Disclaimer: The views expressed here are mine alone, and not necessarily those of my employer or any organization with which I am affiliated. These views are not intended to advertise or offer legal services to the reader, or to be relied on as practical advice in any respect. Apparent statement of facts may or may not have been specifically researched beforehand. Unless I expressly indicate to the contrary, the material appearing here is original work, subject to copyright protection. Any reference in the text to specific individuals or companies who are not explicitly named is unintended and purely coincidental.
Comments? You can (try to) contact me at admin (at) limitsofknowledge (dot) com. Keep in mind that I'm still learning the technical aspects of blogging, and do have a demanding job, so don't be offended if it takes me a while to respond.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006 -- 10:18 pm

I think I like the idea of Halloween better than the thing itself. I find it interesting that most societies, arguably all except for the most rigidly totalitarian and puritan, have safety valves where normal social conventions are suspended for a little harmless fun. In our society, I suppose these are April Fool's Day and Halloween. I don't think that even the most austere fundamentalists believe that Halloween today has anything to do with demons or dark practices, but there is a certain irreverence built into the day: the costumes, the makeup, the air of festivity, the concealed identities, the veiled or unveiled threats of mischief. I imagine this allows discontented people to blow off some steam in a socially acceptable way.

At the same time, I suppose that as a matter of temperament, I just have less steam than most, or I'm overworked enough that I need to keep what steam I can muster for other purposes. Costuming seems like a waste of effort. Ghost stories? Fine. Scary movies? I can't think of any good ones. Mischief? I immediately think of tort liability. Better stick to the ghost stories.

Monday, October 30, 2006 -- 10:00 pm

I remember reading several years back about the discovery of FOXP2, the "language gene" so-called because its human form dates to approximately the time that humans diverged from chimpanzees. (Do I have this right?) Apparently FOXP2 is a necessary but not sufficient condition for language, and is primarily concerned with fine motor skills in the hands and face. Which, now that I think about it, raises an obvious question. Is there a correlation, especially in early childhood, between fine motor skills and language ability? Do those people who are particularly adept at one or the other have a different FOXP2 sequence?

Sunday, October 29, 2006 -- 11:45 am

My earlier post raises, I suppose, an interesting question. Like the rest of the world, I was intrigued as an adolescent by Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, although I probably got more excited than most at the notion of an extremely complex and sophisticated language that changed your life and way of thinking merely by learning it. If I remember correctly, Heinlein only gave us one word of that language, grok originally meaning "to drink" but taking on additional layers of meaning and complexity over time. Heinlein, through one of his characters, also made some comment about the untranslatability of certain notions from one language to another, analogizing to the chasm between Koranic Arabic and English. (My Arabic isn't good enough for me to opine on that specific example. I find the grammatical structures of Arabic fascinating but, as I stated earlier, suspect that its modes of expression don't actually represent otherwise completely inaccessible thoughts.) But the idea of such an übersprache has followed me in varies guises through most of my life, itself assuming different associations with time.

Does my earlier post, if true, deflate the notion of a radically different language (let's call it Martian) that opens us up to new ways of thinking? I think it probably does, but only in the romantic sense of the Heinlein novel. Nothing in my earlier post suggests that Martian couldn't open up new vistas of expressibility, making it easier to express and describe certain abstract notions that would otherwise be inaccessible in everyday discourse. And those opportunities for expression might better equip us to grapple with ever-more complex and subtle notions than could satisfyingly be captured in a rudimentary tongue. The possibility that I think my earlier post may exclude is that, given a common frame of reference and adequate room for explanation, the existence of ideas that were expressible in Martian but inexpressible per se in any terrestrial language. So my working hypothesis is that ideas exist outside the words used to express them, and that all natural languages are capable of expressing them one way or another.

Sunday, October 29, 2006 -- 9:21 am

It seems that people are always claiming that a language tucked away in some pocket of the world is inherently better-suited for describing the world (especially the quantum-mechanical world) than English is. Perhaps I'm exaggerating. But I remember a rash of such references years ago in connection with Hopi, and an article I've been reading about Aymara seems, in its oblique fashion, to be revisiting the topic. Is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis making a comeback? As I recall from college reading, the hypothesis seemed to hold that the language you spoke, and even the words you used, played a crucial role in the perspective you developed on the world and the thoughts you were capable of having about it. My understanding had been that this notion had been put to rest, as much by common sense as by anything else: we're capable of recognizing that the words we've just chosen are inadequate for our purposes, and that we need to try again until we get it right. Some people may struggle with such an exercise, and be more prone to conceptual errors that stem from linguistic imprecision, but they don't always fall victim to those areas, and different people make that mistake with differing frequencies.

Now, the article I've been reading about Aymara suggests that Aymara grammar lends itself rather elegantly to a ternary logic system, capable of recognizing potentiality or uncertainty as a middle ground between "true and false", that is more subtle and sophisticated than our western, binary, Aristotelian regime. My knowledge of modal logic is informed largely by rumor and suspicion, and I can't say I'm aware of what the field can actually claim to have accomplished to date, if in fact that's a fair question. (Another thing to study up on.) I may be reading too much into things, but it seems like it's only a matter of time before someone argues, yet again, that Aymaran representations of indeterminacy are an ideal form of translating the arcane notation of quantum mechanics into natural language.

Now, I'm fully prepared to recognize that certain languages can express things more conveniently than others, whether through choice of vocabulary, the grammatical palate they offer the speaker, or the cultural references typically embedded in the language through long use. But my collection of materials on more exotic languages leads me to suspect that, far from falling victim to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a speaker of any natural language we come across will be capable, given sufficient opportunity to understand the concepts and to explain him/herself, of expressing anything expressible in any other natural language. I'm not saying it would be poetry, either literally or figuratively. And some expressions might be downright clumsy. But I think that all the same conceptions are ultimately expressible regardless of the medium. Is this a controversial position? I guess I also need to reread Wittgenstein.

There's a much weaker form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that simply holds that the way that something is expressed can have a significant effect on how we think about it. For example, a repeatedly imprecise description can cause you, without the passage of too much time, to perilously overlook key facts that should be considered in your decision-making. I don't think such a proposition can really be denied, but it also doesn't say very much. Even plain old English can distinguish between a "locked exit" and a "death trap", and it's a well-known fact among politicians, advertisers, and lawyers that persuasion lies, in large part, in the act of description. So while I think that an effort to claim that the language deserves special attention solely because of its scientifically descriptive power is probably missing the point about why we should exhaustively study and document the world's languages in the first place.