Considering the Power of Language

Taylor's Mali's is a teacher in New York. His words are presented here as Kinetic typography—Moving Text, a video animation technique that combines motion and text to express an idea. It's also funny.

Humans Are Storytellers:

Back in the 1940s, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel made a simple animated film and used it in an experiment: They asked people to watch the film and describe what they saw happening. Most people saw characters with emotions, motivations, and purpose.

The full talk is at StoryTelling: World Science Festival (Triangle & Circle story is at 1:07.45)

Ours is a Virtual World of Thought-Designed Stories

—From, Strange Attraction: Toward a New Cosmology by Molly Dwyer, 2002

We humans engage in thought in ways that no other species appear to—in the form of this book, for example, languaged in symbolic linear representations. We know of no other species that has a written form of language. Furthermore, because of the inextricable connection between our language and our thinking, we live in a world to which no other species has access. Ours is a shared “virtual world” of thought-designed stories—stories of “real” experience, invented stories, stories that imply hidden or esoteric meaning, stories we use to explain and organize our understanding of the world, stories about the way things are. We live in a virtual reality that is shaped by our habit of language.
Language, as I am using the term, is “not merely a mode of communication. It is also an outward expression of an unusual mode of thought—symbolic representation.” We use symbols in a complex manner and share thoughts—about what has been, or what might have been, or should have been, or what may be, or won’t ever be—in ways that no other species can. Without that capacity, our virtual reality is literally (no pun intended) out of reach. “Biologically, we’re just another ape. Mentally, we are a new phylum of organization.” And it is our novel form of mind that distinguishes us.
The Point Is:
The fact that there is a point is what is unusual and interesting and different about the way we humans use our minds. This reflects our capacity not only to attend to an idea and contemplate the nature of its meaning, but to organize our thinking into systematic structures that are at once constrained by grammar, syntax, and semantics, and infinitely open-ended and spontaneous. In our utter commitment to language, we are shaped by one of the most distinctive behavioral adaptations on the planet. We are obsessively self-reflective creatures, aware that we are aware, reflective about the fact that we are reflective, curious about our curiosity, attentive to our ability to pay attention. We have arrived at a place in mind where it is possible, and indeed interesting to us, to ponder who and what we are, and to seek out everything we can about how we (and everything else) came to be.

To understand the power of story is to understand something about the human mind that is often left untouched in scientific literature. As I stated earlier, language is something more than communication; it is the outward expression of symbolic representation. We humans often find and make meaning indirectly, by allusion and inference. Furthermore, we respond to symbolic images and to metaphors and analogies, nuanced ideas that reverberate with many layers of meaning. When psychologist Carl Jung introduced the ancient concept of archetypes into modern psychology—psychology being the study of the psyche or mind/soul, of mental processes and human behavior—he described them as the primal metaphors of our collective experience.

Archetypes throw us into an imaginative style of discourse. Because stories have archetypal powers, they have the capacity to possess us emotionally. Humans have an anomalously large brain—the most complex material object in the known universe. Critical Thinking, which is after all, an examination of how thinking works, can help us come to appreciate our radical capacity to experience conscious awareness and symbolic thought.

Language in Critical Thinking

The role of language in critical thinking is a delicate and multi-part instrument used to communicate different things in to two basic categories: information and emotion. As affirmed by Kirby and Goodpaster, (1999) "We think with words. As we read this, we are using language to think. We have defined thinking broadly as the activity of the brain that can potentially be communicated. Although we may think in other ways besides language, such as with images or feelings, language plays a central role in our thinking." (p76, para2) Language is very important to how well we accomplish critical thinking. Language is how we convey our opinions, expressions and how we make our ideas known to others.

Defining "The" (English is tricky)

politically-correct-terms-10-1.jpgPolitically Correct

"undocumented" or "illegal"?
Purdue Owl: Appropriate Language
Fox News
Washington Times
NY Times
ABC News
Huffington Post
NY Times

A Personal Story
Jose Antonio Vargas
Sometimes you risk your own life to free yourself from it.
Around this time last year, two months before my 30th birthday, I was at the height of my professional career and fielded various job opportunities: perhaps writing for magazines (I had just profiled Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker); maybe serving as editor of a news website (or starting a news website); or selling a book proposal on an idea that I had been reporting on and felt most excited about—that we're all living under a growing "Click-o-cracy," one nation under Facebook, Google and Twitter, with video, texting and email for all. What are our rights, privileges and limitations, individually and collectively, in this unprecedented global social order?
But before my professional life and personal life—the two are inseparable for a writer—could go on, I finally decided that I had to reveal a central fact about myself: that I am an undocumented American, what many people call an "illegal alien" or, worse, an "illegal." Before I could explore the nature of global citizenry, I had to first come to grips with my reality in a country that I've called my home. Though I consider myself an American at heart, I am not an American on paper. And I'm just one person and mine is merely one story—one of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants whose lives are interwoven and integrated with those of American citizens. We are here. We are part of you. At bottom, immigration is about more than immigration. It's about the very question of American identity itself, about who we are as a country and whom we consider to be Americans. How do you define American?

Language & Humor

Humor, definition from wikipedia: "The tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement. The term derives from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks, which taught that the balance of fluids in the human body, known as humors (Latin: humor, "body fluid"), control human health and emotion. People of all ages and cultures respond to humor.Though ultimately decided by personal taste, the extent to which a person will find something humorous depends upon a host of variables, including geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, intelligence and context."

Humor is often punctuated by visual content. That's why many people like slapstick, because of visual comedy.

Humor & Context

1. The parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect: You have misinterpreted my remark because you took it out of context.
2. The set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.

The Power of Satire

Definition from wikipedia: "In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals or society into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon." In the video below, British BCC Host, David Frost, discusses the impact of satire on politics with American satirist, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher.

Daily Show 2012
Daily Show, KOS

Satire in Politics

As anyone who knows Shakespeare understands, the role of the fool or court jester can be very powerful. Shakespeare often placed a fool near his kings. The fool's role was to speak "truth to power." As author Isaac Asimov says in his Guide to Shakespeare, "That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool–that he is no fool at all." The role of political satire in the 2008 presidential election is an example of this adage. It played so significant a role, it may have impacted the outcome of the election. Below is commentary on the subject of political satire and it's impact, written on before the 2008 election.

Steven Colbert, White House Press Corps Dinner, 2006, Part I
Steven Colbert, White House Press Corps Dinner, 2006, Part II
Steven Colbert, White House Press Corps Dinner, 2006, Part III

Comedian George Carlin Speaking to the National Press Club, 2009
Much of today’s political humor requires a smart and savvy audience that keeps up with current events — if only in order to mock it. “I just don’t think people would find our show funny if they were getting their news from us,” says Samantha Bee, “Daily Show” correspondent. “They would have to be getting the news from somewhere to get the jokes. I mean, I don’t think you would understand or enjoy the show at all if you didn’t know a little bit about what was going on in the world. I think you would find it terribly confusing, and would be watching it with no sense of irony, and then you would be lost and change the channel.”

But has any of this smart political humor had an impact on the candidates, the election or our politics? It may be safe to argue that comedy changes the national mood, but can it change the national political climate in more fundamental ways?

“Plato and Aristotle feared humor’s power to undermine authority,” says Provine, who distinguishes between “laughing with” and “laughing at” types of humor. “‘Laughing with’ is bonding, and what we do with friends and like-minded folks. ‘Laughing at’ is directed to others, as in ridicule and jeering. Recently, Palin has been tapping the ‘laughing at’ mode toward Barack Obama.” Provine says ‘laugh with’ humor tends to be more effective, however. “Tina Fey may have a very real effect on the election outcome, and to a lesser extent, so will David Letterman, because their more gentle and devastating variety is more effective than the heavy-handed Palin sort. It may sway the uncommitted and influence the faithful.”
Jon Daily on Satire — Rolling Stone Interview
How Powerful is Satire?

As the article above points out, satire draws from
existing news. Here's an example: The clip in the upper right shows
John McCain wandering on the set at the end of the presidential
debate between Senator McCain and then Senator Obama on October
7, 2008. The clip directly to the right shows McCain wandering
behind Obama in the same debate. (McCain's wandering begins
2.52 minutes into the clip and runs to 3.15 minutes.) These are the
moments that led to the satirical skit on Saturday Night Live shown
in the clip above. The clip also talks about Tina Fey's success at
lampooning VP candidate, Sarah Palin. Here's another clip of
Tina portraying Sarah Palin. The interesting question is whether
this and other successful satire had any impact on the outcome of the
2008 election.

More video clips on satire:
Jon Stewart & Bill Maher on Satire
Colbert Nation
The Daily Show
The Onion, a satirical news site

The First Joke

Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor
By Joseph Polimeni and Jeffrey P. Reiss, Department of Psychiatry, University of Manitoba, Manitoba, Canada
(Quoted directly from their paper on humor.)

There is no way to know with certainty when humor evolved relative to language although it would appear that at least sophisticated humor must have succeeded language. The credible range for the origins of language lands between a few hundred thousand years to about 2-4 million years ago. The authors tend to side with those linguists who date the origins of language to coincide with the first appreciable increase of brain size about 2 million years ago.

One does not need words to convey humor; however, conversation greatly enhances the opportunity for humorous expression. Consequently, humor usually utilizes a string of complex symbols (words). If incongruency based humor theories are on the right track, the vast majority of humor shared between people must involve, at minimum, several intricate symbols (words) and two concepts (incongruous and congruous). Disparate words can be similar but never truly identical in meaning. Each word has its own unique fingerprint of manifold connotations (associations) which slightly changes its meaning. Remove one subtle connotation and you can significantly lessen the humor of any given statement – this explains why comedians choose their words carefully and why so many jokes cannot withstand translation. At the risk of stating the obvious, at the very least, the full expression of humor in contemporary humans is fundamentally contingent on language.

Living Language

Slang & Texting

The Effects of Text Messaging on English Grammar

  • Debate rages among educators about the effects of text messaging on English grammar. According to an unscientific poll conducted by, 50% of the 1028 respondents felt texting is harming students' writing and grammar. In the same poll 20% thought that text messaging may have some impact's student's writing but they do not think it is a major problem; 27% felt texting was not a negative influence.
Negative Effects
  • Educators weighed in on about how text messaging has effected student's writing abilities: "I teach 9th and 11th grade English and regardless of the age, my students' spelling is atrocious. Texting does not and has not helped."
    Some teachers believe the abbreviations used in text messaging are assaulting written English. Middle and high school teachers report that papers are being written using poor punctuation, bad grammar and inappropriate abbreviations. Students sometimes do not realize they are using text lingo in their academic writing.
Positive Effects
  • Some educators feel that anytime you can get students to write, it is positive. Students are writing more than ever before because of texting, instant messaging and online communications. Educational researchers discovered that students are writing more and revising more. The assumption that text messaging is just writing anything, but students must edit to fashion messages into a few precise words. There are teachable moments involved with texting; teachers can use it to teach about the evolution of language from Shakespearean English to Internet English.
No Effect
  • A third view about the effects of text messaging on English grammar is that there is no effect. Text messaging may be considered another language; learning a new language does not affect a student's ability to use English grammar. The same can be said of slang words on English grammar. Each generation has its own jargon and English grammar has not been changed. Students need to learn the basics in English class to know the difference between slang, texting lingo and correct English.

Texting Can Cause Injury

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language