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This week’s post centers around Language (with a capital L) and the awful time we have trying to define it.
The wall and the wilderness:
Unfounded, biased musings on Language, language,
and various antiquated models of the Solar System.
by Alison Rush
A definition is the enclosing of a wilderness of ideas within a wall of words.
Samuel Butler (1835 – 1902)
Every once in a while, someone will claim to have defined Language-with-a-capital-L in the most rigorous, exhaustive terms possible. The usual suspects are dubious, but for a brief moment it seems possible that the puzzle of millennia has finally been cracked: the wall built, the wilderness mapped, and all the trees identified by their Latin names.
But the pace at which we learn new things always exceeds the rate at which we are able to explain them*. New bits of information come along and start boring little holes in the wall, then bigger and bigger ones, until one day some brash little bastard goes up to it, pokes it with a stick and watches the whole thing collapse**.
How on Earth are we supposed to cope? How did we even get to this point in the first place?
You can come at the problem of Language-with-a-capital-L from too many angles to count, but it most attempts at describing it seem to resolve themselves into one of two broad approaches: from the top down, or from the bottom up.
The first school of thought advocates a formal, Chomskian, langue-centric attack. From this perspective, you might describe language as an elegant mechanism for generating communicative utterances via a system of rules.
The second school takes a more functional, bottom-up, parole-driven view (language-with-a-little-l). Looking at it this way, you could describe languages as sprawling conglomerations of idiosyncrasies (driven to a large extent by social and cultural paradigms) which, despite their incredible diversity, seem to share certain common elements and rules.
An astronomical digression
For some reason, the formal, top-down approach always reminds me of the Ptolemaic model of the universe. At first it seems a lovely system of celestial spheres, making heavenly music as they move in perfect circles around the pinnacle of creation (the Earth).
Once you start trying to make predictions based on the model, though, things get ugly. In an effort to reconcile the observed movements of the stars and planets with the model, the Greek astronomers had to add all sorts of elaborate cycles and epicycles to the orbits of the planets. Sometimes the planets appear to move backwards in the sky, for example – the Greeks concluded that they must be spiraling through space.
The bottom-up approach, while not so sweeping in scope (fieldwork, IPA charts and morphology) appeals to me more. I think of Tycho Brahe, sitting in an observatory for 20 years making the most incredibly precise measurements of the movements of celestial bodies – accurate to the arcminute, and all done by hand. It’s not all tedium, though: after Brahe’s death, his student Kepler took those measurements and used them to build a strong case for the idea that the Earth went around the Sun.
Back to linguistics
Still, there is a fair chunk of the linguistics canon that just doesn’t seem to be based on meticulous examination of empirical evidence. Language has been described many, many times in appealing, sometimes beautiful, but ultimately subjective terms. Some of the descriptions and theories are quite elegant, and explain a lot, but they make the anal-retentive scientist in me squirm. It’s not a simple thing to ask. Language is an incredibly slippery thing to quantify, but there are ways to do it. Mathematical ways.
I can hear your groans now. But looking at language mathematically gives you a third approach: an additional angle of analysis that complements the other two. This angle takes a more abstract standpoint: how can you classify a communication system (when you don’t know what the individual elements signify) as fundamentally Language or fundamentally not-Language?
Human languages have a set of characteristic qualities that show up in certain statistics. Applying these statistics (more on these in the next post) to any communication system, you can gauge the extent to which the system resembles or behaves like human language as we know it.
Given the delicacy and nuance that both the functional and formal approaches have had to adopt in describing language, trying to pin it down to cold, hard statistics seems a brutal enterprise. But the truth is that we have tools at our disposal that we aren’t using. Statistics can describe language in opposition to randomness without having to rely upon the rules of any one language. Defining the difference between unordered information and a true linguistic system is essential to deciphering new ways of encoding meaning in speech and writing.
It may seem like counting trees in the wilderness, but it’s much more exciting than that… next time on TVFH7: information theory!
A preview of the next issue:
Information theory is a branch of statistical mathematics that deals with questions of frequency and organization in a system. Primarily, it examines communication, and how information can be optimally compressed. When a linguist looks at an alien, seemingly incomprehensible set of elements, the first thing to do is to see whether the system’s elements obey a set of rules. Are they random? Are some more frequent than others? Are some orders of those elements more likely than others? The answers to those questions can be used to determine, or at least to make an educated guess as to whether something is or is not an ordered, optimal way of transmitting information (language, or something like it). It isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but the knowledge that we can (sort of) reliably distinguish ordered information from random noise is incredibly exciting. Ok, it’s a laughably simple distinction and the theory’s been around for a while, but I still think it’s awesome.
Check back for more mincing mallecho soon!
* The tragedy of science.
** At that point, the small, elite community of people who had trusted in the wall riot in the streets, the architect sulks, and the workmen sigh and raze the foundations, while in a basement somewhere, another slightly younger group of engineers are already gathered around a shiny new blueprint.
*** In fact, to be really paranoid for a moment, don’t trust anything anyone says about Language-with-a-capital-L. I’m beginning to think it’s all made up, and that “theoretical” is a code word for “we just built a castle out of air!”.