Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Year Zero

October 25, 2018

The ghost year zero.

There is common usage (AD, BC), politically correct usage (BCE, CE) and then there is the astronomical counting of years. In archaeology there is YBP (Years Before Present).

In sixth century Europe, the concept of “zero” was still unknown. Thus, the year 1 BC was followed by the year AD 1. …… The convention is that “BC” is a suffix (used after the year) while “AD” is a prefix (used before the year). …. ….. (This has been replaced by) the use of the religiously neutral abbreviations BCE (for “Before Common Era”) to substitute for “BC,” and “CE” (for “Common Era”) to replace “AD.” These secular terms are both used as suffixes making them better suited to computer generated tables.

The “astronomical” dating system refers to an alternative method of numbering years. It includes the year “0” and eliminates the need for any prefixes or suffixes by attributing the arithmetic sign to the date. Thus, the astronomical date for 2000 CE is simply +2000 or 2000. The astronomical year 0 corresponds to the year 1 BCE, while the astronomical year -1 corresponds to 2 BCE. In general, any given year “x BCE” becomes “-(x-1)” in the astronomical year numbering system. Historians should take care to note the numerical difference of one year between “BCE” dates and astronomical dates. — NASA

Counting the years


 

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Straightness of the curve

October 22, 2018

There are around one million words in English though probably less than 200,000 in active use.

The number of possible words is infinite.

The number of valid word combinations is determined by the meanings of the words and the meaning to be conveyed by the combination.

Just playing ……

straightness


 

With language came lies

October 13, 2018

First came deception, then came language and then came lies.

A minuscule level of cognitive ability is sufficient for animal deception. Some animal mimicry and camouflage is probably at the instinctive level and requires no consciousness.

Some types of deception in animals are completely involuntary (e.g. disruptive coloration), but others are under voluntary control and may involve an element of learning. Most instances of voluntary deception in animals involve a simple behaviour, such as a cat arching its back and raising its hackles, to make itself appear larger than normal when attacked. There are relatively few examples of animal behaviour which might be attributed to the manipulative type of deception which we know occurs in humans, i.e. “tactical deception”. It has been argued that true deception assumes the deceiver knows that (1) other animals have minds, (2) different animals’ minds can believe different things are true (when only one of these is actually true), and (3) it can make another mind believe that something false is actually true. True deception requires the deceiver to have the mental capacity to assess different representations of reality. Animal behaviour scientists are therefore wary of interpreting a single instance of behaviour to true deception, and explain it with simpler mental processes such as learned associations. – Wikipedia

We have been using deception probably starting before we were primitive humans some 10 million years ago. Deceiving those who were hunting us, deceiving prey and even deceiving competitors of our own kind. Deception generally requires another mind to exist to be deceived (and self-deception is fanciful except for a schizophrenic). There is no deception involved in hiding from a tree or in avoiding a landslide or escaping a volcanic eruption. Deception lies in inducing the other mind to believe in something false as being true or in believing something true to be false. Before we had language, deception was confined to using behaviour and actions to induce the false belief. This could have been, for example, hiding from hunters or prey or of appearing taller and stronger than a competitor. Deception was a tool even for groups cooperating among themselves to induce a false belief in a third party. However the cooperative act of deception required communication between the cooperating parties – even if without language. This kind of deception was primarily about inducing a false belief about the present (and about the imminent future), but could not really address the past or the distant future or anything in the present which was not immediately perceivable.

And then came rudimentary language. That was more than 100,000 years ago and maybe even more than 200,000 years ago. But we already had some idea of the concepts of “good” and “bad”. It is not difficult to see that anything which helped survival would have been labelled good and the levels of goodness of any event would have been linked to its relevance for survival. This would have been the beginnings of the development of a value system. Good and bad lie as the foundation of any, and every, value system. There was surely communication before language, but without language there was no possibility of communicating about things past or things future. Life was in the now. What was, was true, and what was not was false. But the concepts of true and false had been established well before language was discovered.

Sometime after the world around us had been divided and classified into good and bad and all the shades in between, came language. First came the discovery that we were capable of language and then that language enabled communication. Then came the invention of various specific languages at different times. (I see language as being discovered and languages as being invented). Some were good and others were not so good. Naturally all those who spoke the same language were on the side of the good. Every language that has ever existed has an in-built logic which mirrors the logic perceived in the surrounding world. To begin with, language was anchored to perceptions of reality. But language opened the doors to the past. History could be communicated. Forecasts of future events could be made. The past could be connected to the now and the now to the future. As people communicated about the now, it would have become apparent that even events in the now were mere perceptions. And then came the dawning of the realisation that language did not have to be anchored in reality at all. Language could describe what was not. The concepts of true and false expanded to include the past and the future and the abstract. History could be guessed or invented. The future could be fantasy. Fake news became possible. Language made lying possible.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The most widely accepted definition of lying is ……. “A lie is a statement made by one who does not believe it with the intention that someone else shall be led to believe it” (Isenberg 1973, 248) ………there are at least four necessary conditions for lying.

  • First, lying requires that a person make a statement (statement condition).
  • Second, lying requires that the person believe the statement to be false; that is, lying requires that the statement be untruthful (untruthfulness condition).
  • Third, lying requires that the untruthful statement be made to another person (addressee condition).
  • Fourth, lying requires that the person intend that that other person believe the untruthful statement to be true (intention to deceive the addressee condition).

Lying needs the ability to make a statement which is enabled by language (condition 1). More than that, lying is endemic in the use of language. Lying, as a concept, is necessarily imbued with the intent to deceive (condition 4). Inevitably, given that intention, lying carries the (almost) universal value of being “bad”. Exceptions are made only when the intent to deceive is secondary to a more laudable intention.

All social interaction involves some level of lying. I suspect that “benign” lying is necessary for the human use of language. Every statement has a truth value. Any statement of belief (which includes also all “facts” which have not been personally verified to be true) is a lie to some extent. Most human behaviour is based on beliefs that statements, which are not personally verified, are true. We could not speak about the future, or of the past, or about abstract things, if language did not allow the lie. I suspect that modern humans would not have evolved, as we have done, if language was constrained to disallow anything other than true statements.


 

Going raging into the night

August 23, 2018

My introduction to Dylan Thomas was as a teenager. I heard Richard Burton reading “Do not go gentle into that good night” on radio (though as with all things Burton, “declaiming” would be better than “reading”) in the 1960s. Then I watched Under Milk Wood in the West End and I fell in love with the sound of Dylan Thomas. I read all I could find of his and I read them aloud to myself (irritating my room-mates at my students hostel no end). But it was very much later that I penetrated beyond the mesmerising, chant-like quality of the sound and began to understand the words.

But I observe that my understanding of (or more correctly the meaning I ascribe to) his writings are changing with time. At one time I saw “Do not go gentle ..” as an exhortation and a plea to an old and dying man (his father) to not give up; to keep fighting; to not go quietly. The poetic form used is a villanelle which is a nineteen-line form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The two repeating refrains are both hypnotic and melodic.

But understandings shift and now, that I have passed 70, I read it much more personally. I take this poem as being addressed to me.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Of course Dylan Thomas has to be read aloud and of course he chooses words for the sound as much as for the meaning. What gives me most satisfaction now is that I am still conscious. It is not a rage against dying but it is a rage against the dying of the light. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”.

Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”



 

The oldest language in the world

August 8, 2018

Even those with supposedly the very “best breeding” in the world have derived from just as many ancestors and ancestral generations as the most wretched person alive today. Every single one of the 7 billion humans alive today has an unbroken line of descent from any time in the past. (Not forgetting that your dog is a product of around seven times more generations than you are). In terms of evolution every single human is just as much evolved (or devolved) as any other.

But so must it be with our languages as well. Every single language used today must have an unbroken connection backwards into the past. Assuming that the first proto-language, if there was only one, or the many original proto-languages, developed at around the same time, every language used today has as long a genealogy as every other. Some languages have no doubt become extinct, but every surviving language must have an unbroken connection back into the mist of the origin of language.

About half the world’s population speak languages which derive from Proto-Indo-European (PIE). PIE probably came into being around 10 – 15,000 years ago. But there would have been languages before that and possibly some simple speech was already established some 100,000 years ago or even earlier. One plausible family tree, proposed by Allan Bomhard in 2008, is of the Nostratic macrofamily. (Nostratic is still considered quite speculative but if it wasn’t Nostratic then it is only a question of what it was — for something there certainly must have been).

The evolution of language would have been a braided stream. Putting a time-line onto this evolution of language is purely speculative. Nevertheless, any speculation is perfectly valid as a possibility unless there is some evidence to exclude it. The origins of PIE seem to be linked to either the spread of humans with access to horses or to the neolithic spread of agriculture or possibly to both. Either way it would be dated to 10,000 – 15,000 years ago. The geographical location is also speculative. It could have been from the steppes of central Asia (the equine theory) or from the Golden Crescent (agriculture).

But PIE derives from Eurasiatic, and it probably displaced a Proto-Dravidian ancestor already being used in the Indus Valley and across the subcontinent. The generation prior to PIE (Afro-Asiatic, Kartvelian, Dravidian and Eurasiatic) could then occupy the period from 15,000 to about 25,000 years ago. It is probably with this generation of language that rudimentary written language first developed. Which, I speculate, would take Nostratic to the period from 25,000 to 35,000 years ago. But the story does not start or end with Nostratic. There was language – and languages – long before that. However, Nostratic and its siblings and all previous generations of language would have been entirely spoken (including whistling and clicks as part of the spoken tradition).

 

Every human has origins which go as far back into the past as any other. And so it is with language.

The oldest language in the world, the language with its origins in the most distant past, is the language you are speaking now.


 

“Language” is discovered but “languages” are invented

July 23, 2018

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.


 

Language transcends its encoded signals

July 19, 2018

My phone “talks” to my desktop computer. It can also “speak” with other devices with which it is “paired” (portable speakers, my lawn mower and my house security system). Coupled devices send and receive short-wavelength UHF radio waves in the ISM band (Bluetooth) to communicate. They follow rules (a vocabulary and a grammar) which specify the “meaning” of the bursts of radio waves they send and detect. I cannot detect any of these signals with my senses. I am neither aware of the communication taking place nor can I enter the conversation except through a compatible device within my control and with which I can communicate using a system which is within the range of my sensory capabilities (touch, vision, sound).

Does the system of signals being used by the bluetooth devices for their communications constitute a language?

There is a vast discourse, starting from ancient times, on the definition and the purpose and the philosophy of language. The Encyclopedia Britannica puts it thus.

Many definitions of language have been proposed. Henry Sweet, an English phonetician and language scholar, stated: “Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words. Words are combined into sentences, this combination answering to that of ideas into thoughts.” The American linguists Bernard Bloch and George L. Trager formulated the following definition: “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates.” Any succinct definition of language makes a number of presuppositions and begs a number of questions. The first, for example, puts excessive weight on “thought,” and the second uses “arbitrary” in a specialized, though legitimate, way.

I find that much of the discussion is homocentric and tends to equate language with speech and writing. This I think is incorrect. I have therefore come to my own characterisation of what constitutes a language:

I find it is not necessary to specify that language is confined to human brains. It is claimed that the difference between human and animal communication is that human language is unrestricted.

EB again – “Human beings are unrestricted in what they can communicate; no area of experience is accepted as necessarily incommunicable, though it may be necessary to adapt one’s language in order to cope with new discoveries or new modes of thought. Animal communication systems are by contrast very tightly circumscribed in what may be communicated”. 

But this is unsatisfactory. Human thought is not in fact unlimited. It is limited by the very finite capability of the human brain. What a brain cannot perceive it cannot think about. What it cannot think about, it cannot communicate. Furthermore, the system agreed-upon restricts the meanings that can be transmitted and received. (A communication in French is of limited value to someone who knows little French. It is the lowest common level of shared encoding in the system which sets the constraint).

I also find the debate on language and thought, and language and philosophy, to be very often circular. It may be simplistic but I observe that the logic we perceive to exist in the universe is the same logic we embed in all our languages (including mathematics). We cannot then use language to prove or disprove the logic that is within it.

As in Gödel’s Incompleteness theorems: “The first incompleteness theorem states that in any consistent formal system F within which a certain amount of arithmetic can be carried out, there are statements of the language of F which can neither be proved nor disproved in F. According to the second incompleteness theorem, such a formal system cannot prove that the system itself is consistent (assuming it is indeed consistent).”

Which I paraphrase to be that “in a language embedded with a logic, that language can neither prove or disprove the logic that lies within it”.

I observe that we have more thoughts and emotions and perceptions than we have language for. We perceive more colours than any language we invent can describe. Which convinces me that thought precedes language. Moreover, it is the logic we perceive around us that we then build into the languages we invent. It cannot be, I think, that language circumscribes thought. It is our thoughts generated by our perceptions of what is around us that circumscribes the languages we invent.

Our senses come into play first in determining the meanings we wish to communicate. They then determine the shared system of encoding meanings into signals capable of being generated and detected. Our perception of a tree (vision/brain) is encoded into a particular sound (“tree”) which is generated (vocal chords) and detected and decoded by somebody else (aural/brain) and understood – according to the shared system of encoding – to mean a tree. The choice of encoding system is arbitrary but is primarily a matter of convenience. We use vision, sound and touch as a matter of convenience. We do not use olfactory signals because we cannot – at will – generate as great a range of smells as of sound. Besides, vision and sound can transmit signals across much greater distances than smells can. Sound can be transmitted in the dark. We do not have the capability in our bodies of generating or detecting radio waves or X-rays or infra-red radiation as encoded signals of meaning except through the use of specialised, instruments manufactured for the purpose. But if we had the same organs as bats do, we could use ultrasound signals in our languages. Our senses enable a convenient encoding of meanings into signals. Equally the limitations of our senses restrict the range of signals that we can generate and/or detect.

So my bluetooth devices do communicate with each other but the range of meanings they can transmit or receive are heavily circumscribed. They have not the freedom to express meanings which have not been predefined. They cannot initiate a conversation but can follow an instruction to do so. They do not have language.

But what is clear is that while language is a shared. agreed-upon system for encoding meanings into signals for the purpose of communication, language transcends its signals. While human language is mainly manifested as speech and writing, we also use sign-language and Braille and songs and music and art and dance within our languages. Photography and video are now part of the encoding we use in our languages. If we had organs for radio transmission and reception, we would no doubt have a word for “tree” but it would be expressed as a burst of radio-waves rather than a pressure wave or an image of a tree. Language is the system of conveying meanings where speech and writing and hand-signals are just specific forms of encoding. Language is a system which transcends the encoded signals it uses.


 

Justice is just a derived concept

April 20, 2018

Many of our fundamental concepts are not in fact fundamental. They are entirely dependent upon and derive from the negation of other concepts. We are all prisoners of our genes, our bodies, our beginnings and our planet. As a concept “freedom” is meaningless without first defining what captivity means. The concept of freedom is not self-sufficient and derives from some concept of captivity which must come first. Similarly, justice derives from a definition of injustice.  Fighting for justice is a misnomer since it always consists of fighting against some injustice. Equality by itself is almost meaningless. It first requires a definition of inequality. Even in the language of mathematics an equality relies on a prior definition of inequality. Bright opposes dark and each relies on and derives from the other.

Other concepts can live on their own and are not merely negations of some other concepts. Even though they lie on the same scale and may oppose each other they refer to some separate norm as a reference and can live independent lives. Happiness has its own scale (as does unhappiness). The concept of beauty does not require the definition of ugly. Liking and disliking and love and hate can all live on their own. Rich and poor lie on the same scale but each refers to a norm and so they are not dependent upon each other. Rich describes a surplus relative to some norm and poor is a deficiency. Wealth and poverty refer to a norm but not necessarily to the other.


 

“In triplicate” is being forgotten

April 14, 2018

More than half the world now does not know what a “carbon copy” means.

“Cut and paste” has been used for a very long time with manuscripts but really took off after the advent of the photo-copier.

Seven years ago I posted about the origins of “in triplicate”. At that time a Google search for “triplicate forms” generated over 3.5 million hits. This morning it generated less than 2 million.

Why “in triplicate”? – one for me, one for you and one for Rome

I have a vague recollection that I was once told that it was connected to the use of “carbon paper”  where the quality of the writing was insufficient after the second carbon (third copy). The word “triplicate” is said to have a 15th century origin in Middle English and comes from Latin (triplicatus). There is also a suggestion that pharmacists and their predecessors required 3 copies of everything but I am not clear as to why.

But my preferred story is that the Romans are responsible. It is not inconceivable that Roman administrators in their far-flung empire outposts first started doing things in triplicate.

 “One for me, one for you and one for Rome”.

Or it could just be the mystic, magical power of the number 3!!


 

The now is ever, never

December 18, 2017

The now, of course, can not, has not, does not and will not ever exist.

Then can refer to the past or the future but never to the now – which does not exist.


 


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