Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


After Wilkins

Though wilkins is the "last" of the language projectors in the sense that no subsequent attempts came close to success, it is not the end. Throughout the 18th and 19th century attempts are made to create universal languages of various kinds. The eighteenth century (which we skip, unfortunately) say not just more attempts, but a new fascination with encyclopedias and with the theory of how language works. The french idéologues in particular studied the development of language and articulated a more general understanding of meaning.

There is also a whole story to tell concerning the work of the Romantics in France and Germany, and the creation of an 'ethic' of language-- a new mode of poetry and a new appreciatiation for the limits of language. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1806) is an expression of this period. More about Dracula and Frankenstein next time...

Eco discusses many of the lesser known attempts of the 18th and 19th century-- De Mamieux's Pasigraphie, Vismes' and Solresol's musical languages, and a host of others that took one or another natural language (usually French) as a nigh-perfect langauge requiring only subtle adjustment to achieve perfection.

Eco also offers us some interesting 20th century parallel's: Lincos, a language for communicating with aliens; and artificial computer programming languages.

Computer programming languages are an interesting case. Eco raises two things that might limit them from being perfect langauges:

1) their rules of inference are drawn from the western logical tradition, and this may mean, as many have argued, that they reflect little more than the basic grammatical structures common to the Indo-European family of languages; 2) their effability is limited; that is, they are capable of expressing only a small proportion of what any natural language can express.

Number one is a philospophical problem which you can puzzle about in the following way: would logic (and hence computers) be different if it had been developed in the Chinese language? For this I have no answers.

Number two, however, has counter examples, such as the following:

#!/usr/bin/perl -w
use strict;

my $lamb = {
     "size" => "little",
     "fleece" => "snow",
my $mary = $lamb;    
$lamb = \$mary;      
undef $lamb;    

or, for fans of Tolkein:

Steve Jenkins, winner of a perl poetry cntest, who ported "The Doom of Noldor / The Prophecy of the North" from J.R.R. Tolkien's Quenta Silmarillion.

$_ = 'The Doom of the Noldor' or 'The Prophecy of the North';
while( /Doom/ ) {
    shed(' tears ');
    Valar: do {
       $Valinor{'fence'}++ and $shut_out;
    } until not( $echo_of_lamentation > $mountains );
    for( $West..$uttermost_East ) {
        map{$_ = $Valar{'wrath'}} (@House_of_Feanor, @followers);
sub shed{print shift}

In reality, the line between the logical, a-priori philosophical language and the natural language is not sharp, and one of the reasons for this has to do with the fact that languages are transformed by usage. Eco gives the example of the language "Volapük.

"...the fate of artificial languages: the 'word' remains pure only if it does not spread; if it spreads, it becomes the property of the community of its proselytes, and (since the best is the enemy of the good) the result is babelization."

Eco suggests that only in the absolute abstract can a language remain pure, since different communities of users can extend, transform, or rearrange a language. Even the strictest logical languages--from the earliest attempts through to computer languages--are always subject to corruption by their users. Much like the argument about scriptural copying prodcing corrupted versions through non-standard substitutions or reproductions, the use of a language produces intentional and unintentional changes.

What this means is that social context and social structure play an essential role in the very meaning and usability of a language, logical or not. In reading Dracula we will return to the question of how people control language and language in turn controls people.

How did information become meaningless?

In the twentieth century, we are much more likely to talk about 'information' than about language. Information, however, is really an invention of the last 50 years, drawn primarily from information science and cybernetics. If we find it natural to think about bits, megabytes, streams, encoding, and the strange notion of a "quantity of information" it is because of the emergence of computers and networks, not because of a discovery of a more primordial substance.

In terms of the search for a perfect language, however, history bifurcates in the nineteenth century: into logical languages and a posteriori languages

Logical Languages

In the 19th century, there are a series of developments that lead closer to Leibniz' dream of a perfect langauge in which to calculate thought: G. Boole invents a symbolic algebra of logic and G. Frege invents a language for representing logical statements that is still widely used today (so-called 'predicate' logic). The developments of these languages are recounted in Davis' Engines of Logic for anyone interested in understanding how they determine modern logic and computation.

Today information is considered to be "meaningless" precisely because it is meant to be distinguished from any given use. We speak now about information "content" and the "probability" of a message. We may be, as in the case of Elizabeth Eisenstein's work, undergoing another transformation equally as important as that of the printed book.

A posteriori languages

A posteriori languages, or "International Auxiliary Languages" are languages invented not to be perfect, but only universal. They are derived from existing natural languages and use as many common roots as possible. As a result, "universal" is obviously not quite "worldwide". Take Esperato, for example, which allows easy communication accross the Romance and Germanic languages, but little access for Chinese, Japanese, Swahili, etc. Nonethe less, the language has been very successful, and still commands a worldwide community of speakers. Here is a useful phrase in Esperanto:

Unu bieron, mi petas (Oo-noo bee-airon, mee peh-tahs)

And lest you imagine eveything in this class to be irrelevant to the 20th century, here is yet another reason to appreciate the diversity of human endeavors: Incubus

Lincos The Lincos Language for Communicating with aliens from H. Freudenthal, Lincos: Design of a language for cosmic intercourse, part I, 1960. Examples 3 34 6 and 3 34 7 concern: "Examples of good breeding: not to listen to confidential talks of other persons, not to tell about confidential talks of others which one has happened to witness.

More links to perl poetry and software art:

1. Some more perl poetry winners

2. Perl Monks

3. Florian Cramer's Software Art

Christopher M. Kelty
Last modified: Wed Apr 2 09:53:03 CST 2003