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  • Spoons.

  • Cardboard boxes.

  • Toddler-size electric trains.

  • Holiday ornaments.

  • Bounce houses.

  • Blankets.

  • Baskets.

  • Carpets.

  • Tray tables.

  • Smartphones.

  • Pianos.

  • Robes.

  • Photographs.

  • What do all of these things have in common,

  • aside from the fact they're photos that I took in the last three months,

  • and therefore, own the copyright to?

  • (Laughter)

  • They're all inventions

  • that were created with the benefit of language.

  • None of these things would have existed without language.

  • Imagine creating any one of those things

  • or, like, building an entire building like this,

  • without being able to use language

  • or without benefiting from any knowledge that was got by the use of language.

  • Basically, language is the most important thing

  • in the entire world.

  • All of our civilization rests upon it.

  • And those who devote their lives to studying it --

  • both how language emerged, how human languages differ,

  • how they differ from animal communication systems --

  • are linguists.

  • Formal linguistics is a relatively young field, more or less.

  • And it's uncovered a lot of really important stuff.

  • Like, for example, that human communication systems

  • differ crucially from animal communication systems,

  • that all languages are equally expressive,

  • even if they do it in different ways.

  • And yet, despite this,

  • there are a lot of people who just love to pop off about language

  • like they have an equal understanding of it as a linguist,

  • because, of course, they speak a language.

  • And if you speak a language, that means you have just as much right

  • to talk about its function as anybody else.

  • Imagine if you were talking to a surgeon,

  • and you say, "Listen, buddy.

  • I've had a heart for, like, 40 years now.

  • I think I know a thing or two about aortic valve replacements.

  • I think my opinion is just as valid as yours."

  • And yet, that's exactly what happens.

  • This is Neil deGrasse Tyson, saying that in the film "Arrival,"

  • he would have brought a cryptographer --

  • somebody who can unscramble a message in a language they already know --

  • rather than a linguist,

  • to communicate with the aliens,

  • because what would a linguist --

  • why would that be useful in talking to somebody

  • speaking a language we don't even know?

  • Though, of course, the "Arrival" film is not off the hook.

  • I mean, come on -- listen, film. Hey, buddy:

  • there are aliens that come down to our planet in gigantic ships,

  • and they want to do nothing except for communicate with us,

  • and you hire one linguist?

  • (Laughter)

  • What's the US government on a budget or something?

  • (Laughter)

  • A lot of these things can be chalked up to misunderstandings,

  • both about what language is and about the formal study of language,

  • about linguistics.

  • And I think there's something that underlies a lot of these misunderstandings

  • that can be summed up by this delightful article in "Forbes,"

  • about why high school students shouldn't learn foreign languages.

  • I'm going to pull out some quotes from this,

  • and I want you to see if you can figure out

  • what underlies some of these opinions and ideas.

  • "Americans rarely read the classics, even in translation."

  • So in other words, why bother learning a foreign language

  • when they're not even going to read the classic in the original anyway?

  • What's the point?

  • "Studying foreign languages in school is a waste of time,

  • compared to other things that you could be doing in school."

  • "Europe has a lot of language groups clustered in a relatively small space."

  • So for Americans, ah, what's the point of learning another language?

  • You're not really going to get a lot of bang for your buck out of that.

  • This is my favorite,

  • "A student in Birmingham would have to travel

  • about a thousand miles to get to the Mexican border,

  • and even then, there would be enough people who speak English to get around."

  • In other words, if you can kind of wave your arms around,

  • and you can get to where you're going,

  • then there's really no point in learning another language anyway.

  • What underlies a lot of these attitudes is the conceptual metaphor,

  • language is a tool.

  • And there's something that rings very true about this metaphor.

  • Language is kind of a tool

  • in that, if you know the local language, you can do more than if you didn't.

  • But the implication is that language is only a tool,

  • and this is absolutely false.

  • If language was a tool, it would honestly be a pretty poor tool.

  • And we would have abandoned it long ago for something that was a lot better.

  • Think about just any sentence.

  • Here's a sentence that I'm sure I've said in my life: "Yesterday I saw Kyn."

  • I have a friend named Kyn.

  • And when I say this sentence, "Yesterday I saw Kyn,"

  • do you think it's really the case

  • that everything in my mind is now implanted in your mind

  • via this sentence?

  • Hardly, because there's a lot of other stuff going on.

  • Like, when I say "yesterday,"

  • I might think what the weather was like yesterday because I was there.

  • And if I'm remembering,

  • I'll probably remember there was something I forgot to mail, which I did.

  • This was a preplanned joke, but I really did forget to mail something.

  • And so that means I'm going to have to do it Monday,

  • because that's when I'm going to get back home.

  • And of course, when I think of Monday,

  • I'll think of "Manic Monday" by the Bangles. It's a good song.

  • And when I say the word "saw," I think of this phrase:

  • "'I see!' said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw."

  • I always do.

  • Anytime I hear the word "saw" or say it, I always think of that,

  • because my grandfather always used to say it,

  • so it makes me think of my grandfather.

  • And we're back to "Manic Monday" again, for some reason.

  • And with Kyn, when I'm saying something like, "Yesterday I saw Kyn,"

  • I'll think of the circumstances under which I saw him.

  • And this happened to be that day. Here he is with my cat.

  • And of course, if I'm thinking of Kyn,

  • I'll think he's going to Long Beach State right now,

  • and I'll remember that my good friend John and my mother

  • both graduated from Long Beach State,

  • my cousin Katie is going to Long Beach State right now.

  • And it's "Manic Monday" again.

  • But this is just a fraction of what's going on in your head

  • at any given time while you are speaking.

  • And all we have to represent the entire mess

  • that is going on in our head, is this.

  • I mean, that's all we got.

  • (Laughter)

  • Is it any wonder that our system is so poor?

  • So imagine, if I can give you an analogy,

  • imagine if you wanted to know what is it like to eat a cake,

  • if instead of just eating the cake,

  • you instead had to ingest the ingredients of a cake,

  • one by one,

  • along with instructions

  • about how these ingredients can be combined to form a cake.

  • You had to eat the instructions, too.

  • (Laughter)

  • If that was how we had to experience cake,

  • we would never eat cake.

  • And yet, language is the only way -- the only way --

  • that we can figure out what is going on here, in our minds.

  • This is our interiority,

  • the thing that makes us human,

  • the thing that makes us different from other animals,

  • is all inside here somewhere,

  • and all we have to do to represent it is our own languages.

  • A language is our best way of showing what's going on in our head.

  • Imagine if I wanted to ask a big question, like:

  • "What is the nature of human thought and emotion?"

  • What you'd want to do

  • is you'd want to examine as many different languages

  • as possible.

  • One isn't just going to do it.

  • To give you an example,

  • here's a picture I took of little Roman,

  • that I took with a 12-megapixel camera.

  • Now, here's that same picture with a lot fewer pixels.

  • Obviously, neither of these pictures is a real cat.

  • But one gives you a lot better sense of what a cat is than the other.

  • Language is not merely a tool.

  • It is our legacy,

  • it's our way of conveying what it means to be human.

  • And of course, by "our" legacy, I mean all humans everywhere.

  • And losing even one language makes that picture a lot less clear.

  • So as a job for the past 10 years

  • and also as recreation, just for fun,

  • I create languages.

  • These are called "conlangs,"

  • short for "constructed languages."

  • Now, presenting these facts back to back,

  • that we're losing languages on our planet

  • and that I create brand-new languages,

  • you might think that there's some nonsuperficial connection

  • between these two.

  • In fact, a lot of people have drawn a line between those dots.

  • This is a guy who got all bent out of shape

  • that there was a conlang in James Cameron's "Avatar."

  • He says,

  • "But in the three years it took James Cameron

  • to get Avatar to the screen, a language died."

  • Probably a lot more than that, actually.

  • "Na'vi, alas, won't fill the hole where it used to be ..."

  • A truly profound and poignant statement --

  • if you don't think about it at all.

  • (Laughter)

  • But when I was here at Cal,

  • I completed two majors.

  • One of them was linguistics, but the other one was English.

  • And of course, the English major, the study of English,

  • is not actually the study of the English language, as we know,

  • it's the study of literature.

  • Literature is just a wonderful thing,

  • because basically, literature, more broadly, is kind of like art;

  • it falls under the rubric of art.

  • And what we do with literature,

  • authors create new, entire beings and histories.

  • And it's interesting to us to see

  • what kind of depth and emotion and just unique spirit

  • authors can invest into these fictional beings.

  • So much so, that, I mean -- take a look at this.

  • There's an entire series of books

  • that are written about fictional characters.

  • Like, the entire book is just about one fictional, fake human being.

  • There's an entire book on George F. Babbitt

  • from Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt,"

  • and I guarantee you, that book is longer than "Babbitt,"

  • which is a short book.

  • Does anybody even remember that one?

  • It's pretty good, I actually think it's better than "Main Street."

  • That's my hot take.

  • So we've never questioned the fact that literature is interesting.

  • But despite the fact,

  • not even linguists are actually interested in what created languages can tell us

  • about the depth of the human spirit just as an artistic endeavor.

  • I'll give you a nice little example here.

  • There was an article written about me

  • in the California alumni magazine a while back.

  • And when they wrote this article,

  • they wanted to get somebody from the opposing side,

  • which, in hindsight, seems like a weird thing to do.

  • You're just talking about a person,

  • and you want to get somebody from the opposing side of that person.

  • (Laughter)

  • Essentially, this is just a puff piece, but whatever.

  • So, they happened to get

  • one of the most brilliant linguists of our time,

  • George Lakoff, who's a linguist here at Berkeley.

  • And his work has basically forever changed the fields of linguistics

  • and cognitive science.

  • And when asked about my work and about language creation in general,

  • he said, "But there's a lot of things to be done in the study of language.

  • You should spend the time on something real."

  • Yeah.

  • "Something real." Does this remind you of anything?

  • To use the very framework that he himself invented,

  • let me refer back to this conceptual metaphor:

  • language is a tool.

  • And he appears to be laboring under this conceptual metaphor;

  • that is, language is useful when it can be used for communication.

  • Language is useless when it can't be used for communication.

  • It might make you wonder: What do we do with dead languages?

  • But anyway.

  • So, because of this idea,

  • it might seem like the very height of absurdity

  • to have a Duolingo course on the High Valyrian language

  • that I created for HBO's "Game of Thrones."