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Open Research Diary: Inaugural Post (September, 30 to October 1 2020)

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Some Preliminary Points

After some thought, talk and reading (specially of Machado, Lousada and Abreu-Tardelli, 2005), I just decided to start a public/open research diary (or perhaps a general, “academic life diary”). As a research diary might mean a lot of different things for different people, I’ll explain why and how I’m going to do it.

Among my reasons for doing so I could surely mention:

  1. I never wrote much on my blog. It was intended to have business-related content only, but since I started my Master’s in 2019 I never had the proper time to feed it, so having a public journal is somehow an opportunity to put some content here.
  2. I used to write a “productivity journal” everyday on OneNote. Those were private notes, mostly, but there are things I could’ve shared. Most of them were about my research, from epiphanies and silly insights to concrete advances, but always emphasizing the productive aspects (my interest was what I’ve planned and what I’ve done in my day, and what influenced that).
  3. Having people to know what we’re doing puts some pressure into us (if we don’t progress, shame’s on us). And at this moment, while stuck at home and barely seeing people due to the pandemics, with a lot of work, I kinda need this pressure.
  4. I’m very interested in Science Communication and I think blogging about that might be an interesting ‘starting point’ for me.
  5. Sharing is important. I’m financed by a Brazilian public agency. That means my country is spending money with me. I know my main works will be published (at least at my university’s repository I know for sure). However, we’re always producing much more than what ends up published, so this journal will be like an opportunity to people at least know what I’m doing, and, if what I’m doing becomes somehow relevant to them, by knowing I’m doing they’ll know they can ask me about.
  6. Seeing what I’ve actually done might help me to easily realize my deviations from what I should have done.

So this is the first time I’m writing it and I don’t know much about how to proceed, but I’ll try to do it as natural as if I were writing my private notes of the pest. Therefore I will try to:

  1. Write very informally, and I know it’s a shift from my previous habit of writing here (if you consider 2 posts as an ‘habit of writing’, of course).
  2. I’ll write about what’s happening in the world of my research, that’s the focus, but always I have something actually interesting or relevant I will share it too.
  3. Due to the reason 6, I’ll likely register here a lot of random stuff. Then I’ll get shocked about all the random/unrelated activities I’ve done. Then you’ll be shocked about that. Then I’ll know you’re shocked about that. And I’ll use it as a “self-pressure instrument” to get back in the track and properly keep my focus on the actual tasks.
  4. I’ll also write my free thoughts on contents I’m reading, and expand the text a little bit as a way to “share” my thoughts too. But beware: most ideas here are likely not mature enough yet.
  5. I’ll try to write everyday, but sometimes it’s impossible. But if you reader miss me for a long while, try to nudge me on my twitter @brunodOut and I’ll be very thankful.

Some Context

As I cannot just throw it to my reader, I’ll give some contextual information about what I’m doing and even who I am.

I’m a Bachelor of Business Administration who started a Master’s in Linguistics. That’s a long story, I’ve been planning a post about that for a year (and I’ll finish it someday), but long story short: I used to research Decision-Making, from a cognitive perspective. Among my interests at that time I could list Behavioral Economics & Behavioral Finance. For my Bachelor’s thesis I researched about the influence of Cognitive Authority (the perception of someone as an authority) on Financial Decision-Making. I’ve finished it and finally graduated (but I’m owing my former advisor an article about that too, by the way).

As I’ve planned for a long time, I wanted to continue researching about Decision-Making and several factors influenced my choice about how to do that. I wanted to join a Master’s program available in my town to keep studying. I have also been taking some non-required courses in several other disciplines, like Linguistics, Philosophy, Computer Science, Statistics, etc for a long while. In a Semantics course, I talked to the professor about some decision-making phenomenon I was very curious about – the framing effects (as described by Tversky & Kahneman, 1986, 1992). How would semantics explain the fact that, for the language user, two ways of expressing exactly the same information (i.e. “90% chance of success” vs “10% chance of failure”) would be understood completely different? In that moment, the professor introduced me Charles Fillmore’s Frame Semantics, pointed me some readings and I found that promising.

Then, the day I graduated I applied for the Graduate Program in Linguistic Studies at the Federal University of Fronteira Sul. After passing the exams and the committee I got approved with a 9.9 score and admitted starting in August 2019. I started researching right away and had a solid project, but I’ve been reformulating my dissertation project in the last months, specially after the pandemics changed everything in my life and imposed several limitations. And that’s where I am now, and I must confess I’m struggling a lot…

Now, Finally, the Diary Entry

The last two days were a quite interesting for my academic work. I’ve finished lining up some important ideas about my new research design (not yet seen by my advisor, I want to build something more concrete before I sent her the text). Also, I’ve finished reading, for the second time, Fillmore’s (1976) ‘Frame Semantics and The Nature of Language’. I have a special appreciation for studying the evolution of language, and Fillmore has some quite fascinating ideas about that.

Just to fill non-linguist readers in, the evolution of language is a very polemic subject which, in the past, famously required enormous efforts to produce little or nothing. At least that’s how it was depicted in the past (Jespersen, 1922). To illustrate how problematic the topic is, this kind of paper was banned by the Société Linguistique de Paris in 1866 (Cangelosi & Parisi, 2002).

On this paper, Fillmore (1976) starts with some critical review of historical speculations on the origin of language. First, he talks about the simplicity of non-evolutionary approaches, like Samuel Johnson’s divine inspiration. For Johnson, if language was invented, it had to be invented by either children or adults. Children cannot invent a language because they lack knowledge for that, while adults are not pliable for that kind of enterprise. Therefore, language must have come by divine inspiration.

By stating that an evolutionary perspective easily kills this simplicity, he moves on to more advanced speculations about the origins of language. He criticizes some previous speculations by stating that they’re limited in several points. He adds that most proposals are concerned about either a “first step” – the one which started language, a “last step” – the one which finally consolidated language, or a “key step” – something that was shown as crucial to the evolution of language. However, he criticizes those approaches end up providing a too fragmented view of the emergence of language, besides the lack of data and proper foundations to support them.

Fillmore (1976) highlights Jerspersen’s (1922) proposal, the first speculation on the subject based on actual linguistic data by applying well documented principles of language change, like:

  • Irregular forms get regularized
  • Long words get shortened
  • Linguistical forms tend to change in the direction of phonetic simplification

Founded on those principles, Jespersen supported that “savage” languages (his way to refer to older, more ancient, or primitive languages) lacked regularization and had long words with complex pronunciation. For him, humans might have evolved the skill to use the mouth for communication because they had other means to carry objects or defend themselves while still using the mouth, which is a very peculiar idea 98 years after his book was published. Anyway, he proposed a process in which people developed songs for courtship or battle using the vocal equipment to invent them, becoming, associated to the singer in closer groups similarly to a leitmotif. This association process would give birth to proper names, the more concrete and specific forms possible in language. Fillmore (1976) yet rejects Jerspersen’s approach because it “ends too soon” (p. 22), lacking further explanations on how, from proper names, languages evolved to represent, for instance, all sorts of nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.

That’s one interesting thing about Fillmore’s (1976) paper, but there are others more related to my topic of research. He proposed Frame Semantics to offer a framework to understand how our knowledge underlying language is built and represented through language. In my opinion, the relationship between frame semantics and the evolution of language established by Fillmore, to use his own words, also “ends too soon”, and I really wish his fascinating writings have left more details. Anyway, my mind can fill some gaps for me and I hope I can write further on this matter.

Frame Semantics is a Schema Theory concerned about the lexicalization of schemata. In brief, we could say that the meaning of a lexical unit cannot be accounted for without evoking a whole set of interrelated concepts that defines it. For instance, we cannot explain the meaning of “seller” without evoking the notion of a commercial transaction involving a buyer, a merchandise, a mean of exchange, etc. Therefore, lexical units are tied to a schema, or to a frame, in Fillmore terms. As Rumerhalt (1981) exemplifies, when we hear or read something about a car, we assume it has an engine even though we don’t see it and no one tells us it has, because having one is associated with the concept of a car.

By the way, Rumerhalt’s (1981) ‘Schemata: The Building Blocks of Cognition’ is one of the papers I have read these days too. Also previously known, I haven’t finished reading it in the past (and I still haven’t, and feel like I won’t be able to finish this time too, unfortunately). This book chapter approaches the notion of schema(ta) as the basic unit of our cognition. As opposed to Fillmore, Rumerhalt tries to explain several cognitive processes that happens when a schema is evoked. To handle that, he approaches Schemas through 4 analogies: the schema as a play, as a theory, as a procedure and as a parser. It’s best suited to explain, for instance, reading processes, and that’s the purpose of this chapter in the book ‘Comprehension and teaching: Research reviews’.

While reading Rumerhalt (1981) I’ve seen, peripherally, my cat walking through the room, which put me into some reflections about Sperber & Wilson’s (1995) concept of mutual manifestness. More specifically, how I didn’t have to change my attention focus totally to the cat to understand they were there. In the approach to meaning I am approaching, information about a schema might quite interestingly offer mutually manifest information. I should read (and write) more about that.

Finally, I’ll have to write another day about the epiphanies I had while reading and thinking about that. I’ve been writing this post for longer than I should already. So, I see you next time!

References

Cangelosi, A.; Parisi, D. (2002). Simulating the Evolution of Language. London: Springer, ISBN 978-1-4471-0663-0.

Fillmore, C. J. (1976). Frame Semantics and The Nature of Language. Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences, 280(1), 20-32. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1976.tb25467.x

Machado, A. R., Lousada, E., & Abreu-Tardelli, L. S. (2005). Planejar Gêneros Acadêmicos. São Paulo: Parábola, ISBN 978-85-88456-43-3.

Jespersen, J. O. (1922). Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin. Reprinted in 1954. Unwin Brothers: London.

Rumelhart, D. E. (1981). Schemata: The Building Blocks of Cognition. In J. T. Guthrie (Ed.), Comprehension and teaching: Research reviews (pp. 3-26). Newark: International Reading Association.

Sperber, D., Wilson, D. (1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-0631198789.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1986). Rational Choice and the Framing of Decision. The Journal of Business, 59(4), 251 – 278. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-74919-3_4

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1992). Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 5(4), 297-323. doi:10.1007/BF00122574

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