Re: future language

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Tue Apr 30 2002 - 15:26:17 BST

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    Subject: Re: future language
    Date: Tue, 30 Apr 2002 07:26:17 -0700
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    >I'm delighted to see all the discussion about languages. I joined this
    >list to talk about memetics, but I studied linguistics at SFU, and spend a
    >lot of time thinking about the past and future of language.
    >There is a very interesting argument which can be found in the early 19th
    >century writings of Wilhelm von Humbolt that English, German, Malay, and
    >other natural languages are not really languages at all, but cultural
    >content habitually and unconsciously inserted in an intermingled way in all
    >speech and writing amongst English, German, or Malay speakers.
    > >From a memetics point of view this content is a vast collection memes
    >we are all unconsciously passing around to one another, but in Humboldt's
    >theory the language we are using to do so is not English, nor German, nor
    >Malay, but an underlying universal language. We could, in principle,
    >and write in this universal language, without the accumulated cultural
    >baggage, if we could factor out the memetic content.
    >I called this mail message "future language" because I don't think it is
    >entirely unreasonable to imagine that in the future we will be able to
    >communicate directly in that underlying universal language, with no added
    >memetic baggage, or at least without any we don't want to carry with us.
    >What would that be like? Well, for one thing, the semantics would be
    >transparent -- similar looking words would always have similar meanings.
    >file of words in dictionary (alphabetical) order would be exactly the same
    >as a file containing the same words in thesaurus order (ordered by
    >similarity of meaning, like the original kind of Roget's thesaurus, or like
    >a library's Dewey Decimal System order).
    >Can you imagine that? It is not easy to think about, I admit. What I
    >have been working on for several years now are approximations to this,
    >quasi-universal-languages that have most, but not all, of the memetic
    >contents removed. Yes, yes, I know inventing artificial languages has no
    >intellectual respectability and is a sure sign of a crackpot.
    >The true universal language, (and what phrase could be nuttier than that?),
    >if it exists, is not something to be invented but something to be
    >discovered. I haven't made that most wonderful of scientific discoveries,
    >but I think I know how to get there, since various invented approximations
    >to it provide some clues. Here is the URL for a description of one of
    >these being-invented approximations, on a very old web page of mine.
    > -- I have come along way
    >since then, but the newer stuff isn't on the web yet.
    >Comments, anyone?
    > dpw
    I foresee something like what you are talking about, but it's probably too
    far out for this list. As we use our technology to alter our bodies and
    augment our senses, I believe will be able one day to connect directly to
    our brains and communicate on the level from which language is created on a
    daily basis. All words are approximations of a complex idea that springs
    first from the mind and then is translated into a system of sounds. The
    sounds it is translated into belong to a culture, which is what separates
    languages into vessels of culture. But when we can make a connection
    directly to a place like the amigdala and transmit the complete thought from
    one mind to another over something like the internet, languages as we know
    them will fade away completely just as individual languages are doing now.
    Thought is the universal language, in my mind, and the technology for
    transmitting it is being developed in laboratories all over the world.

    We have, for instance, circuits and transistors made of carbon tubes the
    size of a single molecule. You can fit a whole computer with enough data to
    fill a bookshelf inside a single cell. Genetic research is teaching us how
    to insert and grow cells of every kind into the body and brain and also how
    to modify cells to cooperate with mechanical devices. Artificial eyes are
    already being developed and are nearly ready for planting in blind humans.
    As we squeeze that technology into smaller and smaller units using the
    newest developments in nanotechnology, something like blue tooth will be
    reduced to a size that will fit inside a single cell and we will all be
    connected, just as we are today with the slow and bulky internet. The
    language we "speak" then will be the language of pure thought and ideas.

    But, like I said above, that may be too far in the future for the thinkers
    here. The wave of technology that is rolling over us and changing the way
    we interact with each other at ever increasing speeds is bound to make
    language as we know it too cumbersome to handle the amount of data we will
    have to deal with. When the very air is filled with bits of dust that
    measure and transmit things like the temperature, moisture, proximity of
    people, and things we can't even imagine today, it will take augmentation of
    our senses and our brains to collect, analyze, and share all of the data
    coming at us from our senses, the sensors and other people.

    We still have a long way to go in this, but the pace of change is increasing
    at an exponential rate today and much of the technology already exists in a
    primative form from wireless phones and computers to computer parts only a
    single molecule in size. Self-assembling circuits are being made on labs
    right now. We've almost reached a stage where the future borders on being
    impossible to predict. But, then, it always was, wasn't it?


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