What is Language?

14 July 2013 by Graham Morehead, posted in Uncategorized

Language is beautiful and language is functional.

Language is poetry, song, and prose.

Language is the linear expression of ideas.

For us humans, language is a technology that goes back over one hundred thousand years. With it I can extract a complex concept from my mind and thrust it into yours. If I be an educator of sufficient skill, I can do so almost against your will.

By language we express love. By language we teach our sons and daughters. By it we meet many of our deepest needs, and those of our loved ones.

Language is a game changer. By it we stand on the shoulders of giants. If not for language, how could I have ever studied physics and mathematics? How could I have absorbed so much in such a short time? In just four years I went from Newton to Feynman. Years later I caught up on string and M theory with the help of a few Brian Greene books. Without words I would have never learned so much so quickly.

Language is a scaffold. Basic concepts form a foundation. Upon them the building of a mature language finds its footing. On top, the most ambitious and nuanced topics are represented. Only the most ambitious lifelong learners will seek them out and understand them.

Language is a palette. Literal words are primary colors. We mix them infinitely. Poetry lives in the connotations, the overtones, the improbable juxtaposition of secondary and tertiary meanings of words.

To the computer scientist, a language is defined by an alphabet of symbols, and a grammar (this is the layman's version). Some symbols are replaceable via some rule in said grammar. The grammar is where the magic happens. It defines all possible replacements. Every sentence begins with the start symbol-- the first of these replaceable symbols. To generate an English sentence, you might replace the start symbol with '[subject] [verb] [object]', and you could replace each of these ([subject] -] 'the man', [verb] -] 'bit', [object] -] 'the dog'), to generate: 'The man bit the dog'. A sufficiently complex English grammar should contain enough rules to generate any grammatically-correct sentence you've ever heard. A finite alphabet + a finite grammar = an infinite language.

Languages come in different flavors, but more importantly, they come in different complexity classes. A mathematical complexity class tells you something about how free or constrained a given language is. Some people believe that all human languages are equally complex. Others believe that a few are slightly more complex (e.g. Swiss German, Bámbara). Even those who think they're all the same cannot agree on the correct complexity class (context-free? or context-sensitive?).

Language is a distillation of the human mind. It is at once my intellectual love and how I express my love to other intellects. With language I connect with the nobility of other human souls. Even the great Archimedes, who proved so many things by pure geometry, exhaled his last expression with words, "μή μου τοὺς κύκλους τάραττε!" ("Don't mess with my circles!")

As for language, I intend to use it, and abuse it, all the rest of my days.

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