A brain in turmoil
I tried to look out the window but the scenery wasn’t solid enough to hold me down. I had to cling onto my seat so that my turbulent thoughts wouldn’t turn me upside-down. Three weeks ago I was trying to write a masters thesis. Two weeks ago I attended the funeral of my little brother, 25 years old. And one week ago I was invited to an international linguistics workshop in Switzerland.
While the car ran effortlessly along the road I felt like each and every molecule in the atmosphere hit me in the face like a hail storm. They blew my thoughts hither and thither, and none of them reached any kind of a conclusion. As we neared Keflavík I calmed down, and as the reality became more real, I’m going to Switzerland, this goal crystallised in my brain. The week that followed it would be my anchor.
The reason I was taking this journey was that in the summer of 2011 I was approached by Matthew Whelpton of the English department in the University of Iceland and asked if I was interested in research work during the summer. I had been in his semantics class in the spring semester and this was semantics related so he thought I might be interested. I am always interested in not having to get a “real job”, so I said yes.
This project is called Evolution of Semantic Systems and is run by three wonderful people from the Max Planck Institution for Psycholinguistics, Michael Dunn, Asifa Majid and Fiona Jordan. Under their guidance I got 21 Icelandic persons, including my little brother, and asked them all kinds of questions about colours, containers, body parts and placements. Well, mostly they just had to name stuff but it was fun anyway. The same procedure will be used for fifty Indo-European languages to compare and study the evolution of semantic categorisation.
The aforementioned workshop was decided shortly after the research work was done here, but due to limitations on funding only Matthew could be invited and although I wanted to go too I had no financial means to carry out such an expensive trip.
Time goes by and while I’m still half numb from losing my brother I receive the news that due to a cancellation I am being offered to come to the Germanic languages workshop in Switzerland, expenses paid. I was dazed and confused for a moment but I was not so out of it that I didn’t see that I would kick myself daily for the rest of my life if I let this opportunity pass me by. So I said yes.
Welcome to Switzerland
Before I knew it I was in the land of the hadron collider. After a long and hard day of travels I fell on the bed. The pillows were specially marked, and for a little bit I got option anxiety over whether I should choose a hard pillow or a soft one, but I finally decided on the hard one. It would have to support my brain because the serious stuff would start the next day.
The next morning I scoped the view. Nothing to write home about, mostly car sales, although, there right opposite the window was one bright red Volkswagen Beetle. The room is comfortable and the shower has power which is always positive in my mind. I hate water leaks in a showers disguise. The trip had already been adventurous. Five hour wait at Kastrup airport in Copenhagen. Just ask me what shops are there, I think I could list them all. But still, fresh tuna at Kastrup and and veal at the Holiday Inn. Two food items I have never tasted before, and I hadn’t even started sniffing out the weird stuff.
After breakfast at the hotel in Zurich, Matthew and I took the train to Fribourg. The trains were pretty. Modern enough to be comfortable and old enough to have some character. On the second floor in second class there wasn’t luxuriously much space, but enough for us to settle in well for the trip. You don’t always see the nicest urban areas when you travel by train. Industrial compounds and more train tracks. And then, suddenly, poof! There are hills and valleys and grazing deer. Trees and cows, and the Alps in the distance.
After little over one and a half hour we were in Fribourg. Dragging our bags behind us we stumbled into a place called Restaurant du Midi, quite by coincidence, but apparently it’s famous for its cheese fondues. We weren’t really in the mood for that, but there was nothing on the menu that didn’t have cheese in it. So rather than walking out again, and making them even more pissed off at us than they already were, having declined the fondue, I had a potato gratin and Matthew had some other stuff with cheese in it. Good thing we both like cheese.
Then we went to the hotel. The rooms in the Fribourg hotel were smaller and the view even more unexciting. A casino. But the bed was nice and the shower worked so I was quite happy and ready to go. I had a little knot in my stomach when we left for the initial workshop meeting. I usually have a knot in my stomach when I meet people, and these people were famous linguists and everything. The workshop is held in the Institution of Multilingualism in Fribourg. It’s in an old house with tall windows and worn floors. I can’t stop staring at the carved, gold painted, wooden florals behind the copy machine. This is brilliant.
Somehow the knot evaporated the moment I stepped into the room. Everybody was so friendly, with a wine glass in hand and linguistics in their mouths. Asifa Majid began the workshop with an open lecture. It was about new perspectives in semantic typology. It sounds scary but it basically means that there are many ways to group languages together depending on how they handle the meaning of their words. Here, as in any other field, many ideas battle it out on daily basis, but at the core of it they are amalgamations of two basic ideas. On the one hand that concepts are innate, that is, you are born with ideas in your brain, and on the other that concepts are learned from the environment, i.e. your concepts are learned from experience. Then you can argue endlessly about methodology, what languages we should be looking at, bias and all kinds of things. But in the end, what we want to know is how do we carve the world up into concepts and concept groups like colours, tools, animals, etcetera.
Later in the evening we had the workshop dinner; bread, a pile of salad, leg of lamb and crème brulée, which I added to the list of things never eaten before. Earlier in the day I had bought a cheese with truffles, and I must say I was not sold. If truffles actually taste that bleh they are immensely overrated. But anyway, brilliant food, lots of talking, about linguistics of course, and I went to bed, quite full and very happy. I missed not having anyone in my bed, either a big warm one or a small cuddly one, but I was so tired I fell asleep right away. Thinking about how awesome everything had been already, such wonderful people, young and informal. And what’s more, linguists and psychologists in a happy union. Well I nevah…
The brain goes to work
First of the actual workshop days I woke up early to go for a walk. Since this was a work trip and not a holiday, it was the only time of the day where I had time and wasn’t totally beat after the workday. It was around six, sunrise, and very nice to stroll into the small wood covered valley not far from the hotel. I found it behind the casino. The highlights of this walk were a giant snail, its shell the size of a ping pong ball, and a small creek at the bottom of the valley that glistened as the first rays of the morning sun made their way to the bottom.
Then, at nine, it was work time and lectures until twelve. Fiona Jordan talked about the EoSS project in general and its main points. The reason that semantic systems are so interesting is because the combine psychology, linguistics and anthropology. The questions are many. How different are languages? How similar? And why? Which has more influence on us, our next neighbour in the phylogenetic tree of language families, or our nearest geographical neighbour? Which one can predict better the different types of cultural areas and shapes? As an example, research has indicated that the nearest phylogenetic neighbour can better predict the areas of relations and animal names, but the geographical neighbour is more connected when it comes to categories like plant names. This would be explained by the fact that when groups of people move, they take their relatives and their animals with them, retaining the names for them, but when the group settles in the new territory they are surrounded by new flora (which they obviously didn’t bring with them) so they turn to the people who are already there for their names for the plants. By studying a whole family of languages, as the EoSS project aims to do, we can find out how we are related in our thoughts with this “virtual archaeology”.
We had lunch at the University of Fribourg, which was close by, and then we had more talks. In the first part of the workshop where us minions got to step up and put our two cents into the pot we spoke of colours and body parts. The languages were Norwegian, Dutch, German, English, Swedish, Luxembourgian, Frisian, Swiss German, Danish, etcetera. Some of these I didn’t even know existed before now. There was so much to think about, so much to explore. We continued until six. After that, I, Matthew and two others from the workshop went to du Midi again and this time we had the cheese fondue. If you like cheese it’s heavenly, but otherwise there isn’t much excitement about scooping up a whole barrel of melted cheese. If I hadn’t been so infernally full I would have had seconds. So I decided to go to bed early and take a good walk in the morning to get rid of the lump of cheese in my abdomen.
Getting tipsy on language
Thursday I woke up at six again. I sent Matthew an sms so that he knew where I’d gone. I had to be back at the hotel before eight to have breakfast and catch the taxis to the Multilingualism Institution. Now, I am strange. So strange that I never set my clock to the local time. So when I left the hotel my phone told me that it was only four o’clock. I calculated then that I would have to be back by six. Then the time would be eight according to the local time. I walk and I walk and I’m having a wonderful time. When I’m almost back I get an sms from Matthew. He says he’s having breakfast. My phone tells me that this message is sent at 6:45. I have nervous breakdowns and heart attacks in turns. I’m three quarters of an hour late. My brain didn’t find it relevant at all why Matthew would be so calmly having breakfast this late but just kept screaming EIGHTFORTYFIVE! EIGHTFORTYFIVE! into my ears. When I made it to the hotel, running and sweating like a very sweaty thing, everybody is perfectly calm, one by one coming down from their rooms for breakfast. Apparently, right, either the phone system or my phone decided on its own to calculate the mean value of the time, so when the phone said it was 6:45 it was actually 5:45 phone time and 7:45 local time. Well, at least I was very awake that morning.
Now the talks were about locations and containers and the day flew by. After a lively discussion about cups and mugs we went to the local pub named Elvis et Moi. It is the most outrageously and unashamedly awesome bar I have ever been into. The decorations looked like a person with a neon coloured knick-knack collection fetish having a yard sale. I expected the clientèle to be at least mildly queer, but the ones who looked like the regulars were old guys who looked like farmers and sailors. Sitting quite calmly under a large glitter purple reindeer with wings and sipping their beer. We went to the veranda with a cheese tray a metre wide, sandwiches in a bread and dozens of cocktails, surrounded by flamingoes in the evening sun and talked about linguistics. I felt like the whole world was my best friend.
After the drinks we all went and had dinner at a place called Gothards. Supposedly it’s The Place in this town. They also had cheese fondue. Since I had already had the fondue I became adventurous and ordered pigs feet. Yes, I said pigs feet. They weren’t bad at all. Mostly fat, but with a mild porky flavour and especially filling. The waitress was special to say the least. She seemed specifically interested in two things; that the food tasted good and that we’d eat up. It was a little like having your grandmother hovering over you. “Isn’t it good?” “Yeah, yeah, of course.” “Come on boy, finish up. There’s plenty left, you’re falling apart!!” “Yes, yes.” and all in French of course. She was so bad that I was afraid to order desert from fear that she would scold me for not finishing off my plate.
Late that evening when I got back to the hotel, I bought a Swiss beer, sat up in the bed and watched Swiss television in German, French and Italian. Including Bones and That Seventies Show in German. It was very nice, in a sociolinguistic way. I didn’t really want to go to sleep because the next day would by the last day in a linguistics workshop in Fribourg.
The somber truth
Friday I woke up at six again, checked out, and strolled into town. The sun was coming up and the town was peaceful. Even the constructions that were going on everywhere seemed quiet, though they did spoil the view a little. The days meeting was only from nine to twelve and revolved around the initial conclusions of the Germanic data. I understood least of the methods that Michael Dunn described; vectors, Galtons problem, Pagens lambda, the Haversine formula, tree noise, Whorf and Jackendoff, etcetera, but I saw right away that though the data seemed rather insignificant as words on a piece of paper they would in the end tell us something magnificent about ourselves and how we think. After a meditative lunch in the cafeteria there was an extra meeting with the Pink Project, which is a sub group of the Germanic researchers who came together to study the scope of names for pink. It was an interesting and lively discussion. And then, I and Matthew went, in the broiling sun, with the train back to Zurich.
When I got to the hotel I was impossibly tired. We decided to have dinner at the hotel, but somehow it seemed that all our orders that night were completely above the staffs head, so our quiet evening in turned into a semi-farce. When we finally escaped from the table I went to my room and watched TV a little bit. I usually never watch TV, but it’s nice when you’re abroad to get a quick look into the mind of the natives. Among other things I saw very nicely done news with a sign language interpreter, and I fell asleep full of Swiss pride. I dreamt some nonsense, packed half-sleeping and checked out of the hotel. Then took the hotel shuttle back to the airport and got on the plane. The weather was so nice that I had a good time looking out the window. I said one last goodbye to the Swiss Alps and my eyes teared up when I realized that I was on my way home to my boys.
I also made another discovery, there in the air plane, flying over Europe. Even though it is undeniably pretty, especially from the air, Europe has big problems, mostly financial. As an Icelander from the working class I knew this problem all too well. When everybody who anybody listened to were so happy over how well things were going I had nothing. When everything collapsed I still had nothing. Except debts which increased by few percent every day and still do. To make everything more exciting, people die. My brother died. My little brother. Twenty-five years old. From his wife of seven months and two children. It is unbelievably cruel of fate to do this to people.
BUT… through everything; the visa bills waiting because of this trip, the property loans which increase daily, missing my family, the grief over losing a loved one, the situation in the job market, the prices going up and the value of my salary going down, more sorrow and more debts, I still get butterflies in my stomach when I think about rearrangement of paradigms and proximity of stable domains in semantic space. Something that Michael spoke of was “monte carlo markov chain byesian inference”. It sounds terrifying. It’s maths. Gives me cold shivers down my spine and into my ass crack. But I still want to know what it is. I want to know how it works. And if you want to know something, ask. Go to Google and Wikipedia and the library and search. People are curious, it’s in their nature and they should hold on to it tight. The desire to understand.
I asked Fiona why normal people should care about all this stuff and she said “because meaning is important, it is how we carve up the world. How we make sense of it. How we communicate. How does it happen? That is what I would tell my grandmother.” And your grandmother would care. Because she is curious too. I think this is the rope we need to grab to save ourselves from going insane. Not TV or candy or four night jobs. Grab our thirst for knowledge and use the time we have to learn and make ourselves nobler.
Now I am researching what colour pink is. I fix the bills until next month comes around and dedicate this study to my brother. Because I am just bursting with curiosity.