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According to Britannica.com, language is “a system of conventional spoken, manual, or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. The functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release.

Since we’re already dealing in conventions, I’m going to ask you to consider this:
How about we redefine language as ‘any manner in which information is transported across space and or time between two entities which have the possibility to interpret, act and or otherwise intervene on/influence the message, the situation described by the message or both at the same time’?

You’ll surely notice that the second definition is more inclusive that the first, of course. And you’ll also notice the differences. Which aren’t that dramatic, after-all…

– ‘Conventional’…
‘Classic’ languages – English, Chinese, French, Urdu, German,  etc., are more the result of ‘natural evolution’ than of any ‘straightforward’ convention… while Esperanto, the most conventional of the spoken languages, didn’t make it too far.
In this sense, the more natural languages which have evolved ‘on their own’ – without any intentional intervention from those who use it, are not that far away from the ‘classic’ languages. Birds have ‘vocal’ manners of sending distress and ‘sexual’ signals; monkeys and apes also; even social insects, ants and bees, dispose of an entire array of chemicals, sounds and gestures used to convey freshly gathered information from one individual to another.

– ‘by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves’.
Really? What’s all this brouhaha about ‘expressing one’s self’? A call for help, ‘expressed’ in any way, shape or form, remains a call for help… regardless of the manner in which it has been expressed. Articulated language, Morse code, sign language or a simple sob. Same thing is valid for a warning call. Most of the times, the caller does it ‘instinctively’ and not to gain any ‘social points’ by ‘expressing’ their care for the rest of the ‘cultural community’ ‘conversant’ in the language used to make the call. The magpie in the video above is one of the exceptions, not the rule. Otherwise, the whole signaling ‘industry’ would have been abandoned long ago… due to the very evolutionary forces which have made language what it is today.

Don't cry wolf

– ‘The functions of language include…”
Isn’t this funny?!? ‘The functions of language include…’ How about ‘some of functions we, users of language, have been able to identify are… “.
Or even ‘some of the uses we’ve been able to put language to are …’?

Quite a lot of confusion… isn’t it?

But language was supposed to make things clearer, not muddier… right?

Tell that to those dogs… the ones sent chasing ghosts by the fake distress calls ‘jokingly’ (?!?) emitted by the magpie in the video at the top of my post…

So…

– ‘Spoken’ language.
Or should I call it ‘extemporaneous’? The way I see it, most ‘spoken’ language is uttered on the spur of the moment… or used to be, anyway.
Nowadays, spoken words can be carefully prepared long time in advance… even made to ‘faithfully’ mimic an impromptu message…

– ‘Written’ language.
While ‘spoken’ messages’ have been used, extemporaneously, for a huge amount of time – and not only by humans, as I mentioned earlier, ‘writing’ has been a late invention. Ours.
Or, at least, this is how we like to believe…
The most important characteristic of ‘written’ – as opposed to ‘spoken’, being ‘verba volant, scripta manent’. ‘Spoken words fly away, written words remain’!
The earliest scripts, both cuneiform and hieroglyphic, were used to ‘transport’ information through time. At first, to conserve data rather than what we currently call ‘complex information’. Inventory and ‘identity’ rather than information which may – or even has to, be interpreted in order to make sense. The early cuneiform clay tablets contained ‘cargo manifests’ and only later some of them had been used to ‘conserve’ the Story of Gilgamesh.

– ‘Operational’ language.
Aren’t you tired of that magpie yet?
Have you even watched the video?
Did you notice how the dogs reacted to the fake distress calls? For the umpteenth time, probably…
For the purposes of the present post, it doesn’t matter whether the magpie actively/conscientiously makes fun of the dogs or just acts out of some sort of an instinctive boredom… something akin to the bright spots we sometimes see when ‘confronted’ by a pitch-black environment. It also doesn’t matter whether the dogs are actually fooled every-time they go out to chase the invented fox or they do it because they experience the same kind of boredom like the one which ‘fuels’ the magpie.
For me, all that counts is the consistent manner in which the target reacts to the message transported through the use of this particular kind of language. It is this kind of consistency which determines the ‘operational’ nature of certain languages.

And now, let’s get to the ‘fun’ part.

The calls emitted by the magpie can be construed as being ‘spoken’, right?
They are of a ‘vocal’ nature, are fleeing by definition – unless someone records them using some artificial devices… yet they are also ‘operational’… since the dogs faithfully execute what they are ‘told’ to do…
Now, if we think of it, most natural languages are ‘operational’ indeed.
Ants and bees use them to direct ‘practical’ action, not to ‘express themselves’…
Calls used by most animals relate to avoiding danger, signaling food or ‘expressing’ sexual ‘desire’… and have little or no connection with anything else.
In this respect, the magpie is an exception, not the rule. And even here, the message is ‘formulated’ ‘operationally’. Simply because magpies don’t ‘know’ any other kinds (uses) of language.

We, humans, have bucked the trend only in the sense that we’ve developed kinds of languages lax enough to allow ‘thinking’.

I’m sure that all of you have noticed that when considering the pros and the cons to something you think using a language, right?
A language ‘lax’ enough to accommodate ‘what if’!

Something which doesn’t ‘fit’ in the ‘language’ used by most nursing babies to ask for more milk…

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Language is the tool we use when we consciously transmit, receive or glean information.

While the ‘transmitting&receiving’ part is rather simple, ‘consciously and ‘glean’ might need some explaining.

You’ve all heard about ‘body language’.

Actors use it consciously to convey emotion and sometimes even meaning while profilers use it to glean information unconsciously distributed by their marks.

Artists use specific ‘modes of expression’ – language, actually – to convey emotion/subliminal meaning to sometimes unsuspecting audiences.

Skillful ‘communicators’ have learned how to chisel a message – using most common words, printed or spoken – to obtain ‘maximum impact’.

By now I’m sure you’ve already gleaned what I meant by “‘consciously’ and ‘glean'”.
Contrary to popular belief, only one half of those ‘immersed’ in communication need to be conscious of what is going on in order for language to be in use.

Actors can influence their audience without the audience being privy to acting tools.
All of us freely distribute a lot of information about ourselves – through walking, eating, manner of speaking, etc., etc. – which can be ‘deciphered’ with ease by those knowledgeable in this trade.
All of us are inundated by all kinds of advertisement – commercial, political, religious, you name it – but very few of us are aware of the full picture which is being played for us.

In a sense, those of us who can sense anything are like any device connected to the internet.

If it’s connected, it can be hacked‘.

But nothing’s as bad as it seems.
Devices can be plugged off or fire-walled while we can stop watching crap.
And, of course, we can put our brains to work, in earnest, before buying into anything which is hurled towards us.

First and foremost language is perceived as a communication medium.

As such it needs clarity and consistency, otherwise information could not have been reliably exchanged and or preserved through its use.

But language is used for many other purposes than for simply ‘translating’ raw data. Where to find a certain object or how to execute a certain task.
We use it to convey sentiment – the way we are affected by the raw data that has become known to us, and to communicate our particular understanding of things. Our point of view about what has happened around us.
Furthermore we use it to convince people. To do things or to accept our points of view.

All these different uses involve a considerable amount of negotiation.

Regarding immediate goals – the things we are negotiating about, but also some that is taking place ‘under the table’ and involves the continuous fine tuning of the instruments used during the negotiating process. The words themselves.

These negotiation instruments – the language itself, in fact, have to be constantly re-calibrated for two rather obvious reasons.
For starters, the reality around us – and our understanding of it – is changing constantly.
Secondly, every negotiation involves a degree of ‘shade’. In fact that ‘shade’ is exactly the space where ‘change’ happens, where the positions of the two negotiators overlap and where the two can swap ideas.
If words would be rigidly precise than we’d have to invent new ones every time reality changes, no matter how minutely. Also whenever our understanding about things deepens, no matter how shallowly.
Simultaneously, too much ‘linguistic precision’ would kill not only poetry and our ability to convey our real feelings to other human beings but would also gravely impair our ability to influence each-other. Could you imagine how our life would be if a polite intervention would sound exactly like an SMS message of if a marriage proposal would be similar a requisition order?

More about how the linguistically mediated interplay between us has brought about our own self-awareness can be found here:

Humberto Maturana, The Origin and Conservation of Self-consciousness.

More than five years ago a friend introduced me to the work of Humberto Maturana.
I was instantly hooked.
Only I’m not that interested in how consciousness appeared to be as I am in the consequences of us being conscient.

“The argument unfolds as follows: physicists have no problem accepting that certain fundamental aspects of reality – such as space, mass, or electrical charge – just do exist. They can’t be explained as being the result of anything else. Explanations have to stop somewhere. The panpsychist hunch is that consciousness could be like that, too – and that if it is, there is no particular reason to assume that it only occurs in certain kinds of matter.”

This excerpt perfect illustrates what I have in mind.

First thing after becoming conscious – ‘aware of his own awareness’ in Maturana’s terms – man realized how fragile he is.  The best way to assuage that feeling was to find an explanation and a purpose for the whole situation. That’s when our immortal soul came to be. Created by God or simply invented by us, it doesn’t make any practical difference.
In time, as rational knowledge constructed wider and wider inroads into the unknown and currently offers scientific explanations for almost everything, the Creator God became less and less necessary. But ‘soul’ survived and now accompanies our still smart and yet unfulfilled desire to understand the origin of our consciousness. And now that we are no longer satisfied with the ‘divine origin’ of anything but not yet ready to accept that we might indeed be something special – fright again, being special implies extreme fragility/responsibility for one’s own fate – we are constantly searching for a new way to connect our nature/fate to the rest of the known Universe.

Hence the advent of ‘panpsyhism’. Which is not such a new idea as it would seem at first glance. The Buddhist notion of successive reincarnation has been around for more than two millennia.

How about accepting what Maturana teaches us – that consciousness of self is something we have continuously improved by using it synergistically with language and all these could take place simply because of the increased processing power that was accidentally bestowed, evolutionary speaking, upon our brains – and move on? If a better explanation will ever dawn upon us – by feat, by chance or even by divine intervention – we can always come back and reconsider – this is how science works, right?
Remaining stuck in this so called ‘Hard Problem’ – what is the direct link between our anatomy/brain physiology and our thoughts? – won’t take us anywhere, for sure.

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/21/-sp-why-cant-worlds-greatest-minds-solve-mystery-consciousness

http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/pub/hvf/papers/maturana05selfconsciousness.html

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