Monthly Archives: October 2013

Written language skills predict competence in science

In accordance with what I suggested earlier—that having a complex writing system makes for smarter citizens—some new longitudinal research has come out of Finland showing that children’s emergent literacy skills correspond to later mastery in science, technology, engineering and math. On the other hand, “children with strong oral language skills were not more likely to show strong math ability later.”

Why is this? Evidence suggests that linguistic, spatial and numerical processes are all encoded in a linear fashion in the mind, along what researchers call an “internal number line.” Thus, all these skills rely on the development of a single mental device.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that if you go to great lengths to teach your child phonics, he’ll understand math easier, but it’s a possibility. Other explanations are that early mastery of reading can lead to faster mastery of other written systems, such as arithmetic, and that a separate system may underlie the learning of both writing and arithmetic, causing those who excel at one to also excel at the other.

In any case, it’s interesting to see such a formidable link between written language skill and competence in the sciences; this is a testament to the analytical, logical—patently human—nature of the act of reading and writing.

Tim Likes this.

Pretty much everyone is a Facebook user these days, so it’s safe to assume that just about everyone knows what Liking is. Oh, I Like that photo. And that page. And that comment. I also like that message my friend sent me but unfortunately I can’t Like it (the best I can do right now is send them back a big, fat thumbs-up).

Facebook chose the name Like for this interaction because it describes possibly the most common of human sentiments: liking. It’s not as strong as favoriting, not as committal as recommending and much more human than +1ing. It’s just liking.

But the interesting thing is that Liking is not the same as liking. If they were the same, we wouldn’t have to distinguish them visually. (And when talking, we often quickly mutter “on Facebook” after the word Like, for want of such a distinction in speech.) The version with the lowercase L, of course, refers to the human emotion, while the version with the capital L refers to clicking a certain button. I’m not convinced that every Like is a like. Sometimes, for example, I might Like something as a quick way to say, “I saw this,” or, “I’m thinking about you.” But maybe there’s something in that click that tries to convince my brain that I actually do like that thing I just Liked. The idea is worth exploring.

In any case, evidently Facebook is the only one who doesn’t recognize this difference: Throughout the site, you’ll see that “So-and-so likes this,” rather than “So-and-so Likes this.” This means that we’ve created an orthographic convention that refers to a specific location, and that convention is followed everywhere in the world except that specific location. Which is really bizarre if you think about it.

Meanwhile, we can add an extra entry to the list of words whose meaning changes when the first letter is capitalized. This means, of course, that our cultural values are such that Liking things is right up there with Truth.


Lexicon Valley has an interesting article on the origins of what is termed “symbolic swearing,” or the usage of strings of symbols to represent censored swearwords. It seems that the credit goes to Rudolph Dirks, who also notably invented the speech bubble (probably).

Symbolic swearing is an interesting example of paradox. When we see a character shouting “@*%&$,” we don’t know exactly what they’re saying; the only thing we do know for sure is that they do not intend for any of those symbols to be understood by its normal meaning.

Are there other examples of times we say something when we really mean anything but the thing we say? That’s essentially the definition of sarcasm, of course, but another example that comes to mind are the rebus characters of some languages, which is when a written symbol is used for its phonetic value rather than its meaning.

What the heck does that mean? Let’s take the Chinese character 要 for example. Originally, this character represented waist. But soon it was also used to represent want, because these two words were pronounced nearly the same. (Later, the character for waist was modified to 腰 so that both words wouldn’t have the same representation.) Notice that waist is a physical object, whereas want is abstract: You can draw a picture of a waist, but you can’t draw want. Thus it is perhaps expectable that pictographic writing systems would use rebus characters to represent abstract words, which is exactly what also happened in ancient Egypt and Sumer.