language (originally posted 7-20-2010)

I’ve been reading a lot about languages, because my work with Otlet and the recent conference at the Mundaneum raised a lot of linguistic issues, and also because artificial language is closely related to classification, particularly in the identification of concepts and the constriction or expansion of their expression.

I want to recommend a new book by Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages: A Celebration of Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius. (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010). Learn why Klingon is the only succesful invented language, and on the way to that revelation, watch what she has to say about concepts.

I’m reading now another book by John McWhorter, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. (New York: Perennial, 2001). Look at the gem I just found on p. 53-54:

Atoms are not the irreducible entities that scientists once supposed; instead, atoms are complexes of subatomic particles. In the same way, viewed up close, most “languages” are actually bundles of variations on a general theme, dialects.

By this I do not mean that there is “a language” that is surrounded by variations called “dialects.” As will end up being a kind of mantra for this chapter, “dialects is all there is.”

A Martian, presented with [German and Schwaebish], would find no way of designating one as “the real one” and the other one as “a variation;” they would just look like two similar systems, just as a Burmese and a Siamese cat are to us different but equal versions of the same basic entity.

And in fact there is no “default” cat; there are only types of cat. Language change parallels biological evolution not only in creating different “languages” equivalent to species, but in that most languages consist of an array of dialects equivalent to subspecies.

This goes to the problem of mutual exclusivity, doesn’t it?

Now I really am going to go make a cup of tea. By the way, since I know nobody actually reads this, I feel liberated about going completely off into tangents. So: for the first time in over 20 years, today I have been home for more than a month! Okay, I drove to Cherry Hill to get the car worked on but I was only gone an hour. No overnights anywhere. And, while I’m at it, today I’m finally through teaching! Hurray. No more papers to grade for at least six weeks.


Posted November 17, 2010 by lazykoblog in linguistics

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