In some countries, people want more freedom of speech. In others, they feel that there is too much.
- In green: where people like free speech the most. In red: where free speech is not popular.
- Despite continued strong support, this recent survey shows approval of free speech declining in the U.S.
- Free speech helps create prosperity, but if forced to choose, people prefer prosperity over free speech.
September 24th, 1933: Communist Member of Parliament Saklatvala Shapurji addresses a crowd at Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park.Credit: Keystone / Getty Images
Who loves free speech? As this world map shows: not everybody — at least not in equal measure. Of the 33 countries surveyed, free speech gets its highest approval in those shaded green. Approval is "medium" in yellow countries and lowest in red ones.
Some democracies are more nominal than others
- Some of the highest-rated countries are what you might expect: in North America (U.S.) and northern Europe (UK, Denmark, Norway, Sweden). Also on that list: Spain and Japan. Surprising inclusions: Venezuela and Hungary, two countries not recently noted for the fair and balanced nature of their public discourse.
- Countries with "medium" interest in free speech are scattered across Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, Argentina), continental Europe (France, Germany, Czechia, Poland), the Middle East (Israel), Africa (South Africa), and the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea).
- Interestingly, all the countries on the red list, professing the least interest in free speech, are nominal democracies, although some are more nominal than others. They include countries in Europe (Russia, Turkey), the Middle East (Lebanon), Africa (Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria), and Asia-Pacific (Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia).
Global variation in the Justitia Free Speech Index. Maximum score: 100.Credit: Justitia
Orwell, defending the Freedom of the Park
The survey, conducted in February 2021 for Danish think tank Justitia, is about popular attitudes rather than legal frameworks. That is relevant because, as George Orwell observed in "Freedom of the Park" (1945), free speech depends less on the law of the land than on the will of the people.
Justitia's report, titled "The Future of Free Speech", opens with a quote from Orwell's essay:
"If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them."
To find out about those attitudes, Justitia weighed the responses of a total of 50,000 people across 33 countries worldwide to several potentially controversial statements, including:
Government censorship should not apply to
- what people say;
- what the media reports;
- how people use the internet.
People should be able to
- publicly criticize the government;
- publicly offend minority groups;
- criticize the respondent's religion and beliefs;
- voice support for homosexual relationships;
- insult the national flag.
The media should be able to publish information
- that might destabilize the economy;
- about sensitive aspects of national security;
- that makes it more difficult to handle pandemics.
George Orwell at the BBC in 1940. He sensed that free speech depends less on what laws dictate than on what people want.Credit: Public domain
Russians among the least pro-free speech
Some key findings of the report:
- Of the nationalities surveyed, Scandinavians and Americans are the most supportive of free speech. The least supportive are the Russians, Muslim-majority nations, and the least developed nations.
- Support for free speech in general is typically expressed by great majorities and has remained stable or has even increased since 2015. There is one exception: the U.S., where the acceptance of unrestricted criticism of the government has declined. The report specifically notes that young people, women, the less educated, and people who voted for Joe Biden are generally less supportive of free speech.
- While support for free speech is strong in the abstract, it drops when specific controversial statements are mentioned. In general, left-leaning individuals are more accepting of insulting national symbols and right-leaning individuals of offending minority groups, particularly in Western countries.
- In all countries surveyed, a majority would like to see social media subjected to some kind of regulation, but only a few respondents want governments to take the sole responsibility for this.
Free speech deficits and... surpluses
When matching Justitia's Free Speech Index (which measures attitudes) with a separate Freedom of Expression Index (which measures regulations) developed by an organization called V-Dem, it turns out that there is a clear and positive association between both.
- In other words: in countries with strong popular demand for free speech, there typically are good government provisions for the supply of free speech. For example, Scandinavia, the U.S., the UK and Australia all score relatively high on both indexes, while Pakistan, Malaysia, and India get relatively low marks on both indexes.
- There are exceptions, in both directions. The popular demand for free speech exceeds the actual level of freedom of expression in Egypt, Hungary, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and Venezuela. You could call this a classic free speech deficit.
- In contrast, there are three countries where there seems to be a free speech surplus: in Kenya, Tunisia, and Nigeria, the relatively high values on the Freedom of Expression Index are not matched with equally high values on the Free Speech Index.
Support for free speech is generally stable or improving, except in the United States, where the acceptance of unrestricted criticism of the government has declined.Credit: Justitia
Choosing between free speech and prosperity?
Justitia also asked its interviewees how they thought their freedom of expression had evolved over time. The results are mixed.
- People in Tunisia, Pakistan, and Kenya reported the greatest improvements in their freedom of expression.
- Despite significant "democratic backsliding" in the Philippines and India, people in those countries also reported improvements.
- The greatest perceived losses in terms of free speech were reported in Hungary, Poland, the U.S., and Turkey. As the report points out, all of these countries are highly polarized with (present or recent) leaders very critical of independent media.
- People in France and Germany also reported shrinking space for free speech.
"Fortunately (…) much evidence speaks in favor of (a positive) association (between freedom of expression on the one hand and human welfare and prosperity on the other) — particularly, when free speech is combined with effective electoral rights over longer periods of time," the report concludes.
However, "the numbers indicate that, if people believe they cannot have both, many are willing to sacrifice free speech." Disconcertingly, "support for free speech might be shallower than one would expect — and hope for — in relation to this fundamental right."
Strange Maps #1094
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Linguists discover 30 sounds that may have allowed communication before words existed.
- What did the first person who wanted to speak say?
- New research suggests that there are lots of sounds that everyone understands.
- These sounds may have allowed the first exchanges that gave birth to language.
As hard as it is sometimes to get a conversation started, imagine how difficult it must have been before words existed. Linguists have long wondered how verbal language began. Some form of communication must have been in place to get the whole thing going. Maybe it was gestures.
Now, a new study published in Scientific Reports by linguists at the University of Birmingham (UBir) in the UK and the Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics in Berlin proposes another idea: Verbal communication may have begun at least partly with "iconic" mouth-produced sounds whose meanings were inherently obvious to anyone who heard them. (The researchers use the word "iconic" to mean that these sounds represent things.)
The importance of these sounds may also extend beyond their role as the ultimate conversation starters, says co-author Marcus Perlman of UBir. "Our study fills in a crucial piece of the puzzle of language evolution, suggesting the possibility that all languages — spoken as well as signed — may have iconic origins."
30 iconic sounds
Credit: Alexander Pokusay /
The researchers have posted a few of these iconic sounds: "cut," "tiger," "water," and "good." (Note: These audio files won't play in Apple's Safari browser.) The study reveals that there are a lot more of these sounds than previously appreciated, and likely enough to form a bridge to language development.
Co-author UBir's Bodo Winter explains:
"Our findings challenge the often-cited idea that vocalizations have limited potential for iconic representation, demonstrating that in the absence of words people can use vocalizations to communicate a variety of meanings — serving effectively for cross-cultural communication when people lack a common language."
The researchers compiled a list of 30 iconic-sound candidates that likely would have been of use to the earliest speakers. These included mouth noises that could represent:
- animate beings — "child," "man," "woman," "snake," "tiger," "deer"
- inanimate objects — "fire," "rock," "meat," "water," "knife," "fruit"
- activities — "eat," "sleep," "cut," "cook," "gather," "hunt," "hide"
- descriptors — "good," "bad," "small," "big" "dull," "sharp"
- quantities — "one," "many"
- demonstrative words — "this," "that"
Was "nom, nom" the sound for eating?
Credit: Aleksandra Ćwiek, et al. / Scientific Reports
Making a list — and making noises — is one thing; finding out if anyone understands them is another. The researchers tested out their iconic sounds in two different experiments.
In an online experiment, speakers of 25 different languages were asked to match the meaning of iconic sounds to six written labels. They listened to three performances for each of the 30 candidates, 90 recordings in all.
Participants correctly identified the sounds' meaning roughly 65 percent of the time.
Some meanings were more readily understood than others. "Sleep" was correctly identified by almost 99 percent, as opposed to "that," understood by only 35 percent. The most often understood sounds were "eat," "child," "sleep," "tiger," and "water." The least? "That," "gather," "sharp," "dull," and "knife."
The researchers next conducted field experiments to capture the meaningfulness of the sounds in oral cultures with inconsistent literacy levels. For these people, researchers played twelve iconic sounds for animals and inanimate objects as listeners identified each from a grid of pictures. The volunteers correctly identified the sounds' meanings about 56 percent of the time, again above the level of chance.
The universal roots of language
In addition to being the sounds that facilitated the birth of language, the authors of the study wonder if such commonly understood sounds may also be a factor in the similarities that exist between different modern languages that don't share a common root language. They cite other research that found "vocalizations for 25 different emotions were identifiable across cultures with above-chance accuracy."
"The ability to use iconicity to create universally understandable vocalizations," says Perlman, "may underpin the vast semantic breadth of spoken languages, playing a role similar to representational gestures in the formation of signed languages."
Think you can hide your feelings pretty easily?
When doubts about a relationship start to creep in, people don't just blurt them out. They might not want to worry their partner and figure they'll ride out what could just be a rough patch. They probably think they can hide their feelings pretty easily.
But it turns out, hidden signs of their turmoil appear in the way they communicate.
In our recently published study, we were able to show that people's language subtly changes in the months and weeks leading up to a breakup – well before they've made a conscious decision to end things.
Mining Reddit for cracks
Breakups are difficult to research. They unfold over weeks, months – even years. To truly understand the dynamics of a breakup, researchers should, ideally, be able to track people's lives before, during and after the breakup takes place.
Historically, this hasn't been feasible. But the study of long-term relationships is beginning to change with the advent of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. An increasing number of people are now chronicling their daily lives on these platforms, which allows researchers to look at how people cope with upheavals such as breakups both before and after the event. The analysis of people's daily language can reveal information about their shifting emotions, thinking styles and connections with others.
One popular social media platform, Reddit, has designed an online infrastructure that mirrors the way we socialize in real life.
There are hundreds of thousands of communities, known as subreddits, geared to different interests, from tennis and politics, to gaming and knitting. This allows like-minded people to hang out, chat about their interests and ask for advice.
We studied a community called r/BreakUps/, where people discuss the dissolution of their relationships. We identified a group of 6,803 people who had posted about their breakups and tracked their posts up to a year before and after they ended things. But we didn't just look at their posts on the r/Breakups subreddit. We tracked their words across all the subreddits they posted in during this time frame. We wanted to see if there were signs of their impending breakup even when they weren't directly talking about it.
After analyzing over 1 million posts, we identified language markers that could detect an impending breakup up to three months before it actually took place. And we detected changes in people's language that lasted up to six months after the event.
These changes were detectable even when people weren't talking about their relationship. It could appear when the poster was discussing sports, cooking or travel. Even though these people didn't necessarily know the end of the relationship was coming, it was already subtly influencing the way they communicated with others.
Worlds – and words – turned upside down
So how, exactly, does language change?
One big takeaway is that people tend to focus more on themselves, with increased use of “I"-words, as the breakup nears. This is common during a stressful life event, and other studies have shown an increase of self-referential language in people who are depressed or anxious.
At the same time, people's language shows drops in analytic thinking processes, which are often associated with formal and logical thinking. Their language becomes more informal and personal. They make fewer references to concepts, which causes drops in the use of articles such as “the" and “a." They're more likely to talk about other people than ideas.
Around the time of the breakup, people also tend to reference their partner quite a bit, perhaps because they have yet to separate their identity from their partner. Afterwards – as people process their heartbreak – they begin to shift their focus to people who are supporting them during a difficult time.
People's thought processes also experience drastic changes during the breakup. They begin to probe their understanding of the relationship as they try to figure out why it fell apart. This is typical of people trying to make sense of challenging life events, whether it's trauma or bereavement.
As time moves on, people begin to craft a coherent narrative about their breakup, which causes other more logical processes – the ones that deteriorate around the time of the breakup – to reactivate. When this happens, they're ready to move on with the next chapter of their lives.
For most people in our study, it took about six months for their language to return to normal. Of course, grief is a lengthy process and it's natural to feel pangs and mourn for the loss of the relationship occasionally, even after that.
The fact that language analysis can detect subtle signs of a relationship being on the rocks means that clinicians – whether they're mental health professionals, therapists or psychologists – could have a powerful tool at their disposal. For example, some people use phone apps to journal regularly. An app could automatically alert a user when their language is showing signs of extreme emotional distress and suggest resources or professional help.
This type of analysis is already being developed to detect and map other shifts in people's lives, whether it's their participation in a protest movement or the early stages of a health condition, and will only keep getting better as technology advances.
Sarah Seraj, Ph.D. Student, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts; James W. Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts, and Kate G. Blackburn, Post Doctoral Researcher, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
Their ear structures were not that different from ours.
- Neanderthals are emerging as having been much more advanced than previously suspected.
- Analysis of ear structures indicated by fossilized remains suggests they had everything they needed for understanding the subtleties of speech.
- The study also concludes that Neanderthals could produce the consonants required for a rich spoken language.
Neanderthals' image has undergone quite an upgrade in recent years. Where we once we thought of them as knuckle-dragging just-slightly-more-evolved apes, we now know that they were not so very unlike us. Evolutionarily more primitive, yes, but not by that much. They buried their dead, painted cave art, developed wooden tools, and even made string. We also know that their genetic traces remain in many modern humans. A new study from researchers at the University of Binghamton in New York State and Universidad de Alcalá in Spain pretty conclusively demonstrates they had the physical apparatus required for speaking and for understanding speech.
"This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career," says co-author Ralph Quam. "The results are solid and clearly show the Neanderthals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech. This is one of the very few current, ongoing research lines relying on fossil evidence to study the evolution of language, a notoriously tricky subject in anthropology."
The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Neanderthal reconstruction (right), 2014
Credit: Cesar Manso/Getty Images
"For decades, one of the central questions in human evolutionary studies has been whether the human form of communication, spoken language, was also present in any other species of human ancestor, especially the Neanderthals," says co-author Juan Luis Arsuaga.
The key to answering these questions, say the researchers, has to do first with Neanderthals' physical ability to hear in the frequency ranges typically involved in speech. In addition, while it's known that these ancient people had the physiological capacity for producing vowel sounds, the new research adds consonants to the Neanderthal repertoire, greatly expanding the possibilities for conveying a wide variety of meaning through the production of more types of sounds.
The authors made high-resolution CT scans of fossilized Neanderthal skulls—and skulls from some of their ancestors—found at UNESCO's archaeological site in northern Spain's Atapuerca Mountains. These scans served as the basis for virtual 3D models of the fossils' ear structures. Similar models of modern human ear structures were also created for comparison purposes.
Auditory bioengineering software assessed the hearing capabilities of the models. The software is capable of identifying sensitivity to frequencies up to 5 kHz, the midrange and low-midrange frequencies at which homo sapien speech primarily occurs. (We can hear much higher and lower frequencies, but that's where speech lies.)
Of particular importance is the "occupied bandwidth," the frequency region of greatest sensitivity, and therefore the spectrum most capable of accommodating enough different audio signals to represent a multitude of meanings. The occupied bandwidth is considered a critical requirement for speech since being able to produce and hear many different sounds—and understand their many different meanings—is the cornerstone of efficient communication.
Compared to their ancestors, the Neanderthal models turned out to have better hearing in the 4-5 kHz range, making their hearing more comparable to our own. In addition, the Neanderthals were found to have a wider occupied bandwidth than their predecessors, again more closely resembling modern humans.
Lead author of the study Mercedes Conde-Valverde says, "This really is the key. The presence of similar hearing abilities, particularly the bandwidth, demonstrates that the Neanderthals possessed a communication system that was as complex and efficient as modern human speech."
Credit: sakura/Adobe Stock/Big Think
The study also suggests that Neanderthal vocalization were more advanced than previously thought. Says Quam: "Most previous studies of Neanderthal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language."
However, he says, "One of the other interesting results from the study was the suggestion that Neanderthal speech likely included an increased use of consonants."
This is important, since "the use of consonants is a way to include more information in the vocal signal and it also separates human speech and language from the communication patterns in nearly all other primates. The fact that our study picked up on this is a really interesting aspect of the research and is a novel suggestion regarding the linguistic capacities in our fossil ancestors."
The study concludes that Neanderthals had the physiological hardware to produce a complex range of vocalizations, and the ability to understand them through ear structures not very unlike our own. This fits neatly with other recent insights as to the sophistication of the Neanderthals, a people who now seem to have been developing an expansive set of advanced capabilities simultaneously.
The authors of the study have been investigating the Neanderthals for almost 20 years, and others have been at it even longer. The work continues, and the study's publication marks a significant milestone in the much longer journey.
"These results are particularly gratifying," says co-author Ignacio Martinez. "We believe, after more than a century of research into this question, that we have provided a conclusive answer to the question of Neanderthal speech capacities."
The debate over whether or not there is a place for political correctness in modern society is not always black and white.
- Political correctness is often seen as a debate between two extremes, but there are nuances in the middle of the spectrum. Is there such a thing as being too PC, and if so, where is that line?
- While philosopher Slavoj Žižek, comedian Lewis Black, and actor Jeff Garlin acknowledge that some topics can be hurtful or even oppressive and should thus be approached with "good taste and self-restraint," they also argue that PC culture has tipped the scales far beyond being balanced. "If we continue to move in that direction," says Black, "then we're going to be living between uptight and stupid and there'll be no in between."
- Simultaneously, others—including Paul F. Tompkins, Jim Gaffigan, and Martin Amis—argue that political correctness aims to change things for the better, especially for groups who have been marginalized and discriminated against, and that not being sexist and racist, for example, is not actually a heavy lift. "The fact of the matter is these people are the people of today and you might be a person of yesterday if you can't adjust and you can't be in tune with what people think is funny anymore," says Tompkins.