Nav: Home

Stretching language to its limit

December 07, 2017

Language - humanity's finest attribute - becomes stretched to its limit when faced with sacrifice, sexuality, or the brutality of war and predation. In the article "A space that will never be filled: Sharp communication and the simultaneity of opposites," published in the latest issue of Current Anthropology, author Alex Pillen documents a search for what she calls "antipodal words," words that encapsulate their opposite, or carry out U-turn in meaning.

The article begins with a field note regarding a random meeting between two enemies that took place over a decade ago in Turkey. One man was the recipient of torture, the other a policeman - the torturer. The two men recognize each other and engage in a conversation. They shake hands. The handshake - and image of one hand trembling in the other - conjures opposing worlds; a re-assertion of humanity through ritualized gesture, being horrifying at the same time. Like animals, wolves-when-together, they become addressed as humans when singled out: 'I gave him my hand'. The communication between the men stands out as a representation of the friction between incommensurable worlds, conceived together, a representation also found in Pillen's antipodal words.

Pillen presents an assemblage of five pertinent examples: the first focuses on Amerindian languages from the Amazon. The Amerindian thought poses challenges to our understanding of the nature of languages spoken by humans who share predatory qualities with other beings, including animals. Another example is of a Sanskrit word from ancient India that means both prodigy and misdeed, furthering the image of the sedimentation of chronic warfare and volatility into a people's language habits. Other anchor points include the study of sacrifice and divination by leading Africanists within anthropology, and the literary criticism of William Empson. The world of French philosophy and postmodern attitudes towards the substantive word are the final examples: the fate of words as they convey revolution, death, sex and radical displacement for the French.

As each of the distinct examples play out against one another, they keep their integrity afforded by a closed circle of quotations from distinct disciplinary zones. Placed together as such, the conglomerate of images highlights a common awareness and sharpness of perception - or recognition of opposing points of view. Antipodal words are thereby characterized in this paper as a form of "sharp communication" and irony. In a contemporary world where arrogant self-satisfaction and partisanship are the source of much adversity and violence, such an awareness enshrined in languages merits further attention. The article implies that antipodal words emerge as the nuclear material of languages, embodying "a space that will never be filled." Alongside their formidable potential to articulate predation, violence, revolution, and human excess, antipodal words are portrayed as a form of linguistic growth on the edge of bloody and inarticulate conflicts, briefly opening a semiotic window onto the unspeakable.
Current Anthropology publishes research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. Communicating across the subfields, the journal features papers in a wide variety of areas, including social, cultural, and physical anthropology as well as ethnology and ethnohistory, archaeology and prehistory, folklore, and linguistics.

Author: Alex Pillen


Marsha Ross

University of Chicago Press Journals

Related Language Articles:

New research quantifies how much speakers' first language affects learning a new language
Linguistic research suggests that accents are strongly shaped by the speaker's first language they learned growing up.
Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.
Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.
Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.
Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.
Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language
Sign languages can help reveal hidden aspects of the logical structure of spoken language, but they also highlight its limitations because speech lacks the rich iconic resources that sign language uses on top of its sophisticated grammar.
Lying in a foreign language is easier
It is not easy to tell when someone is lying.
American sign language and English language learners: New linguistic research supports the need for policy changes
A new study of the educational needs of students who are native users of American Sign Language (ASL) shows glaring disparities in their treatment by the U.S Department of Education.
The language of facial expressions
University of Miami Psychology Professor Daniel Messinger collaborated with researchers at Western University in Canada to show that our brains are pre-wired to perceive wrinkles around the eyes as conveying more intense and sincere emotions.
The universal language of hormones
Bioinformatics specialists from the University of Würzburg have studied a specific class of hormones which is relevant for plants, bacteria and indirectly for humans, too.
More Language News and Language Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at