plateia syntagmatos

Sympose-it-Yourself: Neural Theories for the Acquisition of Grammar, Morphology, And...

How does the human brain produce language? Despite sophisticated elaboration and significant advances in linguistics, neuroscience, computational linguistics and neural computation, a widespread impression is that we are still in the dark ages for understanding the relation between language and the brain. Sometimes the disciplines which should converge to generate that understanding appear to proceed in unrelated directions, just like the evzones above, with most neuroscientists blindly pursuing mere localization, linguists often busy trying to fit volatile language data onto a priori theories, computer scientists intent on developing efficient parsers, and network theorists not having much to say about such messy complex issues.

SEDER/REDES                            S C O V A Z Z E

We aim to meet for an intense and entirely self-organized workshop, without the presumption of having anything to teach each other, but curious about the thoughts tentatively entertained by colleagues we do not normally encounter. To serve as a catalyst for future progress and interactions among disciplines, the workshop will be held in an intellectual no man's land; but physically in Trieste, for the reasons detailed in the pictures below. Piccards' bathyscaphe Trieste reached Challenger Deep, and it is our fantasy that SYNTAGMA will help us approach closer to the most challenging depths of the human mind.

SYNTAGMA has not been endowed with committees who can issue invitations; when self-inviting yourself, please add ale at sissa dot it in cc. Ideally, we would aim for a k-symplex, where each of k+1 participants spans an independent dimension of doubt and potentially productive uncertainty. Some of these dimensions inform the papers collected at the site known by the unfortunate local toponym Scovazze.

Osmizzas abound, perched on the Carso above Trieste, and offer an appropriately loose setting and alcoholic modulation to facilitate productive inquiries on summer evenings. Local historians claim that after Tergeste and Istria became part of the Frankish kingdom in the late 8th century, Charle Magne allowed local farmers to sell their wine directly, provided they indicated its availability with a branch like the one above. The right to sell it with no tax was confirmed in 1784 by Austrian Emperor Joseph II, who granted it for periods of 8 days, hence the name. Recently, it has even survived EU VAT regulations, a useful reminder to language scholars of how an exception can precede by a thousand years the rule it will eventually come to violate.
Trieste only came out of relative obscurity in 1719, when Charles VI of Habsburg declared it a Free Port. This made the population swell from a few thousands to over 200,000 in two hundred years, attracting traders, entrepreneurs and a congeries of people of disparate background, from the Austrian Empire and from the Balkans, from the West and from the Levant. In the 1911 census, over half the population declared that they (now) used Italian in their daily conversation, while about a quarter said they used Slovenian, 5% German, and others Croatian, Czech, Istro-Romanian, Serbian, Greek, not to mention the socially and economically prominent groups of Jews, Britons, Hungarians, French and Swiss. While this motley crowd cooperated and competed in the harbor, Trieste also flourished intellectually, hosting in its Gulf Freud, von Economo, sadly Boltzmann, Rilke, Svevo, Joyce, Saba. Under free port regulations, goods reaching it by land are considered as already exported, while goods arriving by sea may transit freely and be sent to their foreign destinations. A useful reminder to language scholars of the benefits of a lax non-binding government, which encourages interaction and self-organization. 
The Church of the Holy Trinity in Hrastovlje, hidden in a valley 20 mins south-east of Trieste, retains a late-medieval Danse Macabre fresco. The stone-built church stands on a small hill above the village, inside a walled enclosure 8 m high. It was built in the late Romanesque tradition before 1480. The frescos inside the church date to 1490, but later they were plastered over and whitewashed, and were only re-discovered in 1949 and carefully restored. On the south wall of the nave is the 7 m sequence representing people of all walks of life, from kings and popes to beggars and babies, being led by skeletons towards Death. A useful reminder to language scholars of how even the most revered theories should be joyfully led to their eventual falsification. 

Footnotes, apart from the remotely related movie by Joseph Cedar:
- Σύνταγμα might refer to a unit of 24x 24 heavy Macedonian infantry, the Foot Companions; or to a lost compilation of canons by the first antipope; or later, to the Constitution of modern Greece and to the square in Athens, each providing orthogonal inspiration to our meeting.
- Εύζωνες, the light infantry derived in part from the agile κλέφτες of the War of Independence, guard today the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Syntagma square, displaying remarkable rigidity, even during syntactic movement.
- Challenger Deep, the lowest point in the Ocean, 10,911m down the Mariana Trench, was reached on 23 January 1960 by the bathyscaphe Trieste designed by Auguste Piccard and crewed by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh.
- "Italian" was in most cases triestino, a Venetian dialect which, in curious synchrony with the decay of Venice and the massive influx of newcomers from faraway lands, had rapidly supplanted in Trieste tergestino, the Rhaeto-romance dialect now revived in the Crico poems.
- The peculiar linguistic intercourse in Scovazze, somewhere between Veneto and Friuli, has been recently described in Piccola Osteria Senza Parole, by Massimo Cuomo (2014).

             First version produced on April 20, 2014 (Easter Sunday for some, Chol HaMoed shel Pesach for others)