Graduate English</strong> is placing emphasis on course proposals that focus on the history of racial injustice in America, as well as initiatives that offer graduate students opportunities to work with prisons, public schools, and community organizations as a form of political activism. </p><p><strong>The Center for Cultural Analysis</strong> has committed to working with and supporting Black-owned businesses, and will be sponsoring a number of new working groups, initiatives, and exhibitions around race, including the working group, "Slavery + Freedom." It will also emphasize the experience of Asian students during the immigration crisis and the racialization of the current pandemic. </p><p>While these (and many more) changes appear exhaustive, such initiatives are generations in the making. The New Brunswick campuses have long been exceptionally diverse. (I'll leave Newark and Camden aside in these examples). In 1995, we held numerous protests over <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1995/02/02/nyregion/at-rally-students-seek-resignation-of-rutgers-president.html" target="_blank">racially-insensitive remarks</a> by then-president, Fran Lawrence, which included blocking Route 18 while marching to his Piscataway residence, and a basketball court sit-in to bring awareness to the systemic problem of racism. There were also numerous "Take Back the Night" rallies and marches addressing systemic abuse and harassment of women, predating #metoo by a generation.</p>
Demonstrators stage protest in the Loop before marching to the private residence of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker on July 10, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images<p>Interestingly, I spent a few semesters in the English Department before switching to Religion. The best class I took while at Rutgers was "African-American Literature," taught by the incomparable Guyanese-born scholar, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Van_Sertima" target="_blank">Ivan Van Sertima</a>. Instead of demanding we read numerous books and articles, Van Sertima assigned just one book—Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man"—which we spent the entire semester dissecting and discussing. His approach was a breath of fresh air: going deep instead of shallowly skimming a breadth of literature. </p><p>Here's why I left the department: African-American Literature did not count toward an English degree.</p><p>A quarter-century later, such a class is now required for an English degree. Seemingly little steps forward have real-world consequences, especially at an institution like Rutgers. A racially-diverse university does not guarantee racism-free campuses. In fact, Jonathan Holloway, who recently took the helm as Rutgers' first Black president, is not shying away from <a href="https://www.nj.com/education/2020/06/we-have-a-problem-rutgers-new-president-speaks-out-on-racism.html" target="_blank">calling out systemic racism</a>. </p><p>Not everyone is happy about these changes, though the noise is mostly coming from conservative blogs. Their argument is predictable (hampering education) and ineffective. A contingent of American society seems perpetually concerned with an imagined "Golden Age," which in this case translates as maintaining the dominant white, Europ</p><p>ean model of language. Their concern is relatively confined to <a href="https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/prescriptive-grammar" target="_blank">prescriptive grammar</a> that influenced Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. </p><p>Linguistics evolved to investigate <a href="https://www.thoughtco.com/theoretical-grammar-1692541" target="_blank">theoretical grammar</a> in the 20th century, which is more applicable in the decision at Rutgers. The purpose of language is to communicate an idea. You can do this through pantomime, of course, but language has always been a living process, not an arcane museum piece. Different people use similar languages to communicate to their peers. </p><p>Grammar has suffered in the social media age. People's inability to differentiate between <em>there</em>, <em>their</em>, and <em>they're</em> and <em>your</em> and <em>you're</em> is the source of constant frustration. I'll fight for the serial comma until the end of my days. But when someone doesn't use one, I generally understand what they're trying to communicate. These are minor debates in a vast world of divergent speakers. </p>
Ivan Van Sertima on little known African achievements<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9987c853db55333acc36f266b1e8a6fe"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KhQv2OZprpY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>If the goal is communication, there are many ways to accomplish this. Consider Deborah in James Baldwin's "Go Tell it on the Mountain," who, replying to Gabriel, says,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"You hush, Reverend. It's me that don't never kneel down without I thank the Lord for <em>you</em>."</p><p>And a little later,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If she'd a-wanted a husband look to me like she could a just picked one out right here. You don't mean to tell me she done travelled all the way North just for that?"</p><p>Such writing might not fit into traditional English grammar rules, but it certainly honors the living language that actual people speak.</p><p>We can look at Jamaican patois for another example. In the classic film, "Rockers," Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace makes the following speech:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I and I don't deal with violence. I and I is peaceful Rasta man. I don't steal, cheat; I man serve Selassie-I continually. No matter what the weak heart say, I and I is like a tree plant by the river of water. Not even the dog that piss against the wall of Babylon shall escape this judgment. All of the youth shall witness the day that Babylon shall fall." </p><p>If you're not familiar with this patois, the meaning might take some time to convey. For the culture that understands it, this passage clearly states an important idea—<em>and</em> it's entirely in English. Perhaps not the King's English, but that's in part what's beautiful about America: there are no kings. </p><p>Diversity isn't only in populations, but the languages those populations speak. Rutgers's new adjustments are ambitious and worthwhile. The university has long boasted the populations necessary to open up such dialogues. If they can find the languages needed to honor those populations, progress is possible. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Getting what you want often requires choosing the right strategy.
- There are many variables in every negotiation, which means there is no silver bullet or magic phrase you can use to win every single time. On top of that, the idea of "winning" changes depending on the situation. The key to success is being able to identify the type of negotiation and use a strategy that gets you what you want.
- "Successful negotiation is not about getting to yes," says former FBI negotiator Chris Voss. "It's about mastering no and understanding what the path to an agreement is."
- In this video, experts including Voss, Shark Tank investor Daymond John, author and real estate broker Fredrik Eklund, game theorist Kevin Zollman, Harvard International Negotiation Program director Dan Shapiro, and others detail the different types of negotiations and share tips on how to navigate them effectively so that both sides feel like they've arrived at a good spot, somewhere near the center. You can also learn how to outsmart an opponent in a zero-sum situation.
Never has the bar to entry been so low and the recognized benefits so high.
- Learning a new language has been shown to sharpen your cognitive abilities while helping stave off dementia as you age.
- A University of Chicago study found that businesspeople make better decisions when weighing problems in a non-native tongue.
- Juggling multiple languages lets bilingual speakers switch between tasks with less stress and more control than monolinguists.
Two remarkable etymological maps show twin forces at work throughout human history.
- These two maps capture the centrifugal and centripetal forces at work throughout human history.
- See how the Proto-Indo-European word for 'brother' spreads and changes, in both sound and meaning.
- And how the Proto-Germanic word for 'stranger' now is a familiar fixture of European toponymy.
Name that animal (in Proto-Indo-European)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3b6be896ff2aac19ff166ee25bbd4074"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/7epZo_BQFqA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>What is the difference between a brother and a stranger? Distance and time. As both grow, what is familiar becomes less so. As they decrease, what is strange becomes familiar. </p><p>These two maps neatly capture those two driving forces of human history – centrifugal and centripetal – via the rather unexpected medium of etymology. The first one goes back all the way to Proto-Indo-European, and the video above gives a hint of what that may well have sounded like.<br></p>
Brothers, friars, buddies<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ4MTA5NC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTA5OTQ1OX0.JAPB7ZuOI_gwNELnPIa-podL2rm2ZlL26OOXMdx9Jf4/img.png?width=980" id="52f50" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4e1947a158a36bc1fa69e3566f49fb0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Map showing the spread over time and place of the Proto-Indo-European word for 'brother'." />
Map showing the spread over time and place of the Proto-Indo-European word for 'brother'.
Image by u/Virble, found here. Reproduced with kind permission.<p>The first one shows the spread of the word Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word for 'brother' across an area stretching from Iceland to Bangladesh. Although it may no longer seem obvious to speakers of Icelandic and Bengali, the word they use to refer to their mother's (other) son derives from the same source. </p><p>We have no direct record of PIE. It has been reconstructed entirely from the similarities between the languages of the Indo-European family, based on theories of how they have changed over time.</p><p>The most common hypothesis is that PIE was spoken from 4500 to 2500 BC on the Pontic-Caspian steppes, the grasslands stretching from Romania across Ukraine into southern Russia. Its speakers then migrated east and west, so PIE eventually fragmented into a family of languages spoken across Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. </p><p>Those languages may be mutually unintelligible now, but the similarities between certain basic words still points to a common origin. And that's how we've been able to reconstruct <em>bʰréh₂tēr,</em> PIE for 'brother'.</p><p>Via Proto-Balto-Slavic, this turns into <em>brat</em> (in Russian and all other Slavic languages). Proto-Germanic is the intermediate to modern German <em>Bruder</em>, Scandinavian <em>bror</em>, Dutch <em>broer,</em> and English <em>brother</em>. Via Proto-Italic, we get Latin <em>frater</em>, and that gives similar-sounding words in French (<em>frère</em>), Italian (<em>fratello</em>), and Romanian (<em>frate</em>). </p><p>Things get interesting in Iberia. The local languages use another word entirely to describe brotherly kinship: it's <em>hermano</em> (in Spanish) or <em>irmão</em> (in Portuguese). This derives from the second word of the Latin phrase <em>frater germanus</em>, which means 'brother of the same blood' (literally: 'of the same germ'). The phrase was used to distinguish between 'blood brothers' and brothers by adoption, a common occurrence in Roman times.</p><p><em>Frater</em> does have a descendant in the Iberian languages, but <em>fraile</em> (Spanish) and <em>frade</em> (Portuguese) only mean 'brother' in the ecclesiastical sense – similar to the English term <em>friar</em>. The change in meaning is indicated by the dotted line across the Pyrenees. Another dotted line on the Greek border denotes another shift in meaning: in Proto-Hellenic, <em>*</em><em>phrātēr</em> means 'citizen' rather than 'brother'. </p><p>On its march east, the PIE word for 'brother' transforms into Proto-Indo-Iranian, then branches off into distinct Proto-Iranian and Sanskrit strands. The Proto-Iranian (<em>*bráHtā</em>) radiates slightly to the west and more vigorously to the east; the modern Persian word (<em>barâdar</em>) makes it into Turkish as a loan word, but again, the meaning changes. In Turkish, <em>kardeş</em> is what you call your little brother (or little sister), while an older brother is called <em>abi</em>. <em>Birader</em> means 'brother' in a more symbolic sense, as 'buddy' or 'comrade'. In Hindi and throughout the subcontinent, <em>bhai</em> and slight variations are the commonest word to express the brotherly bond. </p><p>While the Icelander and Bangladeshi might have some trouble recognising the other's word for 'brother', it's remarkable that PIE's original term resonates so well in so many modern languages. As one commenter (on Reddit) said: "I am now fascinated by the idea that I can just go to a random village in the middle of Afghanistan, find the oldest man in town who has never heard or seen a foreigner, and that when I say 'brother' to him with a faint Jamaican accent he will probably understand what I mean, because the word in his native language sounds almost exactly the same."<br></p>
Howdy, stranger<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ4MTA5Ni9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NzA0NDcwMH0.vBw3b-7ZSo_JTC6-yDv0oiJuF-Xcn6xYi5GiLqOEhkA/img.png?width=980" id="a6054" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f1571d1a8668cb86287efbfc8d05eb8e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bThe Proto-Germanic word for 'stranger', and its impact on the map of Europe." />
The Proto-Germanic word for 'stranger', and its impact on the map of Europe.
Image by u/Virble, found here. Reproduced with kind permission.<p>In other words: brotherliness can survive great distances across time and space. The second map shows the opposite: how 'stranger-ness' can persist, even in close proximity. The Proto-Germanic word for 'stranger' is <em>*walhaz</em>.</p><p>Early on, it became the default term to describe the closest 'others', as in Old Norse, where <em>Valr</em> means 'southerner' or 'Celt'. As such, it became attached to a number of southern/Celtic regions and countries, most famously Wales but also Gaul, Cornwall and Wallonia. </p><p>As the Gallic tribes were Romanised over time, the German(ic) term came to be applied to Romance speakers specifically, as for example in <em>Welschland</em>, the Swiss-German term for the French-speaking part of Switzerland. The Swiss-French term is la Romandie or la Suisse romande.</p><p>Something similar happened after the Proto-Germanic term was borrowed by Proto-Slavic. <em>Vlokh</em> came to mean 'Roman speaker', and was applied to the people (<em>Vlachs</em>, a former name for Romanians) and the region (<em>Wallachia</em>, in present-day Romania). The term <em>Vlachs</em> still applies to Romance-speaking minorities in the southern Balkans. In Polish, a variant <em>Wlochy</em> is used to describe the country the name of which in most other languages resembles 'Italy'. </p><p>The dots represent city and town names containing the term, indicating points of contact between 'us' and 'them'. These points are particularly plentiful in Britain, and in other areas of Western Europe where the friction between invading Germanic tribes and resident Roman citizens was strongest.</p><p>But while that clash of cultures persists in place names, the inhabitants of Walcheren (in the Netherlands), Wallasey (in the UK), Wallstadt (Germany), Welschbillig (France), Walshoutem (Belgium) and all the other dots on this map have stopped thinking in terms of 'us' and 'them' a long time ago. At least in terms of the 'locals'. There's plenty of other <em>walhaz</em> in the world, even if they are brothers from another mother. </p><p><br><em>Maps reproduced with kind permission of Reddit user </em><em>u/Virble. For more of his etymological maps, check out <a href="https://www.reddit.com/user/Virble/" target="_blank">this overview</a></em><em> of his Reddit contributions. </em></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1038</strong></p><p><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a>.</p>