Sunday, February 26, 2006

Two from CogNews: Brain Evolution, Speech Sound Processing, and the Whorf Hypothesis Revisited

Here's three interesting pieces from CogNews:

"Brain processing of speech sounds is different in some dialects of the same language"

This theory offers an answer human brain evolution version of the chicken and egg question. What's interesting, at least for me, is that my wife's been reading about omega-3 fatty acids and its role in brain functions (everything from mental health to memory to learning disorders to Alzheimer's treatments) and general physical health. Our brains are mostly made up of omega-3 fatty acids, and, in short, we don't get nearly as much omega-3 fatty acids in our diets as we used to, and Americans have one of the lowest levels of omega-3 rich diets in the world. This study, or at least this report of the study, plays up the importance of iodine, but this diet would have been omega-3 rich as well.

"Brain processing of speech sounds is different in some dialects of the same language

This is a report on a study of the differences in brain processing between vowel-merged and unmerged dialect speakers. It's building from the idea The topic of vowel merging is of real interest to me because I'm from a vowel-merged dialect (Western US) and I can not hear or pronounce the two low back vowels used in "paw" and "pot." Instead, I hear and say a medial vowel. A couple of years ago a graduate student who had immigrated from India joined the department and I found myself unable to pronounce her name. It became something of a game for us, but it finally dawned on me why I couldn't get it right--her name has one of those two vowels I don't recognize. I tried to explain the problem, but she wasn't buying it until our History of the English Language specialist walked by and I asked that he tell her I couldn't pronounce her name. He asked her to pronounce it, and then laughed and said, "Oh, no, John can't pronounce that."

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