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Sunday, November 26, 2006 -- 10:01 am

Lately I've been reading Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language, which I sought out on the suspicion that my preoccupation with the expressive capacity of language (or rather its potential) was symptomatic of some broader cultural or historical trend. Based on what I've read in Eco's book so far, though, I'm not convinced that's the case. Intellectual history is (in the best of all worlds) a process of continually refining our understanding of ourselves and the world, and, although I remain persuaded that every concept is ultimately expressible in any natural language by one means or another, elaborate circumlocutions and descriptions clearly hamper that enterprise. So one of the things that interests me is language's ability to concisely capture and describe our knowledge and experience in a clear, precise, and economical way that lays the groundwork for further discussion.

(As an aside, I've for years been preoccupied with the exercise of seeing, in graphic multilingual presentations, how many letters and words each language uses to express the same message. As compared to, say, French, English is a regular winner for its economyof letters. Yup'ik Eskimo is often a very close second. I wonder if there are any formal studies on this.}

This is probably a severely diluted version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which I've written a little about earlier. It just stands to reason that a language with a cumbersome counting system, for example, is not going to lend itself to sophisticated arithmetic, accounting, or mathematical reasoning. So the question then becomes whether it would be possible to discover or contrive a language that lends itself to clearly and concisely describing people and the world as we currently understand it, to facilitate further investigation and description. Western society is much more interested in evidentiality than it was a few thousand years ago, for example, and its members are able to articulate evidential nuances with a little coaching, but it's always a bit forced and it tends to clutter up what we're saying. And this raises another question: to what extent are emerging complexities in grammar driven by cultural need? I imagine the results of an investigation would be somewhat mixed. Yup'ik Eskimo's extremely sophisticated scheme of demonstrative pronouns is probably quite useful out on the tundra, but would be even more so in the jungle, where it seems to have no equivalent. Both Aymara and Hopi have been praised for the facility with which they lend themselves to expression of certain notions in quantum physics, which westerners consider to be quite beyond the realm of everyday experience. According to one writer, Aymara is also unique in that it lends itself to particular forms of reasoning and expression in modal logic that aren't readily available in English or Spanish. Finno-Ugaritic languages seem to have a taste for assigning tenses to nouns. Navajo has both an elaborate system of aspects and a useful set of noun classifiers that categorize objects based on how they're carried (my favorite is "spillable object"). And many languages in Asia, such as Tibetan, employ distinct vocabularies and grammatical structures to indicate respect for the person being addressed.

No language I'm aware of, though, has all of these things, and that sort of "perfect language" doesn't really come up in Eco's book, at least so far. Would it be worth trying to devise such a language, incorporating valuable features of existing natural grammars, and augmenting it with concepts borrowed from our cultural apparatus? Would such a language have aesthetic value? Or would it be akin to Frankenstein's monster, condemned to wander the glottosphere alone, feared and despised? Assuming we wanted to bring such a language into the world, are there any concepts that we'd want to incorporate (either lexically or grammatically) that aren't currently expressed conveniently in any language? If so, how would we go about expressing them? For example, are there any languages that conveniently describe the various rates of change so often studied in math and physics -- linear change, acceleration due to gravity, compound interest, etc.? Are there any languages that have the same kinds of abstract words to describe smells as for sounds and colors? Are there any languages that concisely distinguish between compulsion, discretion, and prohibition?