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Saturday, April 21, 2007 -- 10:31 pm

In the course of my general investigations into the nature of the world, I've come upon the virtually undocumented language of Oksapmin, spoken in New Guinea. Various Google searches suggest that the speakers of this language are best known for a counting system that relies on body parts other than the fingers; what interests me, though, is that apparently this language requires its speakers to inflect their sentences to reflect the owner of the perspective from which the story is told. This unusual wrinkle of a "viewpoint" inflection is interesting because it highlights, yet again, an aspect of English language discourse that is extremely common but finds no real lexical, syntactic, or morphemic expression. The sort of example I'm thinking of is when you're trying to accurately report someone else's story or line of reasoning for the sole purpose of critiquing it, without pretending to claim any ownership of the recitation. On occasion, I've been accused of espousing the very argument I've set about to dismantle, and I would be interesting in seeing whether this type of confusion is avoiding by having mandatory grammatical inflections. Also, I wonder whether the Fundamental Attribution Error (i.e., the opinion we formulate that the speaker is presumed to believe what they're saying, even if we have compelling evidence indicating otherwise) applies differently in a language with clear perspective markers.

Saturday, April 21, 2007 -- 10:20 pm

Of course, to comment on Wednesday's post, we all know from personal experience that the mere fact that someone appears to have intelligence is not enough to make them interesting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007 -- 9:26 pm

Haven't been able to write or think much (on fun topics) because of work, and getting out of the habit of blogging seems to make it harder to resume the practice. I've commented before on the paucity of information available to us, even with the internet -- there are some books for which I've been hunting for years, without luck. I've certainly harvested my share of PDF documents from altruistic sources -- at least until Google stopped me yesterday, flashing error messages that it thought I was some kind of virus. That's rather embarrassing in its way, though I suppose I could take it as a left-handed compliment about my rather maniacally systematic habits. Thomas Mann said in The Magic Mountain that only the exhaustive is truly interesting; I suppose some of us are more ambitious than others in the scope of the field in which we choose to be exhaustive.

The question of what's truly interesting draws to mind, not only Kant's Critique of Judgment, but David Foster Wallace's circumlocutory examination of the subject of addiction, fascination, and obsession in Infinite Jest, as well as a self-reinventing game described by Orson Scott Card in some Ender sequel. I wonder what effort it would take to design an infinitely-fascinating website or other computer interface.

The simplest, I suppose, would be a simple kaleidoscope. Those, like the eternal variation of the flames in the fireplace, can hold the idle mind entranced for quite a while. (At least as long as Freecell.) But that's not really enough, because what holds our interest isn't just variety of form, but complexity of formal structure and (most importantly) depth of meaning. Verbal meaning is a crucial component here, which means there has to be some kind of content -- in other words, the illusion of intelligence, if not the thing itself.

People seem to congratulate themselves by taking statistics about the estimated number of neurons in the human brain (about 10 billion) and connections between them, and estimating it to be one of the most complex things in the known universe. I don't know about that, and I certainly wouldn't care to get into some kind of contest with a visiting extraterrestrial about whose brain is more complex. (That kind of statistic would inevitably become a mode of propaganda to reduce the winner to freak-show status in the eyes of the loser's public, anyway.) But I doubt that the activity of the human brain would really most aptly be modeled by building and laboriously programming a neural network of equal complexity. It seems to me -- and clearly I have my work cut out for me if I'm going to achieve this goal at some point, in all my free time -- that quite a few animals walking, buzzing, or swimming the earth have perfectly respectable levels of intelligence. The fact that they don't speak English is no more a reflection on their intelligence in other areas than it is among human beings, and it seems to me that a language interface could be programmed separately.

Monday, April 16, 2007 -- 10:41 pm

One of the things I find delightful about linguistics is how it exposes the wide range of uses that we force our words to serve. Aikhenvald's Evidentiality has so far been pretty enlightening in this regard. I enjoy the fact that many of the world's languages require their speakers to express the basis of knowledge for the statement they're making, and sometimes also their reactions to it. So I read that not only do many languages require speakers to express the form of the evidence on which they base their utterance (an exercise so perilous at times that speakers of Tariana prefer to quote speakers verbatim rather than pass judgment on others' assertions of evidence), or the reliability of their reasoning (anywhere their own eyewitness experience to rampant conjecture), but they offer the option of expressing surprise at the news, or holding it at arm's length to suggest they had nothing to do with it.

As I've said before, I wouldn't try to repeat the mistake of supposing that a language could, by its grammar, perfectly capture human experience or some murky notion of "truth". But I can't help but think that a careful inventory of the expressive power of the world's natural languages could go far as an inventory of that experience.