Friday, January 18, 2013

Well, languages and cultures aren't alive.

Unfortunately, as interesting as a mental exercise as "Languages are Alive" is for mental gymnastics, it has some serious flaws and negative implications. None of these are as problematic as the lack of predictive power and the lack of testability.

The first is caused by the current inscrutability of languages. A good foundational theory for language requires making predictions about what structures languages can, and cannot have. Unfortunately, the number of known 'language universals' seems only to shrink, not grow, as exceptions are found. As perusing the universals archive will show you, most previously 'absolute' universals are now merely statistical as a counterexample is discovered. We know so little about so many languages that we are sadly uninformed in many ways about what it really is.

Our second problem, that of testability, comes from some weaselling in the general hypothesis of "Languages are Alive", it's a bad hypothesis because any test that could confirm it could be hand-waived away as "Languages are not that kind of alive!" Our definition of life from the get-go was overly broad, as you may have noticed from how much was being sucked in as being 'alive'.

However, the idea that languages are like living things is not new, phylogenetic trees have been constructed, especially for Indo-European, that show languages related like families and species. If it were not the tail wagging the dog to use this as evidence of languages evolving like biological species (the trees were created under the assumption that languages evolve that way, see 'wave' models for an alternative that does not use that assumption but still classifies languages well) it would certainly seem that language is alive.

It is, in that sense, a useful analogy. One can say, for example, that English 'evolved' it's vowel system from the 'original' old-English [a], [æ], [ɛ], [i], [ɔ], [u], [ə] and [y] to modern English's [i], [ɪ], [u], [ʊ], [ɛ], [ə], [ɔ], [æ], [ɑ]. This is not 'wrong', but it is an analogy, a metaphor, not an actual hypothesis for what is happening.

So, I hope you had a great Christmas, great new-year, and have a wonderful 2013!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

More odd thoughts on Language as a Life-form

A reminder, these are non-rigorous philosophical musings, not scientific facts. This is an extended what if and should be taken as something of interest, not a definite scientific theory or anything like that. Certainly, it could be a start for actual scientific work, but it remains speculative, at best.

Previously, I argued that language is a living thing under a particular definition. It makes a lot of sense from a certain perspective. Languages change over time. In-part, this is because they do not replicate perfectly (children speak differently from adults). Languages are also like bacteria with plasmids, constantly exchanging pieces with one-another. If you view each language that we know of in the world, you can consider language to be a 'species', with each person's private ideolect being the individual elements of that species.
Now, if you know much about anthropology and linguistics, you know that language and culture are very closely related, almost the same thing - if not, then language is the vehicle for culture. Our musings on life make this have hilarious and far-reaching implications. Just as I argued that language is alive, I could similarly argue that culture is alive. Richard Dawkin's musings on "memes" could be considered alongside this. In this view, we are all living things with a symbiotic language in our head, that further has a symbiotic culture within it, a Matrushka doll of 'living' beings!
Naturally, one can wonder if these 'living things' evolve. I would suspect that they would - in the sense that they would change as they replicated. I do not think that they would evolve in a Darwinian manner. I do suspect, however, that because of the symbioses involved, languages and cultures would pressure one another to occupy the most human minds, the most successful being those languages and cultures that most benefit our own living efforts to spread our genetic code. Under such pressures, the structures of languages and cultures might change and flux as a simple result of constant evolution towards changing conditions. I suspect, however, that while as the evolution of biological organisms has many oddities and strange paths, the evolution of languages and cultures would be even stranger and less predictable. Certainly a chaotic system in the mathematical and colloquial senses.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

An Idea-Set to Explore

I have no idea where this idea will lead me, but I am thinking of exploring the philosophical implications of an interesting world-view statement.
  • Life is anything that uses negentropy to continue its own existence, and replicates itself.
This is a  very inclusive definition of life, as it allows us to consider viruses, prions, and computer viruses to be 'alive'. I do not find this inherently troubling (though some do). After all, to me, these are just very strange forms of life that do not function as we would expect.
For the first 'interesting fact' that results from this, I am going to argue today that languages are living things in symbiosis with humans. In order for my claim to be true, I have to show that language uses negentropy to continue it's existence and that it replicates itself. I will not offer rigorous proof, but I will argue for why I think that this rigorous proof would exist.
For the first part of the definition, the use of negentropy to continue it's own existence. Language must be represented by structures in the brain that are ordered in a definite way. A definite ordering must maintain itself with negentropy or it will eventually cease to exist. Therefore, language likely consumes negentropy. It's pulling it right out of our bodies and has our brain provide it.
For the second part of the definition, the self replication. Young children have no language, but almost as soon as their ears fully function, they begin to acquire and understand language. This appears to happen without a definite learning process. I suspect that this process is self-replication into our universal grammar.
Then, we can say that language is alive. Since we benefit language (by providing a universal grammar for it to exist in) and it benefits us (by allowing us to communicate ideas with great precision and power) we can see that it is symbiotic with us.
Thus, we all have a symbiote inside of us, a symbiote that appears to only exist in our species. It appears to set us apart from all other life (that we know of). Rather cool, yes?
When I next get around to making a post, I will discuss how we have more symbiotes inside of us, and that they are even more weird than language.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Back, possibly.

I've decided to try and resume posting. I've let the ALEIS blog languish too long I think.