Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

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.


 

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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.


 

Adages updated: The pen is mightier after the sword

August 16, 2017

The wisdom of yesteryear is not necessarily wisdom today.


 

There is a cognitive limit (the Wordsmith number) to the number of words you can know?

August 5, 2017

Most people know around 20,000 – 35,000 words (in any language). Extremely gifted people – very rarely – may approach a vocabulary of 60,000 words. Even multi-lingual people seem to have a total vocabulary not exceeding the limits of mono-lingual people. Twenty years ago when I lived in Japan, my English conversations included many words which I no longer have in my active memory. Similarly Chinese, Hindi, Tamil and German words that I once used regularly as part of my social conversations in English, are no longer in my active memory.

But why does each of us know so few words of all the words that are available?

It cannot be memory capacity in the brain that sets the limit. My hypothesis is that just like there seems to be a cognitive limit to the number of significant social connections a person can maintain (the Dunbar number – averaging around 150 with a minimum of around 50 and a maximum of perhaps 250), there is a cognitive limit (the Wordsmith Number) to the size of the active vocabulary that a person can maintain. (I note that the number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers do not represent significant social relationships).

The more you read the bigger your vocabulary. The more you write the more likely you are to have a larger vocabulary. The more diverse your social connections the larger vocabulary you need and have. But yet, each of us knows only a fraction of the active words available in any language. The active words in a language form only a fraction of the total words in that language. And the total words in a language are a tiny fraction of all the words that could be formed by an alphabet a and a set of rules.

In any language, the rules of grammar together with about 2,000 base words would be sufficient to get by.  In any language a degree of proficiency would have been achieved with a vocabulary of around 10,000 base words. Over 20,000 words would be considered a high level of fluency.

The number of words needed to enable most communication needs is thus not so large. Equally, knowing words that are not used is pointless. Words that others don’t know is of no great use either. Yet, we have all at some time complained of  “not having the words to express our feelings”. We are often “lost for words”. Our eyes can distinguish shades of colour for which there are no specific words. But we use adjectives and combine words to express emotions or shades of colour rather than invent specific words for just that shade or that emotion.

In any alphabet where the length of a word is not restricted, there are an infinite variety of ways of creating combinations of letters to be words. In practice most languages have working vocabularies of a few hundred thousands and even if all possible variations and forms, past and present, are counted, the vocabulary may be around one million words. The Oxford English Dictionary has around 177,000 words as being in current usage and another 50,000 as obsolete. Similarly German has around 150,000 words as being in current use and Swedish has around 125,000. However current usage is not the whole story. Current usage is only a part of the total number of words available in a language where the total number depends on the age of the language. It is said that Japanese has around 100,000 active words in a total vocabulary of around 500,000. The OED estimates the total number of words in English to be around 750,000. Other estimates put the total English vocabulary at just over one million words.

Atkinsbookshelf:

According to the Global Language Monitor’s (GLM) “English Language WordClock,” there are 1,005,366 words in the English language. …… The Google/Harvard Study of the Current Number of Words in the English Language also arrived at a similar number — 1,022,000 (a difference of .o121%) ……… The Oxford English Dictionaries (OED) comes up with an estimate of 750,000, when counting only distinct senses and excluding variants.

The number of words that any person knows in a language is also not so easily determined. I would generalise to say that all modern languages have each around 100 – 200 thousand active words with a total vocabulary depending upon the age of the language and ranging from 300,000 to about 1 million. But, in most extant languages today, any single individual generally has a personal vocabulary which is only around 10 – 20% of the active words (or 2 – 5% of the total number of words) available in that language. An exceptionally gifted person might come up to around 30% of active words (or less than 10% of the total number of words). Depending on how words are defined Shakespeare is thought to have had command over about 8% of all the English words of that time but only used about 4% in an all his writings. In modern times James Joyce is thought to have had an extraordinarily large personal vocabulary and perhaps it was even a little more than 10% of the total number of English words. Ulysses alone – by one count – contains a larger vocabulary than all of Shakespeare’s works.

According to lexicographer and Shakespeare scholar David Crystal, the entire English vocabulary in the Elizabethan period consisted of about 150,000 words. ……… Crystal believes that Shakespeare had a vocabulary of about 20,000 words (13.5% of the known lexicon). Compare that to the size of the vocabulary of the average modern person (high school-level education) that is 30,000 to 40,000 words (about 6% of the 600,000 words defined in the Oxford English Dictionary). Other lexicographers estimate that Shakespeare’s vocabulary ranged from 18,000 to 25,000 words.

….. In their 1976 study, “Estimating the Number of Unseen Species: How Many Words Did Shakespeare Know,” statisticians Bradley Efron (Stanford University) and Ronald Thisted (University of Chicago) used word-frequency analyses to predict more accurately Shakespeare’s actual vocabulary, including the words he used in his writing (active or manifest vocabulary) and the words he knew but didn’t use in his writing (passive or latent vocabulary). Efron and Thisted turned to the Harvard Concordance and the 31,654 different words from a grand total of 884,647 words, including repetitions. …….. Thus to calculate Shakespeare’s total working vocabulary, we add 31,534 different words found in his writings to the 35,000 words he probably knew, to arrive at an estimate of 66,534 words. 

Taking only current words in English as an example (< 200,000) , most individuals considered fluent would have between 25,000 – 40,000 words in their personal vocabularies. (There may be the extremely rare person with a personal vocabulary approaching 60,000 words, though that is doubtful. But there is surely nobody with a personal vocabulary greater than that). Even for those who are multilingual, the sum of the words they command in all languages seems to be limited to be no different to those who are monolingual.

Psychologytoday:

the rate and pace of development of the bilinguals’ lexical knowledge were similar to those of monolingual children. In addition, the total vocabulary count of these children (taking into account both languages) was not different to that of the monolinguals, but their single language vocabularies were somewhat smaller. So we have known for some time that bilingual children do have as many words as their monolingual counterparts when both languages are taken into account but maybe not so when one examines only one language.

Why this apparent limit to the number of words one can know?

 

My hypothesis is that there is a stable level – the Wordsmith Number – which the brain establishes. It is a cognitive limit to the size of the active vocabulary that a person can maintain. It is established by the manner in which the brain learns, stores and retrieves active and passive words. It is a dynamic level and varies as our activities change (reading, writing, speaking, diversity of social relationships ..). Words that are not active are shunted out of active memory. In very rare circumstances is a Wordsmith Number of greater than about 30,000 established.


 

Known, unknown and unknowable

July 22, 2017

Donald Rumsfeld was often the butt of cheap jokes after this quote. In reality, Rumsfeld was absolutely spot on and close to philosophic.

Starting from where Rumsfeld left off we come to the distinction between the knowable and the unknowable

These are things we don’t know that we don’t know. There are knowable unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we could know but we don’t know which we don’t know. But there are also unknowable unknowns. There are things we cannot know that we don’t know that we can never know. 

a la Rumsfeld

I am coming to the conclusion that the sum of all human cognition lacks some of the dimensions of the universe. It may be increasing with time, but human cognition is limited. The expanding universe may be infinite or it may be boundless. For human cognition to grasp the universe is then like trying to measure an infinite length with a ruler of finite length, or of trying to measure some unknown parameter with a ruler marked in inches. Those measurements will never reach a conclusion.


 

Logic is discovered, language is invented

July 9, 2017

Logic is inherent in the universe. It is not a creation of man and is not dependent on observation or what kind of brain perceives the universe.

The laws of logic are taken to be unchanging over space and time. Logic now, is as logic was, and as logic will always be. Logic here, is as logic is there and everywhere.

Language, however, is invented. All languages (including mathematics or chemical notation or Boolean algebra or …..) must have a structure which is compliant with the logic of the universe it is used to describe. We perceive a logic in the universe and express it through the inbuilt logic of our language(s). We use the one to describe the other and they are both the same.

How not?


 

Disillusionment

June 29, 2017

It is one of the worst feelings one can experience. To have reality intrude rudely on illusions one has cherished.

And the worst of the worst is when it is another person who is the disillusionment. When somebody turns out to be not quite what they seem to be.


 

Language follows economy: 150 years of US/English hegemony

June 25, 2017

The domination of English as a world language probably begins only about 200 years ago and 1820 is as good a starting time as any.

Language influence, I would suggest, follows economic influence. The predominance of English today is merely a consequence of growth and spread of the English speaking economies. And the role of the US has been decisive in the last 150 years. The Latin of 2,000 years ago which had gained dominance in Europe died during the dark ages, evolved into Italian at home and was replaced by a plethora of local dialects in the rest of Europe. Latin was possibly the first ever which could be considered a “world language”. As a language of international communication it was probably preceded by Greek and Egyptian before that. Perhaps Arabic came close to being an international language during the Middle Ages. As European countries colonised the Americas and parts of Asia, they took their local languages with them. But the key for English was that North America adopted English rather than Spanish (or French or German). The US does not formally have an official language but English is the de facto national language. (According to legend German came close to being adopted in Pennsylvania in 1794).

There is no official language at the U.S. federal level. However, 32 states of the United States … have adopted legislation granting official status to English. Out of 50 states, 30 have established English as the only official language, while Hawaii recognizes both English and Hawaiian as official and Alaska has made some 20 Native languages official, along with English.

…… American schools, public as well as private, require English classes at every grade level, even in bilingual or dual-language learning. Semesters of English composition are required in virtually all U.S. colleges and universities to satisfy associate’s and bachelor’s degree requirements. – Wikipedia

Harald Haarmann writes in his Mosaic of Languages:

Europe has far exceeded all other continents regarding the export of languages. There is no other continent from which so many languages have been spread around the world, taking root elsewhere in the world and giving rise to global language communities. Most world languages, i.e. languages with global communicative functions, are European in origin and belong to the Indo-European family of languages. The result of this language export from the 15th century onward is a vast increase in the numbers of speakers. Today, the majority of speakers of languages such as English, Spanish, Portuguese and French live in regions outside of Europe. The proportion of speakers in Europe compared to those in other continents varies considerably between the individual languages:

German and Russian are Europe-centred, with the vast majority of speakers of these languages living in Europe. Languages such as Portuguese, English and Spanish, on the other hand, have far more speakers overseas, and the speakers in the countries of origin constitute a minority of the total number of speakers.

The spread of language cannot be divorced from economic well-being. Angus Maddison’s important work on historical GDP’s is insightful and fascinating. In his Millenial Perspective of the World Economy he begins:

Maddison world economy Vol 1

Over the past millennium, world population rose 22–fold. Per capita income increased 13–fold, world GDP nearly 300–fold. This contrasts sharply with the preceding millennium, when world population grew by only a sixth, and there was no advance in per capita income. From the year 1000 to 1820 the advance in per capita income was a slow crawl — the world average rose about 50 per cent. Most of the growth went to accommodate a fourfold increase in population. Since 1820, world development has been much more dynamic. Per capita income rose more than eightfold, population more than fivefold. Per capita income growth is not the only indicator of welfare. Over the long run, there has been a dramatic increase in life expectation. In the year 1000, the average infant could expect to live about 24 years. A third would die in the first year of life, hunger and epidemic disease would ravage the survivors. There was an almost imperceptible rise up to 1820, mainly in Western Europe. Most of the improvement has occurred since then. Now the average infant can expect to survive 66 years. The growth process was uneven in space as well as time. The rise in life expectation and income has been most rapid in Western Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan. By 1820, this group had forged ahead to an income level twice that in the rest of the world. By 1998, the gap was 7:1. Between the United States (the present world leader) and Africa (the poorest region) the gap is now 20:1. This gap is still widening. Divergence is dominant but not inexorable. In the past half century, resurgent Asian countries have demonstrated that an important degree of catch–up is feasible. Nevertheless world economic growth has slowed substantially since 1973, and the Asian advance has been offset by stagnation or retrogression elsewhere.

What he writes about population and income applies as well to language

Advances in population and income over the past millennium have been sustained by three interactive processes:
a) Conquest or settlement of relatively empty areas which had fertile land, new biological resources, or a potential to accommodate transfers of population, crops and livestock;
b) international trade and capital movements;
c) technological and institutional innovation.

I would suggest that the spread of English during the colonial expansion (say 1650 – 1850), immediately followed by the economic dominance of the English-speaking US (1870 – present), led to English happening to be the dominant language at just the right time during the explosion of Maddison’s period of technological and institutional innovation. It is being adopted as the language of science and engineering and innovation which has given English the decisive penetration it now has.

World GDP by country 1 – 2008AD (Maddison)

The US became the country with the largest GDP in about 1872. By 1918 (after World War 1) the US economy exceeded that of the UK, France and Germany combined. By 1942 the US economy was larger than that of all of Western Europe. China and India are rising though their per capita GDP is diluted by their large populations.

GDP rising

Within 10 – 20 years the Chinese economy will be significantly larger than that of the United States.

GDP 2030 projection

The question is whether another language will replace English, in time, to reflect the economic realities of the age. I suspect it will not happen for another 200 years – if ever. The position of English as the language of innovation and science and now as the language of the internet presents an inertial barrier that even Mandarin Chinese may not be able to overcome. Hindi and Tamil are the only Indian languages that could even be remotely considered, but either becoming a dominating language is in the realm of fantasy. It is the same type of inertial barrier which will also keep English predominant in Europe, even after BREXIT. In fact, English may have an added strength in a Europe without the UK, as a non-French, non-German, “neutral” language. There are those who name Spanish or Arabic as potential world languages but I find the case for them replacing English less than convincing. The adoption of Spanish would require that the economies of South and Central America (without Brazil but including Mexico) become dominant in the global economy and that is a very remote possibility. German and Russian are too Euro-centric to be considered. The case for French rests entirely – and implausibly – on the economic dominance of France and French-speaking Africa.

Unless the world shifts from the economic growth model that has served us for over 8,000 years (at least) – and I cannot imagine what that paradigm shift could be – I cannot see any language replacing an English (which will of course mutate and change and evolve) as the dominant world language for at least a few hundred years.


 

 


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