“Language” is discovered but “languages” are invented

Say I speak only English and you speak only Japanese. We meet and we

  1. have the desire to communicate, and
  2. attempt to communicate by speech

We hear only gibberish. We cannot decode the sounds we hear to discern any meanings. We do not have a shared language. But our communication is not doomed to failure. What we do share is

  1. that we both have language,
  2. the inferred knowledge that each of us does have a specific language,
  3. the knowledge that we are lacking an agreed vocabulary of signals (sounds, symbols….) representing meanings and an agreed  structure for combining these signals when we transmit and receive them from each other.

We have both already discovered language. What we lack is a shared language. With time and application and given that we each know that the other is both aware of, and capable of language, we can invent a shared vocabulary and an acceptable common grammar. We can invent a particular “Jinglish” for our communications.

That two or more brains can communicate if they have a shared system for the encoding of meanings into signals, which signals can then be transmitted and received and decoded into their meanings, is not an invention but a discovery.

The subsequent development of a specific agreed upon system – a specific language – is then invention. English and Japanese and Braille are invented. Hieroglyphs and alphabets and emojis are invented. Paintings on cave walls, impressions on clay tablets, writing on papyrus or palm leaves or on paper, are all inventions. They are invented to implement communication because it has been discovered that communication of meanings by transmitting and receiving signals has been discovered.

When children “acquire language”, as they do even without any instruction, they do so by absorbing it from their surroundings. Japanese surroundings produce a Japanese-speaking child, not one speaking French. A child acquiring language represents a voyage of discovery – not one of invention. It is actually a voyage of many discoveries; of the possibility of communication, of the ability and the need to communicate, of converting meanings into intelligible signals, of decoding signals and of the specific language it is surrounded by. It is the discovery that sounds can be generated and that some sounds can become speech. The child’s need or desire to communicate is no doubt enabled by its genes. Its ability to produce sounds or gestures or other signals to represent meanings is also governed by its biology and its genes. It is the physiology of the bodies we inhabit which allows speech and whistles and gestures but the limitations of our physiology prevent us from generating or sensing or using infra-sound or ultra-sound. Bluetooth capability is not embedded in our bodies but we can, and do, manufacture adjuncts to our bodies which are Bluetooth enabled.

The specific comes first and then leads to the general. “Languages” is to “language” as the special theory of relativity is to the general theory. As Euclid’s geometry leads to general geometries. It is the invention of specific languages which leads to the general definition of the concept of language.

Language has been called the greatest human invention. But it is a discovery and not an invention. It is what makes us human, it has been said. But that is far too homocentric (anthropocentric) a view. Language exists not because humans exist, but because brains desirous of communicating exist. On Earth it happens to be humans. It is not necessary that the communicating brains be of humans, or of individuals of the same species, or even that the brains be contained in living entities.

With dissimilar brains (whether of individuals of different species or between humans and AIs) it is not language in general that is the problem. It is finding a specific, shared set of signals that can be generated, transmitted and received and a specific language (vocabulary and grammar) which can then be used which poses the challenge. Limitations are set not by the concept of language but by

  1. the capability of the brains to generate meanings,
  2. the codification of meanings into signals, and
  3. the capability of generating, transmitting and receiving the signals

To invent and share a specific language with dogs or horses, the challenge is first in generating signals which can be received by the animals and second in receiving and decoding the signals they generate. Maybe if we used pseudo-tails with our dogs and pseudo-ears with our horses to send signals we might have a higher level of success. And when we meet our nearest aliens who “speak” to each other in bursts of X-rays we should not assume that they are backward because they don’t speak English.

Language: A shared system whereby two or more brains can communicate by the encoding of meanings into signals, which signals can then be transmitted and received and decoded back into their meanings.


 

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