The Ascent of Babel: An Exploration of Language, Mind, and Understanding

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9780198523772: The Ascent of Babel: An Exploration of Language, Mind, and Understanding

The brain holds some 10 billion neurons, an truly amazing number. But taken one at a time, there is nothing amazing about a nerve cell. If you stimulate one, it will stimulate other neurons to which it is connected. And that is all that a neuron does. And yet arising from this great mass of simple cells is every one of our mental faculties, including perhaps the most marvelous of all, our use of language. How do neurons take tiny vibrations on the ear drum and somehow capture meanings about the world? How does the brain understand written words and how does it form a reply? In The Ascent of Babel, psycholinguist Gerry Altmann offers a state-of-the-art look at what we now know about the miracle of language.
Here is a wide ranging, engaging tour of how we use language. Altmann begins even before we are born, revealing that the fetus in the last trimester is already listening to the language of its parents and that, within days of birth, it can distinguish its parents' language from other languages. He discusses the incredible progress the child makes in language recognition (expanding from 100 words at age one to some 60,000 words by adulthood) and he looks at the neural activity involved in language perception, revealing for instance that the pattern of neural activity evoked by a sentence like "the bald man ate a big fish" is probably quite similar to that evoked by actually seeing a bald man eat a big fish. There is an illuminating section on spoken language, highlighting some of the differences between various tongues (English has some 12,000 syllables, for example, while Japanese uses fewer than 120, which explains why Japanese words tend to have many syllables). Altmann shows how errors we make when speaking--such as malapropisms and spoonerisms (garbled utterances such as "The lord is a shoving leopard")--can tell us much about how we plan and execute a spoken sentence, and he explores what happens when the brain misfunctions, as it does in aphasia, dyslexia, and other forms of language deficit, such as Pure Word Deafness (where patients can read, write, and speak normally, but can't understand words spoken to them). Finally, in one of the most intriguing sections of the book, the author provides a fascinating account of recent experiments in artificial neural networks, describing how scientists simulate neuronal activity on a computer, and explaining why their results seem to provide an alternative to the theories of Noam Chomsky about innate structures in the brain.
The Ascent of Babel is a journey of discovery, illuminating how, through the workings of the brain, we use language to reach out and touch each other's minds. Up to date, authoritative, and engagingly written, it will be must reading for everyone curious about the mysteries of language or of the mind.

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About the Author:


Gerry T.M. Altmann is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of York.

From Booklist:

Altmann has written a cross between a textbook for beginning psycholinguistic students and a popular science book for laypersons. The audiences for both are similar, but trying to address both leads to an occasionally inconsistent book. Though, as Altmann says in the introduction (quoting Doris Lessing), one should skip however much is necessary to keep the book interesting. Not much needs skipping. Altmann explains in lay terms what psycholinguistics is and how its findings affect what we know of human experience. He also makes clear why experiments are designed the way they are and the inferences drawn from the results. For anyone who has ever pondered why babies speak only their native language, how dyslexics misperceive language, what language learning tells us about human behavior in general, what Noam Chomsky did before becoming a guru, or (especially interesting to readers) the relation of writing to speech, this book explains all in a clear, simple, if sometimes dry manner. Like most good science books, this tells how we know, not what we know. Kevin Grandfield

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Book Description Oxford University Press, United Kingdom, 1999. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Language is one of the faculties that sets humans apart from animals, the crucial thing which makes our complex social interactions possible. The Ascent of Babel explores the ways in which the mind produces and understands language: the ways in which the sounds of language evoke meaning, and the ways in which the desire to communicate causes us to produce those sounds to begin with. The ascent symbolises different things: the progression from sound to meaning, the ascent that we each undergo, from birth onwards, as we learn our mother tongue, and the quest to understand the mental processes which underlie our use of language. Gerry Altmann leads the reader on this ascent - a fascinating tour which takes us from babies learning to say words to the production of spoken and written language, the effects of brain damage on language, and the ways in which computer simulations of interconnecting nerve cells can learn language. The Ascent of Babel is a journey of discovery, written in an engaging and witty style, at the end of which it becomes clear that Babel s summit - the secret of language - may actually lie at its foundations, where babies play and language is learned. Bookseller Inventory # AOP9780198523772

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Book Description Oxford University Press, United Kingdom, 1999. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Language is one of the faculties that sets humans apart from animals, the crucial thing which makes our complex social interactions possible. The Ascent of Babel explores the ways in which the mind produces and understands language: the ways in which the sounds of language evoke meaning, and the ways in which the desire to communicate causes us to produce those sounds to begin with. The ascent symbolises different things: the progression from sound to meaning, the ascent that we each undergo, from birth onwards, as we learn our mother tongue, and the quest to understand the mental processes which underlie our use of language. Gerry Altmann leads the reader on this ascent - a fascinating tour which takes us from babies learning to say words to the production of spoken and written language, the effects of brain damage on language, and the ways in which computer simulations of interconnecting nerve cells can learn language. The Ascent of Babel is a journey of discovery, written in an engaging and witty style, at the end of which it becomes clear that Babel s summit - the secret of language - may actually lie at its foundations, where babies play and language is learned. Bookseller Inventory # AOP9780198523772

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Book Description Oxford University Press, United Kingdom, 1999. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. Language is one of the faculties that sets humans apart from animals, the crucial thing which makes our complex social interactions possible. The Ascent of Babel explores the ways in which the mind produces and understands language: the ways in which the sounds of language evoke meaning, and the ways in which the desire to communicate causes us to produce those sounds to begin with. The ascent symbolises different things: the progression from sound to meaning, the ascent that we each undergo, from birth onwards, as we learn our mother tongue, and the quest to understand the mental processes which underlie our use of language. Gerry Altmann leads the reader on this ascent - a fascinating tour which takes us from babies learning to say words to the production of spoken and written language, the effects of brain damage on language, and the ways in which computer simulations of interconnecting nerve cells can learn language. The Ascent of Babel is a journey of discovery, written in an engaging and witty style, at the end of which it becomes clear that Babel s summit - the secret of language - may actually lie at its foundations, where babies play and language is learned. Bookseller Inventory # BTE9780198523772

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