Tag Archives: Language

Thomas Schelling

In the Washington Post, Henry Farrell writes about Schelling’s work and how it shaped the Cold War.

Schelling’s contribution was to show how the two sides could think systematically about coordinating (where they had common interests) and deterring each other from unwanted actions (where they did not). This arguably gave rise to a much more stable world — the world of the Cold War — where both sides struggled with each other for dominance, but tacitly agreed on some of the rules of the game, and didn’t try to push each other too far. The Cold War was organized around deterrence, and deterrence mostly rested on Schelling’s ideas about credible threats. …

The U.S. stationed a small garrison in Berlin, which was embedded deep in East German territory, and indefensible against any serious attack. As Schelling described it, these soldiers’ job was not to defend the city but to die if it were attacked. This would then trigger a large scale U.S. response, since no U.S. president could tolerate the USSR killing American soldiers and not retaliate. Hence, by the logic of credible threats, the USSR would not attack Berlin.

In the New York Times, William Grimes writes that

Schelling analyzed superpower negotiations in the way that he analyzed the conflicts between, say, a blackmailer and his client, a parent and a child, or management and labor. In each case, he wrote, “there is a mutual dependence as well as opposition,” with each side seeking out tests of strength at less than crisis levels. …

one side in a negotiation can strengthen its position by narrowing its options … He also argued that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation. …

“The Strategy of Conflict” introduced the concept of the focal point, often called the Schelling point, to describe a solution that people reach without benefit of communicating, relying instead on “each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do.” …

Professor Schelling moved on to other social questions that seemed to be fertile ground for game theory, notably the dynamics behind racial change in American neighborhoods.

Why Does Music Give Chills?

David Shariatmadari suggests some answers in The Guardian.

  • What’s happening? An “autonomic nervous system arousal, the evolutionarily ancient preparation for fight or flight.” Plus a positive emotional component, related to brain activity and dopamine release.
  • To whom? Not to everybody. According to some estimates, only to every second non-musician.
  • Why? Emotional experiences can be related to specific musical structures like “enharmonic changes” or “appoggiaturas” (examples given in the article), connected with unexpected, dramatic shifts that force the listener to pay attention. Add to this memories and “feelings of transcendence.” Maybe music helps to form bonds with other human beings or it played a role in the development of language. “Music simply taps into [linguistic ability] in the same way that drugs tap into a system that wasn’t designed for drugs”.
  • Example: “The last few minutes of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the last page or so of the Dona Nobis Pacem.”

Swiss German, Standard German, and Swiss Standard German

In the NZZ am Sonntag, Reto Hunziker argues that the schooling system in the German speaking part of Switzerland undermines students’ ability to speak proper German. Hunziker wants the Swiss to speak either their Swiss German dialect or Standard German—not the Swiss German dialect or Standard-German-As-Spoken-In-Schools-In-Switzerland.

Wikipedia article on High German languages. Wikipedia article on German dialects.

Languages, Specifically English

Dylan Matthews presents interesting facts about the use of languages, their roots and in particular, about the English language, in Vox.

The median number of languages spoken in Denmark, the Netherlands or Slovenia equals 3. In the English language, the letter “b” mostly appears at the beginning of a word, the letter “d” at the end and the letter “u” in the middle. Also in the English language, a “d” or “y” is most often followed by a blank; a “h”, “v” or “z” by an “e”; and a “q” almost always by a “u”. And the most common letter combinations in Google Book archive are


Languages and Their Structure

Martin Haspelmath has posted a fascinating set of slides (PDF, in German) about languages. Some facts:

  • About 7000 languages are spoken; more than 800 in Papua New Guinea; 170 in the US; 7 in Germany.
  • About 150 languages are spoken in Europe.
  • 280 languages are spoken by more than one million people each, 450 languages by less than one hundred people each.
  • The ranking of languages: 1. Mandarin. 2. English. 3. Spanish. 4. Hindi. 5. Arabic. 6. Portuguese. 7. Bengali. 8. Russian. 9. Japanese. 10. German.
  • Roughly half of the world population speak one of these ten languages.
  • The Georgian language allows for up to 7 consonants in a row.
  • All languages feature words and sentences; questions and negation; names; expressions for “up” and “down.”
  • Not all languages distinguish tempi or feature adjectives or expressions for numbers or for “and, or, left, right.”