there is no gene for chinese

If you happened to read the wrong articles in the Times or the Herald today you might well have come away with the impression that the latest discovery by scientists is that the language you speak is determined by your genes.

There weren’t many right articles to read in the non-technical press, mind you: it seems like they mostly didn’t take too much care in reading the paper which the researchers in question actually published. The real thing is available here:

Dediu, D & Ladd, DR (2007), ‘Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of two brain size genes, ASPM and Microcephalin. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA

And with uncanny foresight, the authors have also written out a layman’s version, as if to somehow anticipate that the findings might get a bit garbled in the telling:

Further information on ‘Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency …’

The key point to bear in mind, should you choose to boggle your mind by reading any of the media coverage linked on that page, is what the authors say in their very first paragraph.

‘Human populations are diverse both genetically and linguistically, through interpopulation differences in allele frequencies and in the variety of languages and dialects they speak. In general, any relationship between these two types of diversity merely reflects geography and past demographic processes, not genetic influence on language behavior. It is indisputable that normal infants of any genetic makeup can learn the language(s) they are exposed to in the first years of life, so we can assume with considerable confidence that there are no “genes for Chinese.”‘ (Dediu & Ladd 2007: 1)

Further misconceptions can be addressed by referring to the blue box helpfully titled, “What the paper doesn’t show nor claim” at the bottom of Dediu and Ladd’s ‘further information’ page.

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a partial definition of prayer

AW Pink gives this as one essential element in prayer.

Prayer is not so much an act as it is an attitude – an attitude of dependency, dependency upon God. Prayer is a confession of creature weakness, yea, of helplessness. Prayer is the acknowledgement of our need and the spreading of it before God. We do not say that this is all there is in prayer: it is not. But it is the essential, the primary element in prayer. …

Therefore, prayer is the very opposite of dictating to God. Because prayer is an attitude of dependency, the one who really prays is submissive, submissive to the divine will; and submission to the divine will means, that we are content for the Lord to supply our needs according to the dictates of his sovereign pleasure. And hence it is that we say, every prayer that is offered to God in this spirit is sure of meeting with an answer or response from Him.

AW Pink, The Sovereignty of God, first published 1928. Banner of Truth revised edition, 1998 reprint, p121. Italics original.

domestic serendipity

I was overcome at the weekend by a bout of spring cleaning madness, resulting in an immaculately dusted bookcase (shelves and regrettably also books), and sparkling clean windows for the first time since we moved in, best part of three years ago.

One of the things that I learned was that in unfortunate instances it is in fact possible to measure the depth of dust which can be accumulated through neglect of the top shelf of the bookcase. I have resolved that this must never happen again.

Second, and more embarrassingly, it turns out that there is in fact a mountain to be seen from my bedroom window, which I’d never before been in a position to actually notice. It is undeniably the unmentionable quantities of grime which are to blame for this, not just the fact that the buildings further up the street are large enough to partially obscure it.

Never mind: I console myself with the fact that at least the colour of the carpet didn’t change after hoovering this time.

a footnote

“Just because a result is absurd does not mean that the argument is a reductio ad absurdum. There are things that are inherently absurd, and so cannot be reduced to absurdity.”

So say Bernhardt and Stemberger (1998: 24) on the rule-based analysis of phonological acquisition, having presented some rather silly cases as being “entirely parallel” to such linguistic analyses in non-linguistic domains.

For example, in the rule-based approach, children are said to have a process of Final Devoicing at some early stage of acquisition, which has to be suppressed as acquisition proceeds in order for their productions to match target adult productions.

Bernhardt and Stemberger say this is like proposing a process of “squiggleization” in which children replace details of pictures with squiggles, until this process comes to be suppressed at a later stage of development.

Anticipating the criticism that this is an unfair parody and reductio ad absurdum, they insert footnote 7, as above.

It’s a fair point – the rule-based model is clearly inadequate – until you start to wonder whether the aggressiveness of this critique of rule-based approaches (and its disdain) may not be something of a figleaf in advance of the only slightly less shaky constraint-based model they go on to espouse. For which many silly analogies could be provided, but that’s a story for another day.

Bernhardt & Stemberger (1998), Handbook of Phonological Development. London: Academic Press

just a blether

General life update:

  • upon flooding the people downstairs by means of the leak in the cistern we called the plumber and got the bathroom into a useable state again; we now no longer need to arm ourselves with a screwdriver before embarking on a visit to the wee room and can all now flush to our heart’s content
  • upon discovering nibbled sections of a loaf of bread and in the industrial size bag of muesli purchased by one of the more health-conscious inhabitants of the flat, we have declared war on mice, are laying traps, and have embargoed the leaving of all foodstuffs on the kitchen surfaces
  • upon browsing through the Oxford English Dictionary for a technical term, it was discovered that an old word for cerebellum was actually brainlet. Isn’t that somehow very quaint and lovely?

You can tell this is just a place-filler considering I haven’t been around here for about a week: normal service will resume shortly I hope.

cutting the throat of all objection

Who knows how many reasons can be listed to convince a person that they shouldn’t go to the Saviour for salvation. But John Bunyan, still talking about the verse, ‘Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out,’ explodes all possible objections and excuses and thoughts that would discourage a person from coming to Christ.

This word, in no wise, cutteth the throat of all objection, and it was dropped by the Lord Jesus for that very end, and to help the faith that is mixed with unbelief.

And it is, as it were, the sum of all promises; neither can any objection be made upon the unworthiness that thou findest in thee, that this promise will not foil.

But I am a great sinner, sayest thou.
‘I will in no wise cast out,’ says Christ.

But I am an old sinner, sayest thou.
‘I will in no wise cast out,’ says Christ.

But I am a hard-hearted sinner, sayest thou.
‘I will in no wise cast out,’ says Christ.

But I am a backsliding sinner, sayest thou.
‘I will in no wise cast out,’ says Christ.

But I have served Satan all my days, sayest thou.
‘I will in no wise cast out,’ says Christ.

But I have sinned against mercy, sayest thou.
‘I will in no wise cast out,’ says Christ.

But I have no good thing to bring with me, sayest thou.
‘I will in no wise cast out,’ says Christ.

Thus I might go on to the end of things and show you that still this promise was provided to answer all objections, and doth answer them.

Obviously, it’s one thing to know that such a Saviour exists, and another thing to do what he says and actually come to him. Otherwise, to use an analogy that was familiar to Bunyan and his contemporaries, God’s provision of this Saviour is only as much use to you as food that is never eaten, a remedy that is never applied. What use is a Saviour, if he’s not my Saviour?