Referential Language

Whoa, so many updates. It’s insane. Before I get into the meat of today’s post, a quick addendum to my last post: I have a job interview tomorrow, if I get the job I will be staying in Wellington for at least a couple of months longer to build up cash reserves. I’ll keep you posted!

On to cool thinky stuff!

Last night I finished Embassytown by China Mieville, and I feel that it is his best work ever. Much as I loved The Scar and Perdido Street Station with their discussions of time travel/quantum mechanics and quantum mechanics/human psychology, respectively, Mieville is clearly much more at home with theoretical linguistics than any of these other topics. Which only makes sense, Mieville has a masterful command of the English language which was more than likely gained through a thorough understanding of the linguistic principles underlying all languages. All human languages, anyway.

Embassytown has a lot going on in it, with Language (the language spoken by the alien Hosts) being the primary focus of the entire book. Language (Host) is vastly interesting for a few non-spoiler reasons. It requires two mouths to speak with a unified purpose, so that the sounds overlap to create a unified sound that is wholly different from the original two but is built off of them. Language (Host) is denoted in the book in a numerator/denominator format, with the numerator being called the Cut and the denominator being called the Turn. With nothing else known about Language, we can already see that it would be a near impossible language for humans to speak, at least to a degree that native speakers would understand it. Remember, the Hosts are a singular entity who have two mouths that speak in perfect unison, but produce different sounds to achieve a single goal. For humanity to properly speak this you would need two people speaking in perfect precision, or a computer that could do a similar task in tandem with another human, or with another computer. This problem would be easily overcome by computers, I am quite sure, but would remain next to impossible for two humans. A fascinating language, to be sure, but nothing we couldn’t over come. Of course, it isn’t quite that simple.

Language (Hosts) also requires a unity of purpose. This is why computers would never be able to speak Language (and why it never worked in the book either). Computers don’t, and wouldn’t, view their programming as anything more than a series of true or false statements, regardless of what these true or false statements would mean to outside observers when done on a large and fast enough scale. The computer’s sole purpose would be to process those strings of trues and falses as accurately and efficiently as possible, not to convey the message of “Hello!” so that you may draw the attention of someone, or greet someone, or whatever form you intended “Hello!” to be used in. Now, assume for a moment that you did manage to find two people, one able to accurately speak Cut and one accurately able to speak Turn, not just alone but in perfect conjunction. Would Language work for these two people? Probably not. The big sticking point here is that Language requires unity of purpose. Exact unity of purpose. If two people could say the words with the right timing and inflection, but one wanted to say them to please his girlfriend and one wanted to sound like a smug prick, then it wouldn’t be Language, it would just be noise. (At least to the Hosts.) For two humans to want the exact same thing, at all times, from all exchanges, would be an astonishing feat. Now, they manage to overcome this in the book by raising two identical twins and then conditioning them to such degrees of empathy (the science is never explained, nor does it need to be) that they are able to speak Language to the Hosts with enough unity of purpose to allow themselves to be heard.

You didn’t think it would be *that* easy, did you?

Languages across the world share traits with each other, but they also have concepts and words that simply don’t translate, or if they do lose whatever nuance they had in their original tongue. This is true of Language as well, of course, but to a significantly higher degree, because Language is wholly unlike any human language ever developed. Human language, among many other things, uses the concepts of “this” and “not this” and “that” and “not that” quite frequently. It’s actually fundamental to pretty much any human language. Pointing at an object, holding an object aloft, these are non-verbal ways of saying “that” or “this” and, just as important, are making the exclusionary statements of “not-this” and “not-that.” You simply can not say this or that without also invoking the “not-that” clause for everything else in the universe. This is good, because it allows human to have referential languages and thought. My explanation may be a bit hazy, because hell, I’m a bit hazy, but I’ll do my best to explain what this means and why its important.

When I point at a glass of water, that is, of course, a referential statement saying “That glass of water, to the exclusion of all other things.” But what if we didn’t have referential language and thought? How would I ‘refer’ to that glass of water? I could say something like ‘the glass of water which has a chip on the rim, behind the tall man at the bar.’ Which would be accurate, but awfully inconvenient. Now, it may not be evident from that example alone of what I mean by “that” being a referential statement, so we’re going to have to jump into some more abstract thought.

Words are symbols. The easiest way to think of this, and how symbols also become referents, is with human names. Taking my name, for example, Joshua is a symbol for the human being with my exact genetic, physical, and psychological make up, history, experiences, etc. You may have already noticed a problem with this line of thought; it’s quite easy to show that I am not the only man named Joshua on Earth. Far from it. Joshua, in this case, does refer specifically to me but it also refers specifically to other people named Joshua. Joshua is a symbol that means ‘a way of addressing people whom respond to this referent.’ We add other names to this initial name to become more precise in our reference to a specific person, but these are still all symbols for the person, they are not the actual person. And if I change my name to, say, Fred this simply changes how people refer to me, not who or what I am. In referential language, words are sounds which have accepted interpretations, but are not actually the thing being referred to. Now, you might think there are ways around this referentiallity of human language and thought. For example, a human named Fred McFredFred FreddingtonFredingston is probably the only person on the planet with that name; right up until someone else gets that name. The nature of names themselves are referential, since there is nothing about any single human which specifically ties it to the name it was given. Changing a person’s name does not change the person. (We could devolve into a long digression of names like “Hitler” and how people respond to that, which is a valid point, but simply reinforces my own. By reacting to the name “Hitler” you are probably referring to the angry man who ruled Germany during the 30s, not actually referring to the person before you who happens to share the same referential symbol.)

Hopefully this makes some vague sense. If not, well, I apologize. Still, bear with me for there is more! Referential language is tremendously important to humanity because it allows us to lie, which allows to make metaphor, which allows us to make abstract thoughts. Without the ability to refer to an object that you do not know the exact qualities about, let’s say a duck in a pond, you wouldn’t be able to speak of it at all. Why? Your understanding of the symbol duck is as of an animal which can fly, lays eggs, has webbed feet, swims in water, etc. but this doesn’t necessarily hold true for every duck, perhaps one has a broken wing, so the word duck typically refers to something but doesn’t always.

Bleh. I’m going in circles here. Let me think on this a bit more and I’ll get back to you.


About kylock

Man, biographies are really hard to write because sometimes you just don't know what to write about and then you ramble on pointlessly for a while about your hobbies (video games, reading, programming) and end up boring your readers because they expect something witty and insightful (there are only two ways to save money, neither of which involves hookers) and then readership falls off and you cry yourself to sleep.
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