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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
Ah, but I love to draw beautiful words, like trumpets of light…I adore you, words who are sensitive to our sufferings, words in red and lemon yellow, words in the steel-blue colour of certain insects, words with the scent of vibrant skills, subtle words of fragrant roses and seaweed, prickly words of sky-blue wasps. words with powerful snouts, words of spotless ermine, words spat out by the sands of the sea, words greener than Cyrene fleece, discreet words whispered by fishes in the pink ears of shells, bitter words, tornado and storm-tossed words, being beaten, evil words, festive words, tornado and storm-tossed words, windy words, reedy words, the wise words of children, rainy, tearful words, words without rhyme or reason, I love you! I love you!
- James Ensor, belgian printmaker and painter on language.
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Poetry prevents everybody from feeling lonely.
- Nikki Giovanni, from The Read Around
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I’m mesmerized by this robot that writes slow meandering poetry out of sand. Brings a whole new meaning to the impermanence of language and art.

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An enchanting hour of poetry drawing on the ways family and religion shape our lives. Marie Howe, poet laureate of New York State, works and plays with her Catholic upbringing, the universal drama of family, and the ordinary time that sustains us. The moral life, she says, is lived out in what we say as much as what we do — and so words have a power to save us.

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The election is over, and it seems like now is as good occasion as ever to turn to poetry. Non? Who better to turn to than Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who wrote and delivered "Praise Song for the Day" at President Obama’s inauguration.

She sees poetry as providing the language that elevates and emboldens rather than demeans and alienates. And, despite these times when more and more of the world requires hard data and the certainty of facts, Ms. Alexander tells us what poetry works in us — and in our children — and why it may become more relevant, not less so, in hard and complicated times.

Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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The Final Words of Texas’ Death Row Offenders Made Visual
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The poet Elizabeth Alexander once asked, "What if the mightiest word is love?"
For the 280 men and one woman executed in Texas between 2000 and 2012, “love” was the mightiest word — by an overwhelming margin, with three out of five saying the word in their last living moments.
Dylan C. Lathrop and GOOD created this graphic with a word cloud generated from the offenders’ final thoughts shortly before they were put to death. The word “love” was used by 173 of the 281 people. That’s more than 60 percent. Nearly half of them mentioned religion in some form, using “God” and “Jesus” and “Lord,” to name a few. And note the petitions of prayer, expressions of apology and notions of family are present in their minds. Some were silent, others were defiant — and I’m guessing that’s why “warden” shows up so prominently.
The Final Words of Texas’ Death Row Offenders Made Visual
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The poet Elizabeth Alexander once asked, "What if the mightiest word is love?"
For the 280 men and one woman executed in Texas between 2000 and 2012, “love” was the mightiest word — by an overwhelming margin, with three out of five saying the word in their last living moments.
Dylan C. Lathrop and GOOD created this graphic with a word cloud generated from the offenders’ final thoughts shortly before they were put to death. The word “love” was used by 173 of the 281 people. That’s more than 60 percent. Nearly half of them mentioned religion in some form, using “God” and “Jesus” and “Lord,” to name a few. And note the petitions of prayer, expressions of apology and notions of family are present in their minds. Some were silent, others were defiant — and I’m guessing that’s why “warden” shows up so prominently.

The Final Words of Texas’ Death Row Offenders Made Visual

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The poet Elizabeth Alexander once asked, "What if the mightiest word is love?"

For the 280 men and one woman executed in Texas between 2000 and 2012, “love” was the mightiest word — by an overwhelming margin, with three out of five saying the word in their last living moments.

Dylan C. Lathrop and GOOD created this graphic with a word cloud generated from the offenders’ final thoughts shortly before they were put to death. The word “love” was used by 173 of the 281 people. That’s more than 60 percent. Nearly half of them mentioned religion in some form, using “God” and “Jesus” and “Lord,” to name a few. And note the petitions of prayer, expressions of apology and notions of family are present in their minds. Some were silent, others were defiant — and I’m guessing that’s why “warden” shows up so prominently.

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One of the things I learned from my father is that a crisis is both a danger and an opportunity. That’s in the Chinese characters. And how you take advantage of the opportunity of the crisis rather than become despairing because of the danger. Is something we’re facing all the time, particularly at this time. It’s a philosophical approach I think that is very much needed and alive here in the city of Detroit.
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Within Crisis, Opportunity

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Ancestors watching over the Boggs home."That’s in the Chinese characters." This passing reference by the 96-year-old Chinese-American philosopher Grace Lee Boggs got us wondering. What exactly does she mean? And what do those characters look like?

As it happens, explains our Public Insight Network colleague Melody Ng, the Chinese word for “crisis” consists of two characters: 危 or wei (pronounced “way”) and 机 ji (pronounced “gee”). Wei means dangerous or precarious. Ji means opportunity or chance.

危机

Bound up in the meaning of “crisis” are both danger and opportunity (see update below). In each trying moment, there’s a chance for something positive to occur. Today being Chinese New Year, the Year of the Dragon, what a most auspicious thought to carry forward as we encounter our own crises in 2012.

UPDATE (Jan 31, 2012): Since posting this story, we have since heard from several people on Facebook who dispute Boggs’ interpretation of the meaning of the two characters. Michael Barreto pointed us to an article by Professor Victor H. Mair who takes a much different position on the interpretation of wēijī from Grace Boggs. On the one hand, he offers a better interpretation of jī as “incipient moment” instead of “opportunity”:

"Aside from the notion of “incipient moment” or “crucial point” discussed above, the graph for jī by itself indicates “quick-witted(ness); resourceful(ness)” and “machine; device.” In combination with other graphs, however, jī can acquire hundreds of secondary meanings."

But since there are other kinds of interpretation, better and worse, is Grace Lee Boggs’ father, a native speaker, really wrong in hers? Professor Mair even offers alternatives for someone looking for jī as “opportunity”:

If one wants to find a word containing the element jī that means “opportunity” (i.e., a favorable juncture of circumstances, or a good chance for advancement), one needs to look elsewhere than wēijī, which means precisely “crisis” (viz., a dangerous, critical moment). One might choose, for instance, zhuǎnjī (“turn” + “incipient moment” = “favorable turn; turn for the better”), liángjī (“excellent” + “incipient moment” = “opportunity” [!!]), or hǎo shíjī (“good” + “time” + “incipient moment” = “favorable opportunity”).”

Though Grace Lee Boggs’ interpretation may not be linguistically accurate, this conundrum reminds us that connotations of meaning are culturally subtle. Meaning can be hidden, reinterpreted, and even evolve within a language as it travels. Though it is dangerous to create posts like this one, it does point to the depth and complexity of language, especially as it crosses cultures. That’s a marvelous thing.

A portrait of Grace Lee Boggs’ father hangs in her Detroit home. Chin Lee was a successful businessman who owned Chin Lee’s American and Chinese Restaurant on 49th and Broadway in New York. (photo: Trent Gilliss)

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Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place. Of course, just remaining alive and Indian for the last 150 years has been one of the hardest things imaginable. A respect for blood is a respect for the integrity of that survival, and lineage should remain a metric for tribal enrollment. But not the only one. Having survived this long and come this far, we must think harder about who we want to be in the future, and do something more than just measure out our teaspoons of blood.
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David Treuer, from the Ojibwe author’s op-ed in The New York Times on ”blood quantum laws” and how they have been used historically to cast out members without pure tribal bloodlines.

Hear him talk at length with Krista Tippett about how his Ojibwe language is the only vehicle that can carry forward the unfolding experiences of culture in the On Being show "Language and Meaning: an Ojibwe Story."

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"Vocal Fry" as a Social Link?

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

It was this BIG!Photo by Jeffrey Pott/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0

Wouldn’t you know it. Britney Spears impact on our social culture extends beyond the worlds of music and fashion — and into the language of speech. A recent study in the Journal of Voice shows that more than two-thirds of Standard American-English speakers aged 18-25 are now incorporating what once used to be thought of as a speech impediment into their everyday speech patterns. And young, female adults living in the U.S. are more apt to use this guttural vibration in their normal speech than men.

Don’t know what it sounds like? Listen to the audio sample above. Or, pop in one of Spears more recent hits, and listen to how she sings her lower notes and how it kind of sounds like a series of dry, creaky staccato tones. Yep, that’s it.

But why? The co-author of the Long Island University study and a speech scientist, Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, speculates in ScienceNow, “Young students tend to use it when they get together. Maybe this is a social link between members of a group.”

The I know I’ll be listening to my young nieces and nephews’ speech patterns more acutely over the holiday break!

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In Gabby Giffords’ Voice

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Listen to the first 80 seconds of Melissa Block’s piece on last night’s All Things Considered. And then fast forward to the final 67 seconds of the audio. What a powerful message, a powerful couple minutes of radio. To hear the contrast of the fluid voice of the Congresswoman before her brain was penetrated by a bullet in January of this year, and then witness the powerful will of her language several months later rages with hope.

Now, listen to the full ten-minute piece with Block’s interview with Representative Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, which is bookended with Gabby’s voice. The context makes her readings all the more powerful. Non?

Yes, even those of us who work in public radio are not immune to those “driveway moments” in the darkness of the early evening. What a gift.

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Deb Roy’s TED Talk: The Blossoming of a Speech Form

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Deb Roy Spaghetti PathsIf you heard our show this week with psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason, you heard a few excerpts from Deb Roy’s speech at TED about “the birth of a word.” The MIT researcher wired all of the rooms of his house with video cameras and microphones so that he could better understand how his son learned language. During three years, he captured 90,000 hours of video, 140,000 hours of audio totaling about 200 terabytes of data.

Deb Roy Word LandscapesThe social ramifications of this are incredible to think about, and the landscape of where we learn language and the events that create conversation that surfaces in our culture are equally mind-blowing. His research might inform not only how we learn but the values and influence of pivotal players in the development of our local and national conversations.

Here’s the transcript to accompany Deb Roy’s twenty-minute presentation:

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Commenting on Our Consciousness through Studying the Deepest Meaning of Human Language

by Krista Tippett, host

Infographic displaying languages by number of speakersThere’s a quality I’ve experienced during the years in some people who work lovingly with children across a long life. They nurture and retain an exuberance, a playfulness, in themselves. And they merge that with a delving intellect and spirit. Robert Coles, the psychiatrist who wrote famously about the moral, political, and spiritual lives of children, gave me the phrase “delving spirit” and embodied it:

"It’s our effort on this planet as creatures who have a mind and use language to ask questions and answer them through speculation, through story-telling, to explore the universe and answer those fundamental questions: Where do we come from? What are we? And where, if any place, are we going?"

It interests me, looking back now, to see how Robert Coles stressed language as inextricably bound with spirit. Jean Berko Gleason is, like him, a wisely child-like delver. A professor emerita of psychology, she continues to imprint and expand the field of psycholinguistics that she helped to create — the exploration of how human beings acquire language and what this says about who we are.

She began to make her mark on linguistics decades ago with a test that looks, on the surface, like it’s about basic grammar. She created the wug, a simply drawn mythical creature. This, it turned out, was a savvy tool for demonstrating that young children could apply complex grammatical rules and form new words that no one had ever tried to teach them. Even after 50 years in her field, Jean Berko Gleason remains amazed and delighted at the extremely ordinary human capacity to learn language and work with it. She infects me with that amazement.

She also brings us up to speed on the evolution of this scientific field’s “nature versus nurture” debate. Every discipline, it seems, has one. When I was in college, the MIT linguist Noam Chomsky had taken the intellectual world by storm with his suggestion that we are born with universal, innate language templates that only need to be triggered for humans to speak.

Looking at the “wug test,” you might suspect that it tells some of the same story — of an innate skill that is biologically, not socially, rooted. But as Jean Berko Gleason has grown in her field and watched it grow with her, she has become increasingly fascinated by what we are learning about the intense interaction that draws forth, inspires, and hones that biologically-rooted capacity in all of us as children.

Moreover, Jean Berko Gleason suspects, there is something instructive in the adult human’s compulsion to speak with children, to engage them in language. In ways we’ve barely begun to scrutinize and study, she says, we are unfolding with children as we help them unfold language. The technologies we now have to study the brain are showing us remarkable things — like the physical markers of babies born in bilingual households with bilingual brains. But these technologies, Jean Berko Gleason insists, will never replace our need to observe the miraculous results of mothers talking to their babies.

While we were producing this week’s show “Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life,” a number of us tested this theory on our kids, with varying results. Putting a microphone in front of a five year old, or a thirteen year old, is not the straightest route to natural interaction. But I was amazed, for example, when my teenager, after he’d stopped being reluctant and sarcastic, began to reflect in quite a sophisticated way on the word “human” as “plural” — as pegging us not just as individuals but as part of something, as part of humanity. Which means, he says, that we also “have to do our part.”

This is a fascinating echo of a big idea Jean Berko Gleason leaves me with. In recent years, she’s delved into the fact that children in every language and culture studied by linguists have huge animal vocabularies. She’s puzzling, these days, over what that says about us as human beings. Certainly, we are drawn to life, to living beings. And more and more, we are aware that these beings think and may be conscious. We can’t fathom that, because they can’t tell us about it. But we are given a vast gift in our ordinary, inborn skill of language. Alone among the creatures, as Jean Berko Gleason puts it, we are able to reflect, to be conscious of ourselves, and to comment on that.

I’m grateful that she is out there studying the deepest meaning of human language, and I now appreciate it in a new way in my ordinary, day-to-day life.

Infographic courtesy of John Pasden/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0.

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Sunday Morning Exercise: Take “The Wug Test”

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Jean Berko Gleason is the mother of the “wug test” whose findings rocked the world of linguistics when they were first published in 1958. The test demonstrated that children as young as three or four can internalize complex grammatical codes no one has necessarily ever tried to teach them — like forming plurals — and apply these rules broadly, even to made-up words (like the adorable “wug” featured below) they’ve never heard before.

Below you’ll find the 27 delightful hand-drawn pictures that comprise the original wug test. Try them out with the kids in your life — or even by yourself. And tell us what they said that surprised you. What are they modeling or constructing on their own?

wug test - image 1 - this is a wugThe Wug and Wug Test © Jean Berko Gleason 2006. All rights reserved. For individual and family use only. Commercial use prohibited.

wug test - image 2 - this is a gutch
The Wug and Wug Test © Jean Berko Gleason 2006. All rights reserved. For individual and family use only. Commercial use prohibited.

wug test - image 3 - this is a man who knows how to spowThe Wug and Wug Test © Jean Berko Gleason 2006. All rights reserved. For individual and family use only. Commercial use prohibited.

wug test - image 4 - this is a kazh
The Wug and Wug Test © Jean Berko Gleason 2006. All rights reserved. For individual and family use only. Commercial use prohibited.

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Our Twitterscript of Jean Berko Gleason Interview

by Susan Leem, associate producer

this is a wugWug graffitti on the street. (photo: Adam Albright/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This week we interviewed Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist who is now a professor emerita at Boston University, about how we learn and use the most valuable of skills: human language. She’s best known for her wug test experiment, revealing that children develop general systems to learn language.

We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets and this Thursday, October 6th, look for the produced show via our podcast our on your local public radio station:

  1. For the next 90 minutes we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s interview with psycholinguistics superstar Jean Berko Gleason. Join us! 1:27 PM Sep 27th
  2. Dr. Gleason’s famous “Wug” test forever changed our understanding of how humans learn language. 1:28 PM Sep 27th
  3. Professor Gleason settling in at the mic, asking Krista if it’s ok that she “doesn’t do religion.” 1:37 PM Sep 27th
  4. Dr. Gleason says her early experience translating her older brother’s speech (he had cerebral palsy) sparked her love for linguistics. 1:44 PM Sep 27th
  5. "Charles Darwin wrote notebooks of one of his sons and outlined how he acquired language." -Dr. Berko Gleason1:45 PM Sep 27th
  6. "Literacy, written language is a very late acquisition in terms of human evolution."-Jean Berko Gleason1:50 PM Sep 27th
  7. "It isn’t that kids learn language in bits and pieces, the children abstract the rules of the language in the same order." -Dr. Berko Gleason 1:55 PM Sep 27th
  8. "There’s a broad spectrum of belief of how kids come to, say, two wugs." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:56 PM Sep 27th
  9. "Your brain is not formed when you’re born, you have to build your brain." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:58 PM Sep 27th
  10. "Language develops by interacting with other people talking to you." -Jean Berko Gleason. 1:59 PM Sep 27th
  11. "Language development is a cooperative event, it happens between children and the people around them." -J. Berko Gleason 2:01 PM Sep 27th
  12. RT @GreggGraham: @Beingtweets But storytelling appears to be a human universal from the beginning. 2:02 PM Sep 27th
  13. "(to learn language) You need not just the cognitive stuff, but emotional underpinnings, you have to care about other people." -J.B. Gleason 2:02 PM Sep 27th
  14. "In the beginning language is there so we can say ‘mommy I want you.’" -Jean Berko Gleason 2:03 PM Sep 27th
  15. "Kids will use their own system at the stage that they are, they’re not (learning merely by) imitating you." -Jean Berko Gleason. 2:08 PM Sep 27th
  16. "A whole lot of creatures have complex and meaningful lives." J. Berko Gleason on sentience. 2:12 PM Sep 27th
  17. "We have this enormous connection to the living world that is reflected in our language." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:14 PM Sep 27th
  18. "Of the top 30 words that parents are calling kids’ attention to (‘look at the…’), 12 are animals." -Jean Berko Gleason. 2:18 PM Sep 27th
  19. "Undergrads should not just take business classes, but business classes plus Sansrkit. It has an affect on your for all your life." -Gleason 2:25 PM Sep 27th
  20. @WDET? @FightersDay: shoot I took Chinese Saturday School as a kid. How do I learn Sanskrit - where is a good school near Detroit (my city)? 2:28 PM Sep 27th
  21. "Different languages cut the world into different slices." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:52 PM Sep 27th
  22. "They are not talking, it is called jargon babbling" - Gleason on the viral twins video - http://bit.ly/gaojdQ 2:52 PM Sep 27th
  23. "It’s not just children who carry innate things. We come with a long history of being attached to other living creatures." -Gleason 2:53 PM Sep 27th
  24. "We’re innately predisposed to pay attention to little children. We’re not just watching babies unfold. We’re unfolding with them." -Gleason 2:55 PM Sep 27th
  25. "Human beings are able to reflect on their existence…for now that distinguishes us from other creatures." -Jean Berko Gleason 2:57 PM Sep 27th
  26. "I think people should be brave and take a chance and do what excites them." -Jean Berko Gleason’s advice to young people 2:59 PM Sep 27th
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