Is DNA the Language of the Book of Life?
Thinking of nucleobases as a long sequence of letters may contribute to the illusion that DNA is a language.Neil Palmer / CIAT via Flickr When we talk about genes, we often use expressions inherited from a few influential geneticists and evolutionary biologists, including Francis Crick, James Watson, and Richard Dawkins. These expressions depict DNA as […]
Mumbling Isn’t a Sign of Laziness—It’s a Clever Data-Compression Trick
Many of us have been taught that pronouncing vowels indistinctly and dropping consonants are symptoms of slovenly speech, if not outright disregard for the English language. The Irish playwright St. John Ervine viewed such habits as evidence that some speakers are “weaklings too languid and emasculated to speak their noble language with any vigor.” If […]
A New Shield Against Grammar Naziism: Science!
spaxiax via Shutterstock Over his career, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has taken on a wide range of research and writing subjects, and his work has provoked big debates in most, if not all, of them. His latest book, The Sense of Style, is about another farflung topic—grammar—and his iconoclastic opinions have, predictably, drawn […]
We All Used to Be Geniuses
To adults learning a second language, it hardly seems fair: As they stumble their way through conjugation drills, fret over grammar textbooks, and fill in worksheets on constructing subordinate clauses, their children sop up the language while finger painting at preschool. Within months, correct syntax pours itself out of the tykes’ mouths, involving no […]
The Family That Couldn’t Say Hippopotamus
The origins of language are not what inherited disorders seemed to suggest.
Being a Guest Is Good, But Home Sweet Home is Worth Gold
This month Nautilus is tackling the idea of home—what it is, what it means to us, and how we find our way there. Along the way, we’re discovering that home is an essential idea for humans, the subject of countless songs, poems, movies, paintings, novels, and idioms. In English, home is where the heart is. There’s […]
View From the Inside: How Gang Members Use Secret Codes
Everyone knows Thomas Angel Porter as AROCKS, a name he was given while growing up in Harlem during the 1990s. While playing basketball with his crew of friends, they would constantly yell at him to pass the ball, or “rock.” Within the next year his crew of friends were recruited—along with thousands of black youths […]
The Prison Guard With a Gift for Cracking Gang Codes
Former correction officer Gary Klivans doesn’t want to be photographed more clearly for fear of gang retaliation.Gary Klivans As a corrections officer at a Westchester County, N.Y., prison in the 1990s, Gary Klivans was a one-man gang unit. Members of The Latin Kings and the Bloods made up a sizable part of the prison population. […]
A Computer Program That Hacks Language & Exposes US Secrets
One of the most significant effects of the ongoing NSA surveillance scandal is that it drew so much attention to the massive secret, official world that’s grown up in the US since the 9/11 attacks. These clandestine operations have undergone a dramatic recent expansion, though there is of course a long history of clandestine activity […]
Literature by the Numbers
Critical reading gets even better when you use your computer.