Tag Archives: language


The Bishop questioned the Rapanui wise man, Ouroupano Hinapote, the son of the wise man Tekaki [who said that] he, himself, had begun the requisite studies and knew how to carve the characters with a small shark’s tooth. He said that there was nobody left on the island who knew how to read the characters since the Peruvians had brought about the deaths of all the wise men and, thus, the pieces of wood were no longer of any interest to the natives who burned them as firewood or wound their fishing lines around them!

A. Pinart also saw some in 1877. [He] was not able to acquire these tablets because the natives were using them as reels for their fishing lines!
— Chauvet 1935:381–382

Easter Island was so renamed after Dutch explore Jacob Roggeveen “discovered” the land on Easter Sunday in 1722. Rapa Nui (“Big Island”) is the indigenous name for the island, its inhabitants, and its language.

Rapa Nui is most famous for its iconic Moai. These are large stone statues that were carved between 1100-1680. There are some 900 Moai scattered across the island; some staring out to sea like guardians of the island, but most face inland, appearing to oversee its inhabitants.

At some point in Rapa Nui’s history, its population diminished rapidly. Until recently, the popular theory to explain this was that the primitive, superstitious natives destroyed their natural resources in order to build the Moai. The prevailing theory is not of ecocide, but of genocide. It appears that contact with colonizers caused the near-annihilation of this ethnic group. In the 19th century, thousands of Rapa Nui were kidnapped by Peruvians and forced into slavery in mines and plantations. Some Rapa Nui were eventually returned to their homeland, but disease and hard labor killed many of them. Those who returned brought back an epidemic of smallpox that decimated the already diminished population. Others emigrated to South America or other Polynesian islands. Today, there are only about 3,000 Rapa Nui left, and it’s been a struggle to piece together their history and preserve their culture.

The indigenous people write the Rapa Nui or Spanish languages using the Latin alphabet, but Rapa Nui once had its own writing system: Rongorongo. In the Rapa Nui language, Rongorongo means to “recite” or “chant”. This writing dates back to the 17th century and its origin is unknown. It may have originated in South America or Polynesia. Alternatively, the script may have been invented on the island. If so, Rongorongo would be one of the world’s few writing systems that evolved independently.

The major discovery of the Rongorongo glyphs occurred in 1868 almost accidentally. The Bishop of Tahiti was given a strange gift of one of these texts (Martin). The text consisted of hieroglyphic writing carved on a small wooden board. However, he was unable to find anyone on Easter Island who understood the language and could decipher the text due to the fact so many of the indigenous people had been lost to disease and slavery.

Although the Rongorongo texts have never been interpreted, cryptographers and historians have determined certain characteristics of the hieroglyphics. The texts were primarily written as historical accounts of the Polynesian people and were not intended to be secret texts. Rather, they chronicled all the historical events of their civilization. At first, the texts were written on paper created from banana leaves; however, after the leaves started to rot, the King had the elite class rewrite the historical texts onto toromiro wood tablets (Martin).

The major impediment to translating the Rongorongo texts is the sheer number of glyphs. The texts contain over one hundred twenty different basic glyphs with almost five hundred other variations on these glyphs (Stollznow). The glyphs include human and animal forms along with geometric shapes. The animals include many birds while the shapes often represent common items the Polynesian people used on Rapa Nui. Since it is a distinctive language and not a text representing other letters, there is not a special key for decoding it.

It is thought that Rongorongo glyphs may represent idiosyncratic mnemonic devices meant to remind the reader of something that is representative of something else, such as using a “knot” symbol used to represent marriage (Martin). This differs from almost all written forms of languages today that have characters representing only sounds or only letters.

Rongorongo texts contain a mixture of symbols and a phonetic alphabet written in a unique style known as reverse boustrophedon (Ager). The text begins in the lower left corner and is read left-to-right. Then the text must be turned one hundred and eighty degrees to read the next line left-to-right, and the process is repeated with each line.

There have been numerous attempts to decipher the rongorongo script of Easter Island since its discovery in the late nineteenth century. As with most undeciphered scripts, many of the proposals have been fanciful. Apart from a portion of one tablet which has been shown to deal with a lunar calendar, none of the texts are understood, and even the calendar cannot actually be read. There are three serious obstacles to decipherment: the small number of remaining texts, comprising only 15,000 legible glyphs; the lack of context in which to interpret the texts, such as illustrations or parallels to texts which can be read; and the fact that the modern Rapanui language is heavily mixed with Tahitian and is unlikely to closely reflect the language of the tablets—especially if they record a specialized register such as incantations—while the few remaining examples of the old language are heavily restricted in genre and may not correspond well to the tablets either.[1]

Since a proposal by Butinov and Knorozov in the 1950s, the majority of philologists, linguists and cultural historians have taken the line that rongorongo was not true writing but proto-writing, that is, an ideographic– and rebus-based mnemonic device, such as the Dongba script of the Nakhi people,[note 1] which would in all likelihood make it impossible to decipher.[3] This skepticism is justified not only by the failure of the numerous attempts at decipherment, but by the extreme rarity of independent writing systems around the world. Of those who have attempted to decipher rongorongo as a true writing system, the vast majority have assumed it was logographic, a few that it was syllabic or mixed. Statistically it appears to have been compatible with neither a pure logography nor a pure syllabary.[4] The topic of the texts is unknown; various investigators have speculated they cover genealogy, navigation, astronomy, or agriculture. Oral history suggests that only a small elite were ever literate, and that the tablets were considered sacred.

lunar Rapa Nui calendar, none of the texts are understood. There are three serious obstacles to decipherment, assuming rongorongo is truly writing: the small number of remaining texts, the lack of context such as illustrations in which to interpret them, and the poor attestation of the Old Rapanui language, since modern Rapanui is heavily mixed with Tahitian and is therefore unlikely to closely reflect the language of the tablets.[57]

The prevailing opinion is that rongorongo is not true writing but proto-writing, or even a more limited mnemonic device for genealogy, choreography, navigation, astronomy, or agriculture. For example, the Atlas of Languages states, “It was probably used as a memory aid or for decorative purposes, not for recording the Rapanui language of the islanders.”[58] If this is the case, then there is little hope of ever deciphering it.[note 19] For those who believe it to be writing, there is debate as to whether rongorongo is essentially logographic or syllabic, though it appears to be compatible with neither a pure logography nor a pure syllabary.[59]

Glyph 001 Glyph 002 Glyph 003 Glyph 004 Glyph 005 Glyph 006 Glyph 007 Glyph 008 Glyph 009 Glyph 010 Glyph 014 Glyph 015 Glyph 016
01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 14 15 16
Glyph 022 Glyph 025 Glyph 027 Glyph 028 Glyph 034 Glyph 038 Glyph 041 Glyph 044 Glyph 046 Glyph 047 Glyph 050 Glyph 052 Glyph 053
22 25 27AB 28 34 38 41 44 46 47 50 52 53
Glyph 059 Glyph 060 Glyph 061 Glyph 062 Glyph 063 Glyph 066 Glyph 067 Glyph 069 Glyph 070 Glyph 071 Glyph 074 Glyph 076 Glyph 091
59 60 61 62 63 66 67 69 70 71 74 76 91
Glyph 095 Glyph 099 Glyph 200 Glyph 240 Glyph 280 Glyph 380 Glyph 400 Glyph 530 Glyph 660 Glyph 700 Glyph 720 Glyph 730 Glyph 901
95 99 200 240 280 380 400 530 660 700 720 730 901
This basic inventory of rongorongo, proposed by Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov (2007), accounts for 99.7% of the intact texts, except for the idiosyncratic Staff.

Computer encoding

The SMP range 1CA80–1CDBF has been tentatively allocated for encoding the Rongorongo script.[60] An encoding proposal has been written by Michael Everson.[61]


Published on May 16, 2013
The possibility that our personal memory can play strange tricks on us has been the focus of Giuliana’s research for many years. Her work, based at the University of Hull, has also examined the cognitive and behavioural consequences of suggestion. Giuliana is a recognised memory expert and has recently been part of Channel 4’s documentary The Boy Who Can’t Forget where she examined Aurelien, a boy who claims he can remember every day of his life. This condition is considered impossible by current models of memory.
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Published on Nov 10, 2015
Joseph Wu (University of Cambridge) explains the fallacy of equivocation, the fallacy that occurs when the same term is used with different meanings in an argument. Along the way, he discusses whether Miley Cyrus is an exploding ball of gas.

The language of lying — Noah Zandan


Published on Nov 3, 2014

View full lesson: http://ed.ted.com/lessons/the-languag…

We hear anywhere from 10 to 200 lies a day. And although we’ve spent much of our history coming up with ways to detect these lies by tracking physiological changes in their tellers, these methods have proved unreliable. Is there a more direct approach? Noah Zandan uses some famous examples of lying to illustrate how we might use communications science to analyze the lies themselves.

Lesson by Noah Zandan, animation by The Moving Company Animation Studio.

Dunbar’s number

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individualknows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.[1][2][3][4][5][6] This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size.[7] By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships.[8] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150.[9][10] Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

Dunbar theorized that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues, such as high schoolfriends, with whom a person would want to reacquaint himself if they met again.[11]

Dunbar has argued that 150 would be the mean group size only for communities with a very high incentive to remain together. For a group of this size to remain cohesive, Dunbar speculated that as much as 42% of the group’s time would have to be devoted to social grooming. Correspondingly, only groups under intense survival pressure.

Dunbar, in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, proposes furthermore that language may have arisen as a “cheap” means of social grooming, allowing early humans to maintain social cohesion efficiently. Without language, Dunbar speculates, humans would have to expend nearly half their time on social grooming, which would have made productive, cooperative effort nearly impossible. Language may have allowed societies to remain cohesive, while reducing the need for physical and social intimacy.[12]

Dunbar’s number has since become of interest in anthropology, evolutionary psychology,[13] statistics, and business management. For example, developers of social software are interested in it, as they need to know the size of social networks their software needs to take into account; and in the modern military, operational psychologists seek such data to support or refute policies related to maintaining or improving unit cohesion and morale. A recent study has suggested that Dunbar’s number is applicable to online social networks[14][15] and communication networks (mobile phone).[16]

Philip Lieberman argues that since band societies of approximately 30-50 people are bounded by nutritional limitations to what group sizes can be fed without at least rudimentary agriculture, big human brains consuming more nutrients than ape brains, group sizes of approximately 150 cannot have been selected for in paleolithic humans.[20]Brains much smaller than human or even mammalian brains are also known to be able to support social relationships, including social insects with hierachies where each individual knows its place (such as the paper wasp with its societies of approximately 80 individuals [21]) and computer-simulated virtual autonomous agents with simple reaction programming emulating what is referred to in primatology as “ape politics”.[22]

Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain

The ability to communicate through spoken language may be the trait that best sets humans apart from other animals. Last year researchers identified the first gene implicated in the ability to speak. This week, a team shows that the human version of this gene appears to date back no more than 200,000 years–about the time that anatomically modern humans emerged. The authors argue that their findings are consistent with previous speculations that the worldwide expansion of modern humans was driven by the emergence of full-blown language abilities.

The researchers who identified the gene, called FOXP2, showed that FOXP2 mutations cause a wide range of speech and language disabilities (ScienceNOW, 3 October 2002). In collaboration with part of this team, geneticist Svante Pääbo’s group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, set about tracing the gene’s evolutionary history.

As a uniquely human trait, language has long baffled evolutionary biologists. Not until FOXP2was linked to a genetic disorder that caused problems in forming words could they even begin to study language’s roots in our genes. Soon after that discovery, a team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, discovered that just two bases, the letters that make up DNA, distinguished the human and chimp versions ofFOXP2. To try to determine how those changes influenced the gene’s function, that group put the human version of the gene in mice. In 2009, they observed that these “humanized” mice produced more frequent and complex alarm calls, suggesting the human mutations may have been involved in the evolution of more complex speech.

When humanized mice and wild mice were put in mazes that engaged both types of learning,the humanized mice mastered the route to the reward faster than their wild counterparts, report Schreiweis, Graybiel, and their colleagues

The results suggest the human version of the FOXP2 gene may enable a quick switch to repetitive learning—an ability that could have helped infants 200,000 years ago better communicate with their parents. Better communication might have increased their odds of survival and enabled the new version of FOXP2 to spread throughout the entire human population, suggests Björn Brembs, a neurobiologist at the University of Regensburg in Germany, who was not involved with the work.

“The findings fit well with what we already knew about FOXP2 but, importantly, bridge the gap between behavioral, genetic, and evolutionary knowledge,” says Dianne Newbury, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford, U.K., who was not involved with the new research. “They help us to understand how the FOXP2 gene might have been important in the evolution of the human brain and direct us towards neural mechanisms that play a role in speech and language acquisition.”

Chomsky critiqued the field of AI for adopting an approach reminiscent of behaviorism, except in more modern, computationally sophisticated form. Chomsky argued that the field’s heavy use of statistical techniques to pick regularities in masses of data is unlikely to yield the explanatory insight that science ought to offer. For Chomsky, the “new AI” — focused on using statistical learning techniques to better mine and predict data — is unlikely to yield general principles about the nature of intelligent beings or about cognition.


Published on Oct 6, 2012

Steven Pinker – Psychologist, Cognitive Scientist, and Linguist at Harvard University

How did humans acquire language? In this lecture, best-selling author Steven Pinker introduces you to linguistics, the evolution of spoken language, and the debate over the existence of an innate universal grammar. He also explores why language is such a fundamental part of social relationships, human biology, and human evolution. Finally, Pinker touches on the wide variety of applications for linguistics, from improving how we teach reading and writing to how we interpret law, politics, and literature.

The Floating University