on language

Watching the world go
By, in seven diff'rent lan-
guages. Blurs of sound.

As you may be aware, English is not spoken everywhere. It's awesome to have a native French speaker on my team for traveling in places like, um, France and French Switzerland. It's amusing how language differs from place to place, though. I recognize it in the States, I guess, with how Southern people are notably southern and people from the UK are clearly not North American, but Mathieu had some more serious dialect/accent issues.

So I was informed that people from France "love Québécois." It seemed true, too; every person we met in Geneva who was from France got excited to talk to him. Every person from French Switzerland, though, thought he was a native English speaker who was butchering French, and they insisted on speaking with him in English, much to his dismay/chagrin/ire.

He and I had a conversation about language, too. What makes one good? He proposes a universal language with a simple construction, no irregulars, and no ambiguity. As a scientist, I guess I see that this is a logical thing to do. It's completely infeasible, but theoretically sound. However, as an ex-aspiring writer, I shudder at the thought of a language I can't play with. I had a minor outburst at his "no ambiguity." It removes the poetry of the language, I said. But what do you need ambiguity for, he asked, other than bad, deceptive things?

Honestly, I didn't know what to answer. What do you think?


Carlo said...

Why do you need ambiguity for a poetic language? Is poetry just about how things are expressed, or also about what things are expressed? Esperanto poetry exists, and it isn't TOO awful. I think math is very poetic as well, and it certainly isn't ambiguous. (In fact, it is very metaphorical at times; choosing the BEST set of definitions goes a long way toward expressing meaning.)

I think a Newspeak world is a terrible thing, but I kinda like the idea of having a utilitarian language in addition to existing, organic languages. Like the idea of expressing math in terms of pure logic and set theory (a la Principia Mathematica), it's about achieving a balance between aesthetics and practicality.

Valkyrie Savage said...

Carlo, you in particular wouldn't survive without ambiguity. What would happen to your puns????

Valkyrie Savage said...

(pulled from facebook comments)
Pat Patterson at 21:04 on 03 June
there's a lot of things i'd love to respond to here; i'm not sure where to start. if you want to see a living experiment in a simple language without irregularities, see turkish & mustafa kemal's linguistic revolution. i don't know about turkish ambiguity.. or esperanto's, but those are gaps to be filled. .. i would be heartbroken if there were no ... Read morepossible punning. i guess alliteration would keep though in any conceivable language... but in response to his question, i would say this: idialect. there's no such thing as a perfectly standard language; i point to the centuries-long existence of dictionaries and the stutterstep articulations of life's significant abstract terms (eg. freedom, good, happy, or satisfied; as well as their respective opposites) as evidences. each sufficiently articulate personality with whom you'll speak will have their own (if they're really articulate, quantifiable) definitions and denkmuster for their own feelings & experiences. perhaps you should (cont.)
Pat Patterson at 21:09 on 03 June
start your crusade, not against ambiguity -- although nailing down a definition of 'ambiguity' would be a perfect place to start here, i think -- but rather against what ambiguity means, then. if i don't miss my guess, what he really means to say is that one shouldn't try and defend a source of misunderstanding or hiding; but what you mean is to ... Read moredefend or try and defend the idea that words and phrases, etc. can evoke a number of equally valid feelings and interpretations. these may be initially 'conflicting', these inner reflections on the spoken or written word, but as long as language exists then the possibility of clarifying what was said exists and remains our greatest adventure. -- scene.

Jeff Stuart at 21:47 on 03 June
as you move westward across the atlantic, languages become more nasally. that's why the english don't pronounce Rs, and american's do. that's also why french people think the sound of quebecois is an american butchering french. because the accents are really similar, and silly. hi mathieu.

John Couch at 14:39 on 04 June
"Universal language with simple construction," has already been attempted. It was/is called "Esperonto." There's a movie that was made entirely using it. It stars Shatner, so it's already awesome! Esperonto just didn't catch on.

Valkyrie Savage at 15:37 on 04 June
It's impossible to implement such a thing. Irregularity arises from use, thus by circumstance of being instated, Esperanto was ruined. But it sure sounds cool to hear.

Being able to evoke specific feelings with carefully-selected words is an enviable talent, and one that I'm uncertain would be negated by removal of ambiguity. Puns, though, I would miss.

Valkyrie Savage said...

Another repost from Facebook:

John Couch at 15:43 on 04 June
It's interesting to note that in Pre-Columbian Europe, England was thought to be a country of mad men (Shakespeare alludes to this in his plays) because of the ambiguity of the language. Latin and the romance languages didn't have that inherently. So ambiguity, along with language, could be seen as a cultural phenomenon. Which is part of why Esperanto didn't work out. Without a culture to inform it, it's just words, words, words, with no matter ;)

Evan Stratford at 20:43 on 04 June
A few thoughts:

0. Ambiguity is a matter of intent versus content. The actual words may be ambiguous; their application is usually far less so.
1. Ambiguity in content makes language more concise - think NFAs versus DFAs :p
2. Indefinite articles make ambiguity in intent possible. An unambiguous language would have to do away with these.... Read more
3. Latin does have ambiguity - the word ordering is less strict.

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