Chicken (Ideas) Or Egg (Words): Which One Came First? (a.k.a. The Grand Debate of the Linguists)

Here’s an invitation to one of the most contested preposition in the study of language: whether or not human minds are capable of producing thoughts had there been no supporting vocabularies to express them. Say: 1) would our eyes be able to differentiate the color ‘turquoise’ from generic ‘blue’ had fashion given less crap about it? 2) would any adult be able to understand the number of chocolate in a box had English decided to delete numbers from dictionary? and 3) would these questions have even the slightest chance to pop in my head had my parents chosen to forbid me from learning language?


A number of scholars confidently nods to that possibility. Steven Pinker, taking sides with Noam Chomsky in The Language Instinct, argues that yes, even without the words to describe so: 1) we would still have the biological capacity to strike a line in the color spectrum of green-blue for ‘turquoise’, 2) we would know if some of our sweets are missing, and 3) I would regardless be curious about how language shapes the way we think. They both believe that humans are born with the innate talent to communicate with one another, and that the Eskimos’ ambitious naming of ice only affirms that tribes will eventually come up with specific terminologies when there’s a necessity for it.

This has been a strong rebuttal to George Orwell, whose 1984 depicts the scary scenario where language becomes a means for extreme thought control. In that dystopian world, the Minitrue (Ministry of Truth) modifies English into a much simpler language called Newspeak, whereby the word ‘freedom’ as well as other value-giving adjectives have no rooms for existence. Orwell basically proposes the idea that inventing a language (or in this case destroying one) is a very (if not the most) effective way to disallow thoughts and take over people’s heads. He contends that, not having the word ‘independence’ will profoundly limit a nation’s cognitive ability to understand the concept from the first place, let alone to actually desire it.

So which one actually came first—chicken (ideas) or egg (words)?

Earlier this afternoon a friend tweeted me this article about how a Brazilian indigenous group of 700 people are anumerate for their language’s lack of words for numbers, confirming Orwell’s proposition. A couple of months earlier, however, I bumped into a New York Times post quoted otherwise:

If different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Interpreting bahasa Indonesia into English, for example, will enforce you to be a lot more time-sensitive, while entering French requires you to be significantly more gender-sensitive. These aspects of language do not particularly permit or ban you from thinking in a certain way, they just push you to pay more attention to certain details.

Just last week, the same friend introduced me to Ngram, Google’s not-so-new yet very fascinating webtool. Also dubbed as ‘the language time machine‘, this feature lets users identify the frequency of word usage over time, using Google’s storage of thousands of electronic books as a database.

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 10.21.50 AM

Quite interestingly, upon entering the words ‘colonialism’, ‘imperialism’, ‘exploitation’, ‘communism’, and ‘capitalism’, a similar rise-and-fall fashion can be observed (see graphic above). Looking retrospectively, of course, it is apparent that a link between history and such vocabula-trend does exist, although a deeper research must be taken before coming up with any conclusion at all. If anything: Ngram shows us that words are invented and consequently expire when a new, more suitable word replaces it.

Quite related to that: I have spent the last few months assisting a senior on a research about Indonesia’s foreign policy during Soekarno’s era using a discourse analysis approach. The analysis (partly out on The Establishment Post) includes an identification of keywords that we assess as the late president’s building blocs to establish Indonesia’s position as the leader of Third World countries, collecting countries’ favor to vote for us on the West Irian issue. It was an entirely different dimension in doing an International Relations research, and I am quite grateful to have been involved in it (yes, Yere, that’s my thank you note right there).

As usual, in addition to my being too coward to draw any conclusion, I believe you will have more fun figuring out the truth by yourself. So yeah, the chicken-or-egg rhetoric will sit there for a while. In case you haven’t been interested in language, think about how its affects are truly profound in shaping civilization (thus ideas traveling through time).

P.S. Apology to the fact that a classic clock makes no relations whatsoever to the topic being discussed; I just found the picture very pretty. Hope you had a great Sunday.

Meet Argots and Verlan

Do you recall the last time we use coded language with our peers?

I remember using ‘the g-code’ during my elementary school years. The rule goes like this: “add -g(a/i/u/e/o) to each syllable in your sentence”. Thus, “Eh, cowok itu ganteng banget,” would be “Egeh, cogowogok igitugu gagantegeng bagangeget.” The basic idea is to prevent outsiders from understanding our conversation, and this coded language was quite practical until more and more people know about it and making it unclassified enough to actually be called a ‘code’.

The Roman armies did it better. They use Caesar’s Chipher and wrote down sentences that can only be decoded by this cipher. For example, if you set the code to +3, then:

  • A = D | O = R
  • C = F | R = U
  • E = H | S = V
  • H = K | W = Z
  • L = O | Y = B
  • N = Q

So the sentence “Why wheels won cars?” is going to be written as “Zkb zkhhov zrq fduv?” making the non-intended receiver of the message who doesn’t udnerstand cryptography wouldn’t be able to read your message.


These codes are called argot in French. Here goes the most interesting part: today’s French youths also use argot in their everyday language through transposing syllables of individual words to create new slang words, and they name the code as verlan. In other words, verlan features inversion of syllables of a word formed by switching the order in which syllables from the original word are pronounced. For example, français becomes cèfran.

I find this fact very interestingly new, because I thought French only provides extra vocabularies for romantic lines. I did not expect French to have certain ‘style of language’ that is used by their teenagers like verlan.

Just as the information is not interesting enough, the word verlan itself apparently is a verlan from l’envers (lan-ver), meaning “the inverse”. Exactly like the fact that ‘portmanteau’ was a portmanteau of porte and manteau.

The pronunciation of a verlan generally retains the pronunciation of the original syllables with exception for one-syllable-words (poor thy). There are also words that can be verlan-ised in more than one way, like cigarette which yields both retsiga or garetsi.

So, have you met Argots and Verlan? You can go here for more information on verlan.


In face-to-face interactions, face expression is inevitably important, almost on the same level-of-importance with intonation. In written interactions, this function is replaced by something called ’emoticons’. We sound amiable by putting ‘:)’ in the end of our sentence, and convey that we dislike something by using ‘:(‘.

I was curious upon who invented this genius thing, so I browsed and found that the blame should be thrown to Scott Fahlman in 1982 who made the first smiley! Through the computer network of Carnegie Mellon University, he posted:

19-Sep-82 11:44
From: Scott E Fahlman
I propose that the following character sequence
for joke markers: 
Read it sideways.
Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things
that are NOT jokes, given current trends.
For this, use: 


An voila, just like that, the meme does it job and become a worldwide trend! Nowadays, the usage probably varies beyond what Mr Fahlman expected, but we’ll always owe him for initiating the use of consequence-of-symbols to express ‘layered’ intentions.

Years have passed and technology develops. Today, you aren’t just able to express happiness or sadness, but also actions! Instead of ‘hugs’ you can write ‘({})’, you can ‘kiss’ someone through ‘:*’, and you can say that you’re ‘not interested’ by using ‘3-|’ emoticon.

Unique thing is the fact that there are several alternatives to these emoticons. Some people mark Yahoo!’s emoticons as their favorites, while others are so familiar only with Blackberry’s.

I. Blackberry Messenger




III. Yahoo! Messenger


Somehow, different developers convey different expression and leave different effects on the readers. ‘Smiling’ on Yahoo! has a slight difference with ‘smiling on MSN, for example. And this is an interesting phenomena that I’d like to explore more about.

Second interesting fact that lures my attention is how there are people who are very attached to these emoticons they can hardly write any single thing without them whereas there are ones who do not like using them at all. Not to mention that there is an accepted assumption that (assuming you haven’t met both), people who use emoticons are friendlier than those who don’t.

I bet the word ’emoticon’ is a portmanteau from ’emotion’ and ‘icon’. Probably because these icons emit certain emotions. But does that mean icons showing only certain goods like rose or clover can’t be called ’emoticon’? Who invented such portmanteau anyway?

(You might want to sue me because this post has more questions than it provides information. Sorry. Happy Saturdating!)

Holy Guacamole!

I’ve been frequently using the phrase during the past week and plausibly left some people questioning on what it means. Truth be told, it has no meanings.


According to, the word ‘word’, means:

A unit of language, consisting one or more spoken sounds or their written representation that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.

It is punctuated that a word per se is a ‘carrier of meaning’. Nevertheless, this ‘meaning’ does not have to be explicit. In other words, there are words whose meaning hides somewhere between layers of understanding. Human kind is such an interesting species that can, believe it or not, communicate without basic agreement on which means what.

Take, ‘alamak’, for instance. No Indonesian nor Malaysian can help you comprehend what it means. However, each and everyone of them knows when they can use such expression. We have gah, meh, woot, and more words to tell people that you’re surprised, words to show people that you’re amazed, but we can’t actually define what these words ‘mean’.

It is the privilege of human beings to acquire and use complex systems of communication–way more complicated than a bee-dance is–and it’s called language. Be proud to have it.

I Hate Translations

“Translation is like cruelly mutilating a human’s body into parts and rejoin them afterwards.” Jean Paul Sartre, Les Mots

Let’s skip the ‘this-might-not-make-sense-to-you’ appetizer and get to the main meal. Translation, as how Sartre (paradoxically rendered from French) opened this post, is a highway shortcut for people who don’t have the high-motivation to take the long, winding road a.k.a. ‘comprehend literatures–or speeches–in the purest form’. These are people who don’t have time to learn languages, who don’t care if they might misunderstand some part of it as long as they have the raw apprehension.


“Insert beautiful shapes and I’ll transform them into new, shapeless ones!”
said the machine.

Surprisingly, I’ve met several exceptional minds who prefer to take hard lane. A teacher of mine, Mas Iqbal, spent at least 6 months studying German in order to understand Marx’s Das Kapital. Many others probably go to Kairo University, learn Arabic and everything before they have the holistic comprehension when they read the Quran.

Translation, my friends, is a semantic crime. No two words in different languages are ever completely interchangable. I hardly understand how translators have the heart to kill a sentence’s truest meaning and offer some shallow substitution. To my eyes, translation is like breaking a sentence into pieces and trying to rebuild them with weak glue. I always believe that there are cultural and historical aspects behind vocabularies–which mostly aren’t comparable in other nations’ chronicles.

However, getting your ideas translated to a number of languages (let’s call Dee’s Supernova or Ayu Utami’s Saman) is inevitably an honor for writers. To that we–I–can’t deny. (Not to mention the fact that I first met the magic world of Harry’s at my 3rd grade through bahasa Indonesia and not English.) Translation, hence, is an addictive yet destructive drug.