Home > anthropology, consciousness, philosophy, society > Why can’t the world have a universal language? Part II

Why can’t the world have a universal language? Part II

This is more of a comment on Marc Ettlinger‘s very good and thought provoking answer (I have reblogged it here and here). In particular I am interested in why pre-verbal expressions do not diverge in the same way as verbal language. I’m not sure that something like a smile, for instance, is literally universal to every human society, but it seems nearly so, and even extends to other animal species, or so it appears.

What’s interesting to me is that you have this small set of gestures which are even more intimate and personal than verbal signals – more inseparable from identity, which then gets expressed in this interpersonal linguistic way which is at once lower entropy and higher entropy. What I mean is that language has the potential both to carry a more highly articulated, complex meaning, but also to carry more ambiguity than a common gesture.

When a foreigner tries to communicate with a native without having common language, they resort to pre-verbal gestures. Rather than developing that into a universal language, we, as you say, opt for a more proprietary expression of ourselves, our culture, etc… except that in close contact, the gestures would actually be just as personally expressive if not more. There’s all kinds of nuance loaded into that communication, of individual personality as well as social and cultural (and species) identity.

So why do we opt for the polyglot approach for verbal symbols but not for raw emotive gestures? I think that the key is in the nature of boundary between public and private experiences. I think there are two levels of information entropy at work. Something like a grunt or a yell is a very low entropy broadcast on an intro-personal level and a high entropy broadcast on an extra-personal level. If something makes a loud noise at you, whether it’s a person or a bear, the message is clear – “I am not happy with you, go away.”. These primal emotions need not be simple either. Grief, pride, jealousy, betrayal, etc might be quite elusive to define in non-emotional terms, full of complexity and counter-intuitive paradox. If we want to communicate something which is about something other than private states of the interacting parties, however, the grunt or scowl is a very highly entropic vehicle. What’s he yelling about? Enter the linguistic medium.

The human voice is perhaps the most fantastically articulated instrument which Homo sapiens has developed, second only to the cortex itself. The hand is arguably more important perhaps, in the early hominid era, but without the voice, the development of civilization would have undoubtedly stalled. It’s like the paleolithic internet. Mobile, personal yet social, customizable, creative. It’s a spectacular thing to have whether you’re hunting and gathering or settling in for nice long hierarchical management of surplus agricultural production.

The human voice is the bridge between the private identity in a world based on very local and intimate concerns, and a public world of identity multiplicities. To repurpose the lo-fi private yawps and howls with more high fidelity vocalizations requires a trade off between directness and immediacy for a more problematic but intelligent code. One of the key features is that once a word is spoken, it cannot be taken back as easily. A growl can be retracted with a smile, but a word has a ‘point’ to make. It is thermodynamically irreversible. One it has been uttered in public, it cannot be taken back. A decision has been made. A thought has become a thing.

Inscribing language in a written form takes this even one step clearer, and there is a virtuous cycle between thought, speech, actions, and writing which was like the Cambrian explosion for the human psyche. Unlike private gestures which only recur in time, public artifacts, spoken or written, are persistent across space. They become an archeological record of the mind – the library is born. Why can’t the world have a universal language? Because we can’t get rid of the ones that we’ve got already, or at least not until recently. Public artifacts persist spatially. Even immaterial artifacts like words and phrases are spread by human vectors as the settle, migrate, concentrate and disperse.

Because language originates out of public discourse which is local to specific places, events, and people, the aesthetics of the language actually embody the qualities of those events. This is a strange topic, as yet virtually untouched by science, but it is a level of anthropology which has profound implications for the physics of privacy itself – of consciousness. Language is not only identity and communication, I would say that it is also a view of the entire human world. Within language, the history of human culture as a whole rides right along side the feelings and thoughts of individuals, their lives, and their relation with nature as it seemed to them. The power of language to describe, to simulate, and to evoke fiction makes each new word or phrase a kind of celebration. The impact of technology seems to be accelerating both the extension of language and its homogenization. At the same time, as instant translation becomes more a part of our world, the homogenization may suddenly drop off as people are allowed to receive everything in their own language.

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  1. June 14, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    The idea of a language’s aesthetic as a mirror of the world in which it evolved is fascinating, yet so subtle and complicated it’s hard to say more without lapsing into wild conjecture. (And one should not be too obvious or reductive about it.) Of course, cultures also evolve to fit their language, creating a aesthetic feedback loop. We know that languages have gross characterizations in culture with French sounding “romantic” and German “austere,” for example, but do languages really embed ideology in the very experiential experience of speaking them. (It’s hard to imagine the Nazis shouting in French.)

    Does China’s rise disturb us so because on some fundamental level the aesthetic of Mandarin is just deeply foreign to the Western soul? With it’s ability to encode meaning in tonal shift, Chinese has a bizarre phonological structure and rule-set compared to the Western Romantic/Germanic paradigm. As such, does speaking in Mandarin create a different kind of person altogether, a self which is unimaginable in Western consciousness?

    Perhaps we shouldn’t stress the point too much; as Chomsky has shown, all languages have far more in common than not and our ability to communicate between all of them (however imperfectly) is a testament to the universality of language in all of consciousness. I still like the idea that language qua language is actually as much a platonic form as the shape of a triangle or the number 43 (which of course is the answer to everything).

    • June 14, 2013 at 8:03 pm

      I think it’s 42 actually, but yes I agree. For an even more esoteric point I would add that the more we look at language in a quantitative sense, as representational codes, the more unity we should expect to see. The more we look at aesthetics, the more it is about presentation and the more distinction and proprietary character we should see.

      I think that you’re right about xenophobic panic being somewhat proportional to the difference in language. Prejudice in general it seems is more of a reaction against aesthetics than anything else. Even though people try to couch it in anthropological or social terms, it is the superficial differences in how people look, the clothes they wear, their expressions and language which seem to be the real driver of hostility.

  2. June 14, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    42…DAMN! No wonder I’ve been wrong about everything! 😛

    I love that idea, that as we look quantitatively at language’s most abstract form, (is this just pure syntax?) we see the universality of the phenomenon, which then allows us to better decode how the actual variations from this unreal, unspeakable structure (you can’t speak in pure syntax, you’d be doing math) “dresses” the form in myriad contingent significance, not merely in giving words meaning but encoding meta-meaning in words/phrases/phonemes/verb structure/slang etc. As such there is no actual possible language which doesn’t betray some extra information about its history in it’s very existence. One wonders what to say about invented languages like Ithkuil. (See: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/12/24/121224fa_fact_foer)

    • June 14, 2013 at 9:27 pm

      Exactly. Now if you apply that formula of skeletal universal abstraction on the bottom and proprietary aesthetic proliferation on the top to…everything…then you pretty much have the main thrust of the MR model that I’m trying to explain. The kicker is that the skeletal abstraction seems pure and fundamental to us on the inside – because the universality is so powerful in allowing us to extend ourselves into the world, but from the Absolute perspective, it’s just an empty scaffold or trellis for the really important stuff. Well, it wouldn’t be very important without the structure and universal interaction protocols, so maybe it’s almost even. It would be even except that a universe of boneless dreams would still be better than a universe of dreamless bones. Still, the revolutionary perspective flip is to understand the syntactic bones as gaps within the semantic narrative. The film strip sprockets and frames and emulsions. That isn’t where the film comes from though. The film is already here (it has nowhere else to be).

      Interesting invented languages yeah. I suppose the aesthetics of ‘real’ languages begin in the same pool of collective influence and personal imagination as invented languages, although the intentionality and relatively sudden development of them probably robs it of the gravitas of authenticity. I love thinking about how the personality of different cultures vary gradually with geography…how England is sort of a more Scandinavian France, and France is like a more Spain-facing Germany. I want Google to make the entire history of civilization available in that way – so you could point to any place or region with Google Maps and then dial a moment or period of time to see a comparison of people, clothes, architecture, historical events, etc. Then I want to live in that thing 🙂

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