Friday, December 27, 2013

Starting a lingustic foray into evolution - cray cray?

This holiday season, I've learned a new word from my nephews, and that word is 'cray-cray'*. According to my nephews, and the Urban Dictionary, cray-cray means 'really crazy'.

Researching this word has led me - yet again - to some parallels between evolution and linguistics. I want to start documenting these parallels more formally, because I think it could be important. My biology research is focused on how new traits originate during evolution, sometimes called 'evolutionary novelty'. How did eyes originate in evolution? How about hair or milk? Although I could be cray-cray, I believe this area of evolution has received less attention than other areas, and the theory and concepts are underdeveloped. Yet in linguistics, it seems novelty is a central area of theory.

Cray-cray is a new word, a novelty. Languages change so fast, with such full documentation, it seems as though linguists have a richer theory for explaining how novelties arise. One aspect of novelty in linguistics is called Word Formation, and there are several ways in which word formation occurs. I believe many of these have parallels in organic evolution, although they may not generally be differentiated or articulated. I want to explore that on future posts.

Craycray seems to be due to a particular type of word formation that is not particularly common in English, called reduplication. Actually, as I read and understand further, it seems reduplication is considered to be a change in grammar, and not as a mechanism of word formation. From this perspective, cray cray is not a new word, but is rather a grammatical change to convey a new meaning. In both evolution and linguistics, it seems challenging to think clearly and consistently about structure (word) and function (meaning) and their relationship to each other.

Reduplication is quite common in many languages, and is used in several different ways. Our cray cray example seems to be reduplication for the purpose of intensifying a noun. I don't think this is common in English. Wikipedia gives an example from Hebrew, where Gever means 'man' and 'Gever Gever' seems to mean something like a man's man or a manly man, or perhaps a macho man. A man, intensified, just as cray cray means crazy, intensified.

According to the same Wikipedia site on reduplication, there are some English examples of reduplication. We mimic baby talk, as in 'bye-bye'; use rhyming reduplication, as in super-duper; or sometimes change the vowel sounds in the reduplication, like zig-zag. An interesting example is the 'schm' reduplication - adding 'schm' to belittle something, or to indicate irony: 'craycray, schmacray - I can just say lunatic'. Schm-reduplication is said to be 'productive', because it can be used with most any word. We also use reduplication to clarify a literal meaning versus a figurative meaning. An example that comes to mind is to clarify hot - 'do you mean spicy-hot or HOT-hot'?  HOT-hot is clarifying the meaning as temperature. By the way, I think we should adopt the Spanish word picante to mean spicy-hot, a word we need in English!

Besides cray cray, I can't think of any other examples in English of intensifying reduplication. From that perspective, it might not actually be reduplication, since reduplication refers to grammar. In English, our grammar doesn't usually intensify using reduplication, so cray cray perhaps really does fit more into Word Formation. But I also cannot fit it into established modes of Word Formation, either, such as those explained on Wikipedia or a Rice site (by the way the Rice site counted zig-zag as compound word formation, not as reduplication). Instead, cray cray is part clipping - taking just part of a longer word, like ad for advertisement, or dis for disrespect - and part compounding - putting two words together, like phone booth. Crazy clipped is cray and compounded is cray cray.

My purpose here is to understand novelty in linguistics to draw parallels to evolution. For example, thinking genetically, I know that protein domains are often 'reduplicated' within the same gene. It will be interesting to think this through and research it. What types of function can protein domain reduplication provide? Are the biological-functional implications similar to linguistic-grammatical implications? I believe intensification of biological function does happen by domain reduplication (I can think of some examples, that I won't go into). But what about other parallels? That will perhaps be the subject of a future post.

I should end now before this post is so long as to be cray cray.

* I believe this is mainly a spoken word, such that the spelling is not yet standard. It could be craycray, cray-cray, or cray cray. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The resurrection of Evolutionary Novelties

I've decided to resurrect the Evolutionary Novelties blog. While I wrote fairly regularly from late 2007 until 2009, I stopped writing any blog posts after that. Although I didn't specifically plan the regular writing sessions or the hiatus, I've felt lately that I would like again to use this forum to share some ideas.

Why the hiatus? Blogging changed my brain

Late in 2009, I began to feel that blogging changed my brain in ways that I did not like at the time. Namely I felt like I was thinking too much about blog posts. Blog posts - at least good ones - are short, punchy and catchy - like a quick sprint. Yet conducting research and writing scientific papers takes dedication and persistence - like a marathon. When writing Evolutionary Novelties posts regularly, I began thinking about posts a lot; so much I felt like it was taking 'thinking time' and writing time away from my research. Professional research takes a huge amount of thinking time, from brainstorming to problem solving to deciding how to pitch grant proposals and publications.

There are also two more mechanistic reasons I took a hiatus from writing blog posts. First, I got my first smart phone around that time. Instead of doing a lot of reading (email, news, papers, other blogs) on a computer with a keyboard at the ready - I began reading on a mobile device. Without a keyboard under-finger, the possibility of a response became less immediate, and my habits changed. The second mechanistic reason is personal. My son grew to genuinely love playing sports and following professional sports. This rekindled my childhood love of sports, and I've come to spend much more time coaching, playing, and following sports. Following and participating in sports also competes for my online time, and my 'thinking time', so writing blog posts fell away.

Why the resurrection? I have things to say

Writing blog posts can be a great outlet for certain topics, and some such topics have become priorities for me.
  1. I feel I am becoming a good mentor, and I would like to share more broadly mentoring advice. Well, actually, I think I've always been pretty good at mentoring because I genuinely care about the people I mentor, I care about their careers, and I generally have good instincts about career decisions (it's something I think a lot about). I also sometimes worry that with more students and postdocs in my lab, that there is not enough time for me to be effective at mentoring everyone all the time. Pointing to a blog post with career advice might sometimes be effective, and might help people outside my lab. In this regard, I've been inspired by Sociobiology.
  2. I've lately focused my research efforts and ideas more squarely on my 'home group' ostracods, and I'd like to share more about their amazing biology. During the golden era of Evolutionary Novelties, I wrote about these animals in a series I called 'ostra-blogs'. I'd like to continue this part-travellogue, part nature writing series because we've had some fun adventures lately. My students have also expressed interest in writing ostra-blogs, and they make a good vehicle for possibly telling the public about ostracods (or is it ostracodes?).
  3. I want to document ideas about parallels between Evolutionary Novelties and the linguistic novelties. I have a long-term goal to write a book that teaches concepts of how new things evolve, using examples from linguistics. I need to learn and remember a lot about linguistics before that can happen.
So, I am going to try to find the time to contribute to Evolutionary Novelties more regularly. At least until I want my brain back again for other things...