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Polylogic Minds: Interview with Dr. Soteria (Roula) Svorou

Niko Shido interviews the linguist Dr. Roula Svorou

The linguist Dr. Svorou introduces that the field of linguistics is also converging with other fields. By merging the boundaries of different fields such as computation, physiology, philosophy, digital media, cognitive science and neuroscience, humans will be able to speculate the complexity of gestalt mazes about humans as if destinations of each different field were actually identical. The crossroads of the study of linguistics and the multi-disciplines will unblock the spots which humans have been or have still not yet been aware of. Languages give humans the frames of concepts and also give the tools to unlock the mind to enter higher levels of cogitations and perceptions as similar to those who implement technology in order to visualize or to simulate potentials. Languages also activate and inactivate thoughts and change the frequencies of the mind. Transvergence as semantic networks, noetic patterns have been weaved endlessly in the confluences of scholars. Dr. Svorou speculates that digital media art would be the conductions of these complex nodes of multi-discourses, while implementing languages as avatars of human mind, which ignite to hybridize new terminals of transvergence.

Niko: Why are you fascinated with languages?

Roula: The cliché that “language is a window to the human mind” captures partially the reason for my fascination with language. Linguistic categories give us a glimpse into what conceptual categories are like. Their careful consideration allows us to see the cognitive infrastructure of language. But language is also a product of social interaction, so linguistic categories also reveal the web of interconnections that speakers build as they negotiate meaning in the process of discourse. Moreover, comparison of languages allows us to make generalizations about commonalities, language universals, on the one hand, and to catalogue differences in the form of typology, on the other, thus adding yet another dimension to the language puzzle.

Niko: Would you tell me the domains of your interests? To my impression, your theory synthesizes elements of languages, navigation, space, cognition, perception, and semiotics. What kind of ecology is captured in the conceptual structure?

Roula: If one is interested in finding evidence for the hypothesis that linguistic categories are made of the same fabric as conceptual categories, that linguistic categories are subject to the same constraints as perceptual categories, one of the best domains to research is that of spatial relations. My research into the way languages express spatial relations has shown that spatial language has an experiential basis which is revealed not only in the way spatial terms are used to communicate the location of objects in space or to give directions, but also in the way they evolve.

Niko: When I saw the diagrams of the spatial topological domain and the Euclidean distance model in the journal by the Language and Cognition Group, I thought it could be considered as art if it was presented in the field of interdisciplinary arts. Representations of systems and theories as art, how would you categorize and name such art?

Roula: Indeed linguists, in their attempt to communicate to other scholars their ideas about the nature of linguistic categories and their proposed metalanguage for the description of meaning, have used graphic representations of various sorts. Ronald Langacker, among them, has a unique system of representing configurations of the meaning of constructions and clauses in his theory of Cognitive Grammar. His claim is that linguistic categories are conceptual categories and his diagrams represent conceptual configurations. Other linguists, including Stephen Levinson and the Language and Cognition Group at Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics, and myself, have tried to create conceptual maps of lexical fields, such as spatial relations, in a sort of cognitive/linguistic geography to show the similarity and difference among senses in terms of distance in two dimensions or in multiple dimensions. All these are examples of spatialization of thought that turns out to be useful in comprehending and communicating about abstract concepts. Such graphic representations can be though of as functional art for linguists: it helps them do what they do in a cool way.

Niko: According to philosopher John Searle’s strong AI concept, “the computer is not merely a tool in the study of the mind; rather, the appropriately programmed computer really is a mind, in the sense that computers given the right programs can be literally said to understand and have other cognitive states. In strong AI, because the programmed computer has cognitive states, the programs are not mere tools that enable us to test psychological explanations; rather, the programs are themselves the explanations.” ["Minds, Brains, and Programs," by John R. Searle, from The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 3. 1980. Cambridge University Press.] He also stated that computers couldn’t have minds because computers do not have intentionality. Psychologist Lawrence W. Barsalou stated that computers couldn’t be like a brain, because computers do not have sensory systems. From the point of view of the linguist, would you tell me what computers lack in order to function comparatively with the likeness of minds or brains?

Roula: Traditionally, linguists made a distinction between denotation and connotation with regards to the meaning of words. Semantics was supposed to be the study of the denotation of words and phrases, connotation being in the realm of pragmatics. Whereas it is possible to code the denotation of a word, its literal meaning, in a computer environment, it is a lot harder to code connotations. Some connotations may be shared by a group of speakers, but others may be personal to a speaker. I guess one could see this as a storage problem for the computer but I believe that it is a lot more than that. The denotation-connotation distinction has recently become controversial particularly by the denial of the clear boundary between semantics and pragmatics by cognitive linguists. In this theoretical approach, context, the main source of connotations, is not separate from the literal meaning of an expression but rather it is a part of it. In such a model of language in which language becomes one element out of many elements in a scene which contribute to the creation of meaning, the problem of “making the computers talk like you and me” becomes enormous. Understanding does not involve simply matching words with meanings in a lexicon, but rather constructing a reality from a multimodal interface that may include perceptual information from various sensory venues, cultural, and interactional information, in addition to information provided through language. Now, that’s what’s hard to simulate in a computer.

Niko: There is an interdisciplinary fusion with diverse realms of discourses in the field of linguistics by connecting with the fields of computer science, mathematics, cognitive science, psychology, and philosophy. These genres seem to merge in order to form speculative ideas. What sorts of “Transvergence” is happening in the field of linguistics, and what are some reactions of academics?

Roula: Cognitive linguists are looking closely to experimental evidence from cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics and now have started to be interested in advances from neuroscience as well. I believe that there has to be an open discourse among the disciplines for scholars to understand the nature of language, the human mind and human behavior. I see aspects of computer science that deal with language, that is, natural language processing, speech recognition and speech synthesis, as a test ground for linguistic theories on the one hand, but on the other, as a source of new technology that can help us in the analysis of language. For example, the availability of searchable language corpora has opened up a new world for linguists. The ability to collect large amounts of data at the hit of a button will have unprecedented consequences for the field and will alter the way we think about linguistic categories.

Niko: The fields of linguistics, philosophy, computation, and psychology are continually interacting and exchanging their theories to build holistic concepts. How could the field of digital media arts contribute to the scene?

Roula: From the early days of inquiry into the nature of language, scholars tried to comprehend language by employing metaphors that have a spatial basis. Grammars of the classical languages (Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin) for example, included tables of verb declinations and noun declensions, the so-called ‘paradigms’, as a way of organizing linguistic knowledge. This way of representing structure persists to this day because it spatializes knowledge in a way that is very easy for humans to comprehend. Contemporary linguists, especially ones who investigate linguistic phenomena using language corpora, face a big challenge in representing the multiple variables that are involved in naturally occurring language. Digital Media Art, in my understanding of the field, not only allows for multidimensionality but multidimensionality is its very essence. I can see a very promising and rewarding collaboration of linguists and digital artists in this enterprise. For example, to create a model of what goes on in the human mind during conversation, simply in terms of the creation of meaning, let alone the neurophysiological aspects of the process, requires keeping track of a great number of phonological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic variables. Linguists tend to study these separately to keep complexity low. I can imagine a digital media artist being excited about the prospect of representing human conversation, using a multidimensional space. A linguist would be similarly excited about having a tool that would be able to handle human language. Speech technology and natural language processing are tackling this problem, of course, but the representational tools they use are not necessarily artistic or accessible to outsiders. So, I see a potentially exciting collaboration here.

Dr. Soteria (Roula) Svorou, originally from Greece, has a B.A. degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Athens, Greece and a M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Linguistics from University at Buffalo (SUNY). She researches on semantic and linguistic structures, which include the spatial, geographic, cognitive, and linguistic perspectives. Her research has been presented internationally. In the U.S., one of her works contributed to the International Symposium on Geographic Information Systems. She co-edits the series on Cognitive Linguistics for John Benjamins Publishing (Amsterdam).

Dr. Svorou is an assistant professor of Linguistics and Language Development at San José State University. Her scholarly interests are cognitive linguistics, semantics, syntax, language universals and typology, historical linguistics, and grammaticalization.

Created by mweisert
Last modified 2005-05-02 13:39

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