Julie Sedivy has written for outlets such as Nautilus, Discover, Scientific American, and the delightfully geeky Language Log. Here is a sampling of her pieces:
The Strange Persistence of First Languages (Nautilus)
Several years ago, my father died as he had done most things throughout his life: without preparation and without consulting anyone. He simply went to bed one night, yielded his brain to a monstrous blood clot, and was found the next morning lying amidst the sheets like his own stone monument.
It was hard for me not to take my father’s abrupt exit as a rebuke. For years, he’d been begging me to visit him in the Czech Republic, where I’d been born and where he’d gone back to live in 1992. Each year, I delayed. I was in that part of my life when the marriage-grad-school-children-career-divorce current was sweeping me along with breath-sucking force, and a leisurely trip to the fatherland seemed as plausible as pausing the flow of time.
Now my dad was shrugging at me from beyond— “You see, you’ve run out of time.”
His death underscored another loss, albeit a far more subtle one: that of my native tongue. Czech was the only language I knew until the age of 2, when my family began a migration westward, from what was then Czechoslovakia through Austria, then Italy, settling eventually in Montreal, Canada. Along the way, a clutter of languages introduced themselves into my life: German in preschool, Italian-speaking friends, the francophone streets of East Montreal. Linguistic experience congealed, though, once my siblings and I started school in English. As with many immigrants, this marked the time when English became, unofficially and over the grumbling of my parents (especially my father), our family language—the time when Czech began its slow retreat from my daily life. (Read More)
Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings? (Nautilus)
Reading medieval literature, it’s hard not to be impressed with how much the characters get done—as when we read about King Harold doing battle in one of the Sagas of the Icelanders, written in about 1230. The first sentence bristles with purposeful action: “King Harold proclaimed a general levy, and gathered a fleet, summoning his forces far and wide through the land.” By the end of the third paragraph, the king has launched his fleet against a rebel army, fought numerous battles involving “much slaughter in either host,” bound up the wounds of his men, dispensed rewards to the loyal, and “was supreme over all Norway.” What the saga doesn’t tell us is how Harold felt about any of this, whether his drive to conquer was fueled by a tyrannical father’s barely concealed contempt, or whether his legacy ultimately surpassed or fell short of his deepest hopes.
Jump ahead about 770 years in time, to the fiction of David Foster Wallace. In his short story “Forever Overhead,” the 13-year-old protagonist takes 12 pages to walk across the deck of a public swimming pool, wait in line at the high diving board, climb the ladder, and prepare to jump. But over these 12 pages, we are taken into the burgeoning, buzzing mind of a boy just erupting into puberty—our attention is riveted to his newly focused attention on female bodies in swimsuits, we register his awareness that others are watching him as he hesitates on the diving board, we follow his undulating thoughts about whether it’s best to do something scary without thinking about it or whether it’s foolishly dangerous not to think about it.
These examples illustrate Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities. I’d often wondered, when reading older texts: Weren’t people back then interested in what characters thought and felt?
Perhaps people living in medieval societies were less preoccupied with the intricacies of other minds, simply because they didn’t have to be. When people’s choices were constrained and their actions could be predicted based on their social roles, there was less reason to be attuned to the mental states of others (or one’s own, for that matter). The emergence of mind-focused literature may reflect the growing relevance of such attunement, as societies increasingly shed the rigid rules and roles that had imposed order on social interactions.
But current psychological research hints at deeper implications. Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous. (Read More)
Can a Wandering Mind Make You Neurotic? (Nautilus)
I have two children, and they are a study in contrasts: My son works at a gym designing and building rock-climbing walls; In his spare time, he climbs them. My daughter is a Ph.D. student in immunology; In her spare time, she writes novels. My son is the sort of person you want around in a crisis, cool-headed and springing to action. Let’s just say my daughter is not. My son spends money as soon as he earns it. My daughter manages to sock money away into a retirement fund, even on a student income. My son shrugs off unexpected misfortunes, declaring that there’s “no point” in brooding over them. My daughter can worry herself to exhaustion over misfortunes that will never happen. Though both were classified as “gifted,” my son was bored and alienated at school, while my daughter flourished.
I’ve puzzled over their differences throughout their lives—how can two siblings contrast so completely along so many traits? It turns out that many of the personality divergences between my two children may boil down to the fact that, while my son’s mental life is closely connected to the outside world, my daughter spends much of her life inside her own head. (Read More)
Mumbling Isn’t a Sign of Laziness—It’s a Clever Data-Compression Trick (Nautilus)
Many of us have been taught that pronouncing vowels indistinctly and dropping consonants are symptoms of slovenly speech, if not outright disregard for the English language. The Irish playwright St. John Ervine viewed such habits as evidence that some speakers are “weaklings too languid and emasculated to speak their noble language with any vigor.” If that’s so, then we are swimming in a sea of linguistic wimpiness; Keith Johnson found that speakers relaxed or dropped sounds in more than 60 percent of words spoken in conversation. Happily, the science of mumbling offers a far less judgmental—and more captivating—account of our imperfectly crisp pronunciations.
Far from being a symptom of linguistic indifference or moral decay, dropping or reducing sounds displays an underlying logic similar to the data-compression schemes that are used to create MP3s and JPEGs. These algorithms trim down the space needed to digitally store sounds and images by throwing out information that is redundant or doesn’t add much to our perceptual experience—for example, tossing out data at sound frequencies we can’t hear, or not bothering to encode slight gradations of color that are hard to see. The idea is to keep only the information that has the greatest impact. (Read More)
The More Names Change, the More They Sound the Same (The Crux—Discover magazine)
These days, I can’t seem to keep straight which of his friends my son is hanging out with on any given day—was it Jason, Jaden, Hayden, or Aidan? Their names all have a way of blurring together. My confusion reflects a growing trend for American boys’ names to sound more and more alike, according to a recent New York Times piece reporting on data gathered by Laura Wattenberg of BabyNameWizard.com.
It’s not as if the pool of available names is shrinking though. Quite the opposite. A couple of generations ago, parents mostly stuck with a handful of tried-and-true classics (James, Richard, William); the ten most common names were shared by more than a third of boys in 1950. These days, only nine percent of boys sport the ten most common names. But this recent burst of innovation in names shows more restraint than variety when it comes to their sounds. For example, 36 percent of newborn American boys have names that end in “n”, as compared to just 14 percent in 1950.
This might seem paradoxical, but in fact, it’s a fairly typical aspect of name invention (as my co-author Greg Carlson and I have discussed in our book Sold on Language). When creating a new word of any sort, whether it’s a common noun, verb, baby name or even a brand name, there’s a tendency to gravitate toward known sound patterns. Truly original names, like Quatergork, or Ponveen haven’t yet made it into my son’s social circle. Novelty, it seems, thrives best when it’s a variation on the familiar. (Read More)
One Fracking Word or Another (Language Log)
I live in Alberta, where the oil and gas industry takes up a good chunk of daily media coverage. Since I sometimes get asked to comment on the persuasive effects of various wording choices by politicians or companies, I was especially interested to come across claims of evidence that public opposition to the method of natural gas extraction known as fracking might be bolstered by its problematic name. (Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, and the process involves injecting a highly pressurized fluid underground to create fractures in rock layers to release gas.) The finding originates from a survey conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University, which, as stated in the report, was designed to investigate the following:
It was hypothesized by the Public Policy Research Lab that the actual word “Fracking” may have a negative connotation that is separate from the environmental concerns that often accompany discussions of the process. Due to the harsh consonant sounds in the word itself, and an undeniable similarity to a certain other four letter word starting with the letter “F”, it seemed plausible that some of the negative public sentiment about “Fracking” may result from how unpleasant the word itself sounds. (Read More)
Votes and Vowels: A Changing Accent Shows How Language Parallels Politics (The Crux—Discover magazine)
There’s been a good bit of discussion and hand-wringing lately over whether the American public is becoming more and more politically polarized and what this all means for the future of our democracy. You may have wrung your own hands over the issue. But even if you have, chances are you’re not losing sleep over the fact that Americans are very clearly becoming more polarized linguistically.
It may seem surprising, but in this age where geographic mobility and instant communication have increased our exposure to people outside of our neighborhoods or towns, American regional dialects are pulling further apart from each other, rather than moving closer together. And renowned linguist William Labov thinks there’s a connection between political and linguistic segregation.
In the final volume of his seminal book series Principles of Linguistic Change, Labov spends a great deal of time discussing a riveting linguistic change that’s occurring in the northern region of the U.S. clustering around the Great Lakes. This dialect region is called the Inland North, and runs from just west of Albany to Milwaukee, loops down to St. Louis, and traces a line to the south of Chicago, Toledo, and Cleveland. (Read More)
Is Your Language Making You Broke and Fat? (The Crux—Discover magazine)
Keith Chen, an economist from Yale, makes a startling claim in an unpublished working paper: people’s fiscal responsibility and healthy lifestyle choices depend in part on the grammar of their language.
Here’s the idea: Languages differ in the devices they offer to speakers who want to talk about the future. For some, like Spanish and Greek, you have to tack on a verb ending that explicitly marks future time—so, in Spanish, you would sayescribo for the present tense (I write or I’m writing) andescribiré for the future tense (I will write). But other languages like Mandarin don’t require their verbs to be escorted by grammatical markers that convey future time—time is usually obvious from something else in the context. In Mandarin, you would say the equivalent of I write tomorrow, using the same verb form for both present and future.
Chen’s finding is that if you divide up a large number of the world’s languages into those that require a grammatical marker for future time and those that don’t, you see an interesting correlation: speakers of languages that force grammatical marking of the future have amassed a smaller retirement nest egg, smoke more, exercise less, and are more likely to be obese. Why would this be? The claim is that a sharp grammatical division between the present and future encourages people to conceive of the future as somehow dramatically different from the present, making it easier to put off behaviors that benefit your future self rather than your present self. (Read More)
The Unbearable Loss of Words (Language Log)
Everyone has a private terror—often abetted by a checkered family medical history or having witnessed the torment of a loved one—of being struck with some particular affliction. For some, it’s the ravages of a slow and painful cancer. For others, it’s being caught in a freak accident that renders them quadriplegic in their prime. For me, it’s the fear of surviving a stroke that blasts away tracts of neural tissue in the left hemisphere of my brain, leaving me with profound aphasia.
As usual, the degree of fear is based on a calculus of probability and of loss. In my case, there is the specter of probability: My father suffered a fatal stroke in his sixties. His own father, unluckier, was bedridden after a stroke in his early forties until another one finished him off a few years later. But it’s the prospect of the loss that is overwhelming. How could I, ardent worshipper at the altar of language, ever cope with being left unable to talk or write fluently about language or anything else? For that matter, would I even be able to think about language? Or think in any meaningful way at all? It’s the afflictions that strip you of who you are that seem most unthinkable.
So it was a sense of morbid attraction that led me to Diane Ackerman’s newest book One Hundred Names for Love, in which she documents the stroke and subsequent language deficit suffered by her husband, novelist Paul West. (Read More)
How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language (Scientific American)
What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.
And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?
Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language—as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue. (Read More)