WORD

Wall of Words

"I will say it to you in one word," Don Quixote answered, "and that word is the following: 'Set free at once that lovely lady whose tears and mournful countenance show plainly that you are carrying her away against her will and that you have done her some shameful wrong.' " --Miguel de Cervantes (1605:455-56)

We should have a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves. --Locke,
Essay on Human Understanding

There are no words. --Zinedine Zidane, French soccer player (after France beat Brazil to win the 1998 World Cup; Wilner 1998:C1)


Verbal signal. 1. In speech, an articulated sound or sounds uttered a. to convey information, b. to express emotion, c. to suggest ideas or opinions, or d. to greet a person, place, or thing. 2. In manual sign language, an articulated body movement or movements used to communicate as in speech (above). 3. In writing, an alphabetical, ideographic, pictographic, or symbolic version of a verbal sound or body motion which may be stored, e.g., through inscriptions carved in stone, characters printed on paper, or images saved on computers.

Usage I: Words have diverse uses as labels for objects (e.g., "walnut"), directions ("west"), and activities ("walk"). Some words (e.g., "the") have linguistic uses rather than referential or conceptional meanings. Words are spoken, signed, or written in the sequential order governed by cultural rules, syntax, and grammar.

Usage II: A great deal of our verbiage is about artifacts (e.g., Big Macs, blue jeans, and shoes), i.e., about items in the ever-growing stockpile of material goods we possess or dream of owning. The partnership between consumer products and words may be as ancient as Oldowan stone tools and the likely labels our ancestors used to articulate knowledge of their design. (N.B.: Echoing prehistory, artifacts and brand names form a natural partnership in the mind--and in the media--today.)

Usage III. Words themselves may become consumer products: "Protecting English against the erosion of time has been a recurring theme in attempts to save the language from decay. The time capsule entombed by Westinghouse at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair was an attempt to preserve Anglo-American civilization for a time when the language would be as dead as Sumerian" (Bailey 1991:223).


A personal reflection. It's often flattering when others quote your words. So, I was happy to be quoted awhile ago in Goodreads: Givens Quotes.

Anthropology. "To know the 'true name' of a thing was thought to be a source of power over it in many traditions" (Deacon 1997:321).

Animal behavior. Studies of apes, dogs, parrots, and sea lions have "demonstrated that other animals can acquire and use words" (Lieberman 1991:113). Studies of chimpanzees have shown that humans are "not, after all, the only tool-making animals" (Goodall 1990:5).

Astronomy I. "At its 17th general assembly in 1979, the IAU [International Astronomical Union] decided that, except for one high mountain already named for Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, only feminine names will identify Venusian surface features" (Lupfer 1993:3).

Astronomy II. "In general, neither the names of politicians, philosophers or military figures of the last two centuries, nor the names of people associated with any still-practiced religion, are accepted [as names for newly discovered comets]" (Lupfer 1993:3).

Author's note: When asked about the irony of using words to study nonverbal communication, I answer that words help raise nonverbal issues to a more conscious awareness. (N.B.: As Joseph Conrad prefaced in The Nigger of the "Narcissus": it is "by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see.")

Evolution. The earliest words may have been nouns. A noun (Middle English name, from Indo-European no-men-, "name") is used to label persons, places, animals, plants, qualities, actions, and things.

Gesture origin. "We take the view that language is based in gesture--that is, bodily movement to which human beings attach meaning" (Armstrong et al.1995:3). [Author's note: Words themselves are produced by articulated body movements of the vocal tract.]

Infancy. At ca. 18 months, toddlers display a keen interest in naming things, and their vocabulary of nouns rapidly grows.

Literary criticism. "The very act of naming something is an attempt both to define it and possess it" (Cohen 1993:3).

Literature. ". . . words clothed in reason's garb . . . ." --John Milton (Paradise Lost, Book II; 1667)

Media. In the beginning was the Pause, which became the Real Thing. 1929: "The Pause that Refreshes." 1961: "Things go Better with Coke." 1969: "It's the Real Thing." 1982: "Coke is it!" 1993: "Always the Real Thing." 1995: According to a Gallup Organization poll, over 60% of the Chinese population say they have heard the brand name, Coca-Cola.

Odd object words. 1. The word "chad," of unknown origin, is the name for a small, circular piece of paper or cardboard produced by a paper punch (source: The American Heritage Dictionary). 2. The word "gry," for a measurement which is the equivalent of 0.008 inches, comes from the Greek word for a speck of dirt beneath a fingernail (source: The Dent Dictionary of Measurement). 3. "Jun," the name of a single star located in the constellation Cepheus, belongs to movie star Johnny Depp, according to the International Star Registry in Ingleside, Illinois (Cohen 1993:3). 4. Some 1,474 other names for "crayfish," including, Danish signalkrebs, Mayan bab, and two Aboriginal Australian manual signs for the arthropod, have been compiled by C. W. Hart, Jr., in his 1994 Dictionary of Non-Scientific Names of Freshwater Crayfishes (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution).

PET imaging. 1. "In this positron emission tomography study we examined the pattern of neural activation associated with performance on number-letter sequencing [NLS], a purported measure of working memory included in the new Wechsler scales for memory and intelligence. After controlling for basic audition, verbalization, and attention, areas of activation were observed in the orbital frontal lobe, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and posterior parietal cortex. This is highly consistent with reports from the literature on activation patterns associated with working memory. More activation peaks were observed in the right hemisphere, suggesting the participants utilized visualization of the verbal information" (Haut et al. 2000; italics added by D. Givens to emphasize the neural link between verbal and nonverbal). 2. Activation was demonstrated in the right posterior temporal lobe, right orbital frontal region, right posterior parietal cortex, right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, right posterior premotor cortex, right posterior parietal cortex, and the precuneus midline; regarding the precuneus midline, slightly greater on the left) (Haut et al. 2000). 3. "In conclusion, this study provides support for NLS as a task with a working memory component. Beyond basic verbal attention span, participants used areas of the brain associated with temporary storage, active maintenance, and organization of information. Despite the verbal nature of the task, there was a large degree of right hemisphere activation, which may have been a result of utilization of visuospatial components of working memory. At this point, clinicians should be cautious with interpretations regarding laterality of deficits when observing deficient performance on NLS, despite its apparent verbal nature" (Haut et al. 2000; italics added).


E-Commentary: "Prior to becoming an attorney, I was a police detective for a number of years. I am continually amazed how attorneys at depositions are typically so focused on their outlines [i.e., on words] that they completely ignore nonverbal, and even verbal, indicators that practically give-away the case. My presentation focuses on spotting and using these observations to determine where to probe for the truth and what to do with it when you get it." H.L., USA (8/9/99 4:21:15 AM Pacific Daylight Time)


Neuro-notes I. At the level of neurons, saying, signing, or writing a word is not unlike striking flakes from a pebble core to make a stone tool. In right-handed people, all four activities involve premotor and motor areas on the left side of the forebrain (which controls the right side of the body). Older regions of forebrain--including the basal ganglia and the thalamus of the reptilian brain--underlie tool making and the ability to speak. Through general coordination of motor control, the substantia nigra of the midbrain is part of the speech process, as well. The hindbrain's neocerebellum, too, plays a role in coordinating the voluntary movements of our very verbal digits and very vocal tongue. Thus, neural templates for tools and words are shared on many levels of the brain.

Neuro-notes II. At the highest level, word order is overseen by circuits of the prefrontal cortex, which guides the sequential processing needed to build an artifact or utter a phrase. Regulating speech sounds is the inferior frontal gyrus (Brodmann's areas 44/45). Controlled by the frontal lobes, our fingers and speech organs follow the correct sequences required to produce oral statements and material tools.

Neuro-notes III. The supplementary motor area of the neocortex is involved in sequential processing, as well, both for verbal and some nonverbal (e.g., mime-cue) articulations. "We have found a group of cells in the cerebral cortex of monkeys whose activity is exclusively related to a sequence of multiple movements performed in a particular order. Such cellular activity exists in the supplementary motor area . . . . We propose that these cells contribute a signal about the order of forthcoming multiple movements, and are useful for planning and coding of several movements ahead" (Tanji and Shima 1994:413).

Neuro-notes IV. 1. "Object-naming is unique to man because the anatomical basis of the ability [the angular gyrus] is also unique to man" (Lancaster 1968:454). 2. As reported in the November 17, 1994 issue of Nature, word recognition resides in the anterior fusiform gyrus of the inferior temporal lobe, according to Gregory McCarthy and colleagues at Oxford University. 3. "In both studies, generation of color words selectively activated a region in the ventral temporal lobe just anterior to the area involved in the perception of color, whereas generation of action words activated a region in the middle temporal gyrus just anterior to the area involved in the perception of motion" (Martin et al. 1995:102 [Science]).

Neuro-notes V. "Scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., have found that knowledge about the names of animals and tools--two broad categories of objects--gets handled by largely separate networks of brain regions" (Bower 1996:103).

Neuro-notes VI. Concrete words are processed more efficiently than abstract words (Kiehl et al. 1999). According to fMRI data, word processing involves the bilateral fusiform gyrus, the anterior cingulate gyrus, the left middle temporal gyrus, the right posterior superior temporal gyrus, and the left and right inferior frontal gyrus (Kiehl et al. 1999). Abstract and concrete word processing both involve the right anterior temporal cortex (Kiehl et al. 1999). "The results are consistent with recent positron emission tomography [PET] work showing right hemisphere activation during processing of abstract representations of language. The results are interpreted as support for a right hemisphere neural pathway in the processing of abstract word representations" (Kiehl et al. 1999).

Neuro-notes VII. Using fMRI, neuroscientists identify three areas of the left side of the brain that play key roles in reading alphabetical words: the left inferior frontal gyrus, left parieto-temporal area, and left occipito-temporal area. The first produces phonemes, the second analyzes words, and latter automatically detects words.

Neuro-notes VIII. Mirror neurons: Mirror neurons play a critical role in reading. "It is as if mirror neurons help us understand what we read by internally simulating the action we just read in the sentence. Lisa's [Lisa Aziz-Zadeh] experiment suggests that when we read a novel, our mirror neurons simulate the actions described in the novel, as if we were doing those actions ourselves" (Iacoboni 2008:94-5).

Neuro-notes IX. Mirror neurons: "Aziz-Zadeh . . . and her colleagues show us that the understanding of words that refer to bodyparts [sic] may also be embodied [i.e., mediated by mirror neurons]." (Source: Keysers, Christian, and Luciano Fadiga (2008). "The Mirror Neuron System: New Frontiers," in Social Neuroscience, Vol. 3, Nos. 3-4, pp. 193-98.)

See also HUMAN BRAIN, NONVERBAL WORLD, VERBAL CENTER.

Copyright 1998 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
American Heritage Dictionary (Third Edition, p. 2055) entry for "word" (copyright 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Co.)