Friday, February 03, 2006

Language

We speak it, read it, and write it every day, whether it be English, German, French, Italian, or Japanese. We worked hard to learn it when growing up, until it became second nature. It makes sense to us out of habit because we associate meaning with our words. But it is not logical.

Language is an organic thing. It evolves. It is affected by the world around us, by progress, by our personal interactions with each other, by politics, by social class.

Language should be designed. By this I do not mean that language should be controlled or even made more strict of meaning. I mean that our current languages are rife with technical problems that impede the conveyance of intended meaning. If you want to be ambiguous then do so, but don't be ambiguous because your language compels it.

Most languages--written and spoken--have many of the same pitfalls. I'll examine the larger ones here using English as my target.

Spelling/Pronunciation: If someone tells you a word you do not know, you may not know how to spell it. Not because they didn't speak clearly, but because spelling is commonly not phonetic. Likewise, if you read a word you do not know, you may not know how to pronounce it.

bomb
come
comb
woman
women

The o's in each of these words are all pronounced differently.

circus

Sometimes c is pronounced like a k, sometimes like an s. It is a wasted letter.

fix
xylophone

The letter x is really just a k followed by an s, or simply a z. Again a wasted letter.

Synonyms: This problem plagues the English language. While it may be useful for humor and other wordplay, it is another example of the written-to-verbal ambiguity.

to
too
two

weigh
way

Homonyms: These are words that are spelled and pronounced the same, but have different meanings. This can also lead to confusion.

It is mine.
Stepped on a mine.
The mine collapsed.

Conjugation: One of my all-time pet peeves. Conjugation is simply a vestigial construct. It serves no purpose in language other than to give children useless things to memorize.

I am, you are, he is
I write, you write, he writes

The base verb itself is sufficient to impart exactly the same information, and should be consistently used in an unmodified form.

Verb Tenses: Each verb has a different way of being written depending on its tense (and conjugation). Again, this imparts no additional information beyond when.

I am
I was
I will be
I would have been
I will have been

Additionally, negation requires excessive modifiers.

I like pizza.
I do not like pizza.

Why 2 additional words to negate a simple verb?

I liked pizza.
I did not like pizza.

Why modify the negation words to show the tense change rather than the verb itself? Inconsistency again.

Pronouns: The notion of pronoun case (subjective or objective) is useless. It's just a set of arbitrary rules.

I am tall.
Play with me.

Also, pronouns break the rules used by all other possessive forms. When making a noun possessive, you usually add 's to the end.

Tom's game
Dick's book
Harry's foot
his car
its paw

Questions: To form a question in English, the syntax change is often mind-boggling.

He went to the store.
Did he go to the store?

General Ambiguity: Because some words have multiple uses, and their syntax is often ambiguous, we can construct sentences that are technically ambiguous.

Time flies like an arrow.

The verb could be any one of the first 3 words.

(Time) flies like an arrow.

Take out your stopwatch and time those flies.

Time (flies) like an arrow.

Just like it flies when you are having fun.

Time flies (like) an arrow.

Those strange hourglass-shaped "time flies" really do enjoy that arrow.

Lojban

Lojban is a language that was invented to address all of the above. That being said, I did not bring all this up to advocate Lojban. But by understanding a language designed from the ground up to be logical, it makes it easier to see where our natural languages fail.

There's also something called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which states that there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it.

I dove into Lojban a couple times a few years back. Although it is very compelling from a logical point of view, I never could keep up the motivation to become fluent, and have forgotten all but the basic concepts and a handful of words.

What's so interesting about Lojban? It really does solve all of the above issues in some very clever ways. First a quick overview.

Gismu: A gismu is a root word. They take the place of nouns, adjectives, and verbs in English. They are always of the form CVCCV or CCVCV (C = consonant, V = vowel) and are structured so no two sound alike.

Like any language, the actual meaning is based on the context, but in Lojban, the locations of words in a "sentence" determines their function and denotation.

One such gismu is klama which means to come, to go, or to travel...sort of. Words that express "functions" in Lojban have a place structure. This defines the parameters for the function, and their default order. The place structure for klama is:

x1 klama to x2 from x3 via x4 using x5

So:

mi klama do

means "I go to you". The places for x1 and x2 are filled in, and the rest are left unknown. You can use as few or as many of the places as you want. You can even rearrange them or skip some.

mi do klama
klama mi do

Both of these mean the same thing as the first. The change in order serves to emphasize different words, just like:

I love you.
You are loved by me.

does in English. You can use the words fa/fe/fi/fo/fu to imply a specific place location:

mi klama fi do

means "I go from you" (I leave you) but does not say where I am going to.

But remember a gismu does not have to act like an English verb. If you precede a function word with le, you are effectively making it a noun. So:

le klama

means "the goer" or "the one who goes" or "the traveler". karce is another gismu that basically means "car", but again it is still a functional word:

x1 karce for carrying x2 propelled by x3

So:

mi karce (I am a car)
mi klama fu le karce (I go by car)

Spelling/Pronunciation: In Lojban, every letter is always pronounced the same way, and every spoken sound translates to a unique letter. If you see a word, you know how to pronounce it. If someone speaks a word, you know how to spell it. Furthermore, because of the defined structure of the words, it is even impossible to mistakenly think that two spoken words are one word, or vice versa.

Synonyms: Because of the above, it is impossible to have two words that sound the same but be spelled differently.

Homonyms: Lojban has a unique word for everything.

Conjugation: There is none. Can I have a round of applause? Anything that "goes" uses klama. There is no other form of the word.

Verb Tenses: In Lojban, tense is controlled by simple modifiers. The base function word does not change.

mi klama (I go)
mi pu klama (I go in the past, I went)
mi ba klama (I go in the future, I will go)

In English, tense is purely limited to when and if. In Lojban, you can add modifiers to describe where.

mi ri'u va klama (I go to the right a medium distance)

Pronouns: In Lojban, the word mi stands for I, me, and my. There is no artificial notion of subjective and objective words.

mi klama (I go)
do klama mi (You go to me)
do klama mi karce (I go to my car)

Questions: To ask a yes/no question, you simply precede a statement with xu:

xu mi klama (Is it true that I go?)

To ask a question about one or more place structures, replace the normal word with mo:

mo klama (Who or what is going?)
mi klama mo (I am going where?)
mo klama mo (Who or what is going where?)
mi klama fu mo (I am going by what means?)

General Ambiguity: Because of the strict structure of the language, you are free to use the words you want to express ideas without worrying that the statement itself will be ambiguous. The actual meaning is still contextual. You may be trying to be sarcastic, or metaphoric, etc.

mi zdani (I am a house)

What you really mean by this is up to the reader, but the literal translation is not.


This was really meant to be a rant of natural language, using Lojban as an example of how things could be so much simpler. But if you are curious about Lojban itself, check out the following links:

Lojban
Wiki
PDF Intro Book

4 Comments:

At 1:52 PM, Blogger Ryan Walberg said...

I always thought a new universal language could be defined in mathematical terms to be "perfect." I see someone has already done this.

Unfortunately it will never grow beyond academia, since culture is rooted in language.

 
At 3:25 AM, Anonymous Mikko said...

So you don't like verb conjugation? You'd love Finnish.

http://www.cc.jyu.fi/~hetahein/tiede/verbikaava.html is a list of all forms a Finnish verb can have. There are literally dozens of them.

And I quite like it, to be honest.

 
At 4:56 PM, Anonymous JPZagal said...

Or is it that language is rooted in culture?

Not to sound pedantic, but the problem with "universal languages" is that, while they may be great for communicating those things that require extreme precision, they generally fall flat on their faces when they try to capture more nuanced communication. Also, they are too static to be of any use. As cultures change and evolve, so does language adapt to the needs of those that use it.

 
At 5:16 PM, Blogger ekted said...

Of course, we have thousands of idioms with learned meaning. If you learn a new language, you have to learn how it works and people as a whole have to pick the ways they will use it. A logical language does not preclude idiom, sarcasm, metaphor, or hyperbole; it simply deals with the technical issues of letter, word, sentence, and syntax consistency.

 

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