Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Amy Bracken Sparks posted a link to this video on her blog. YouTube is not letting me update my settings, so I can't post the video, but it's a video posted by an autistic woman about her language.

It's hauntingly beautiful. It raises, for me, a tremendous number of questions about language and about the role of language in our interaction with the world.

I've posted about taste, supertasters and flavors. The world of flavor is full of strange correspondances. The distinctive flavor of celery comes from compounds called phthalides, which are also in walnuts. Which is why walnuts and celery compliment each other in Waldorf salad. Brussel sprouts contain very high levels sinigrin, which tastes bitter but breaks down when the vegetables are cooked. Unfortunately they also contain progoitrin which is nonbitter, but under heat produces a bitter thiocyanate. For me, the bitterness is not overwhelming. I don't detect enough of it because I don't have enough bitter receptors on my tongue to do so.

It's the same vegetable. But my spectrum of taste is not sufficient to be put off by it. (I like my brussel sprouts sauteed with butter and walnuts and sprinkled with parmesian cheese.) There are chemicals in celery and walnuts and brussel sprouts that I don't taste, and that no human tastes. Does oxygen have a taste? How would we know?

We see along an equally limited spectrum. What color is ultraviolet? The question is meaningless, unless I'm a bee.

How do we organize the world we live in? Dolphins, whales and bats have a whole sensory apparatus we don't. What does sonar mean? What does it mean to hear the world as texture? As shape?

Watching "In My Own Language" is like getting a glimpse. This is organized for me. It feels as if it has meaning. And yet, what does it mean to say 'language' when it is about interaction, not communication? How much is our language about our environment?


Blogger Ted said...

There's a lengthy discussion thread about the video on MetaFilter here, which includes comments by the woman who made the video.

February 01, 2007 1:39 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Maureen, I blogged this video on my new website (have you seen it yet?) as well. It is such an amazing thing.

February 01, 2007 3:00 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Chris, I had found your new website, but not yet your new blog. Got it bookmarked now.

Ted, thanks for the link to metafilter.

No one seems to be talking about language as a way to structure environment. Which I want to talk about soon.

February 01, 2007 10:08 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I can't wait to read what you have to say about it. Right now I'm still processing the implications and trying to sort it out. She definitely seems to at least have gotten people on a big scale to think and talk about this together.

February 02, 2007 8:48 AM  

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