Baker_AtomsCh1-3 - are illustrated by an incident that...

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EEP MYSTERIES OF LANGUAGE are illustrated by an incident that occurred in 1943, when the Japanese military was firmly en- trenched around the Bismarck Archipelago. American pilots bad nick- named the harbor of Rabaul "Dead End" because so many of them were shot down by antiaircraft guns placed in the surrounding hills. It became apparent that the Japanese could easily decode Allied messages and thus were forewarned about the time and place of each attack. The Marine Corps responded by calling in one of their most ef- fective secret weapons: eleven Navajo Indians. These were members of the famous Code Talkers, whose native language was the one ci- pher the Japanese cryptographers were never able to break. The Navajos quickly provided secure communications, and the area was soon taken with minimal further losses. Such incidents were repeated throughout the Pacific theater in World War 11. Years after the end of the war, a U.S. president commended the Navajo Code Talkers with the following words: "Their resourcefulness, tenacity, integrity and courage saved the lives of countless men and women and sped the re- alization of peace for war-torn lands." But it was not only their re- sourcefulness, tenacity, integrity, and courage that made possible their remarkable contribution: It was also their language. This incident vividly illustrates the fundamental puzzle of linguis- tics. On the one hand, Navajo must be extremely different from Ens-
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2 The Atoms of Language lish (and fapanese), or the men listening to the Code Talkers' trans- missions would eventually have been able to figure out what they. were saying. On the other hand, Navaio must be extremely similar to English (and Tapanese), or the Code Talkers could not have trans- mitted with precision the messages formulated by their English- speaking commanders. Navajo was effective as a code because it had both of these properties. But this seems like a contradiction: How can two languages be simultaneously so similar and so different? This paradox has beset the comparative study of human languages for centuries. Linguists are beginning to understand how the paradox can be dissolved, making it possible for the first time to chart out precisely the ways in which human languages can differ from one an- other and the ways in which they are all the same. Let us first consider more carefully the evidence that languages can be radically different. The Japanese readily solved the various artifi- cial codes dreamed up by Allied cryptographers. Translating a mes- sage from English to Navajo evidently involves transforming it in ways that are more far-reaching than could be imagined by the most clever engineers or mathematicians of that era. This seems more re- markable if one knows something about the codes in use in World War 11, which were markedly more sophisticated than any used be- fore that time. In this respect, an ordinary human language goes far beyond the bounds of what can reasonably be called a code. If the
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This note was uploaded on 10/07/2010 for the course LING 341 taught by Professor Masyayoshida during the Fall '10 term at Northwestern.

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Baker_AtomsCh1-3 - are illustrated by an incident that...

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