Re: LUNATIC again
|From:||David G. Durand <dgd@...>|
|Date:||Thursday, November 5, 1998, 2:32|
At 12:22 PM -0400 11/4/98, Logical Language Group wrote:
>Now as to the denigration or disparagement, whether it is productive or
>not depends as much on how it is taken as how it is intended. I have
>regularly expressing such criticism because it seems almost universally to
>be taken personally rather than as an intellectual challenge. that I am not
>the most tactful writer and thus am at fault for people taking things
>personally cannot be denied. But my intent in criticizing IS intellectual.
I'll accept that (though I do find the claims that you make somewhat
offensive). The fundamental problem is that they attempt to create
differences of kind where there are actually differences of degree. We have
many orthogonal axes that are in fact relevant to your (and others')
arguments: vocabulary size, semantic scope, suitability for communicative
use by humans (e.g. learnability of the grammar), effectiveness of the
discourse structure, unique cultural concepts associated with linguistic
representations, active speaker bases, etc.
The crucial reason most linguists don't want to hear about conlangs is that
they study "languages in the wild." Considering conlangs of any sort is
bizarre, because it's not what they do. It's a reasonable experimental
method (though the most informative experiments are unlikely because of the
unethical nature of intentionally raising children to speak potentially
unlearnable languages as L1s). A few are willing to consider the idea that
a language like Esperanto can be "naturalized" -- but even that is
disturbing because it's fundamentally different.
I think definitions are really incidental: the sociology of linguists makes
unnatural languages marginal at best.
On to the definitions....
I have read similar statements to the ones below in some linguistics books,
and they offend me there too... They remind me of the definitions of
"language" that were used to marginalize and oppress deaf people: because
the definition used to include a clause that "language == speech." Nowadays
people with the same mentality forget that mistake, but propagate similar
I will attack these definitions as an example of why I think this kind of
definition is futile. Another good thing to read is the "what is language"
section of intro. Linguistics textbooks. They never have a satisfactory
definition, and they usually admit as much.
>So to return to a definition of language.
>1. A language is a means of communication.
Presumably a system of signs that can be used to communicate. Otherwise
Latin, or any language not in active use is not a language because it is no
longer the means for anyone to communicate if it is not actually used.
>2. To exclude computer languages, we have to restrict this to communications
>primarily between biological entities (if not actually restricting to humans).
>It is clear that computer languages have little in common with human
This again means that Latin is not a language. Nor would be the words and
music engraved on Voyager, in the case where it is never found, or is found
only by intelligent machines.
>3. In order to have commmunication BETWEEN, there must be at least two people
>who use the language - a speaker and a listener. Linguists tend to go much
>further, and say that this communication must be bidirectional, must be
>fluent, must be passed on across generations. Linguists exclude not merely
>artlangs from the concept of "language", but pidgins and creoles that may
>be spoken by large populations. I may disagree with that definition, but
>I had better understand it when trying to communicate with linguists.
So all dead languages are not languages, but "systems of signs that once
were languages". This is even more bizarrely true for dying languages,
since the next to last speaker takes the language with her when she dies
(sooner, actually, if she doesn't talk to the last speaker until the moment
of death). For some period of time it's in a limbo state, where it's not a
language, then it is used to communicate, so it's a language for a while,
then it's not used again, and it's not a language. If you say it's a
language between all the times that it's used, then it stops being a
language the last time the two talk, but you can't tell until one of the
two speakers dies.
>4. Linguists also distinguish between "languages" and "codes", where the
>latter may differ in surface form from a parent language, but where the
>semantics of the "words" in the code are essentially unchanged from the
The intent of this is obvious, but the issue of whether semantics is
preserved between differing languages is a very open one. You can't really
get any decision power here. You can use a term like the CONLANG favorite
"relex" to designate a word-for-word or morpheme-for-morpheme simple
Since most artlangs define grammatical features (like aspect, tense,
gender) that are different from the artist's native language: the semantics
argument is actually the weakest of the lot, even if you believe that we
know very much about semantics. (I think we speculate a lot, but _know_
>5. Linguists also distinguish between "languages" and "cants" or "jargons"
>which are incomplete languages that have distinguishing semantics in
>some areas of the lexicon, but are moreor less standard in the rest
>of the lexicon.
This is essentially specialized vocabulary with meanings hard to express in
the rest of the language.
>I will use the above definition, noting that any linguists here can probably
>run me over the coals for various misstatements therein. But I think it
>conveys that which is essential to my points and is not too far from what
I agree that some closed-minded professional linguists accept these
definitions or something like them... I deny that _these_ definitions hold
much water, and I suspect that I can come up with horrible counterexamples
to any repairs that can be made to them. I didn't even start finding
"non-language" things that fit these definitions: like clapping hands at a
concert, burning crosses on people's lawns, etc.
>Given this definition, it seems clear that most conlangs are not languages
>and are not intended to be languages, in that their inventors never seriously
>expect them to be used by two or more people in communication, much less
>learned by a community. This seems especially true of artlangs. I don't
>see that this is necessarily a disoparagement of artlangs or artlangers -
>recognizes that the goals are different from those linguists identify as the
>basic nbature of language. I have no trouble forswearing criticism of
>labelled as an "artlang" because in using that label, the object is
>distinguished from that which is studied by linguists.
I'm not so sure: linguists study many things, but certainly central to
linguistics is the study of the grammar and semantics of human
communication. Whether that communication is potential (as with Tokana) or
actual and ongoing, as with English, or historical, as with Tonkawa (an
extinct native American language), they are all languages.
>Languages which are used for world-building can be called "fictional
>without any problem. By labelling them as "fictional" we do not expect them
>to have all the features and details of natlangs. Even if the language in
>concept might have all the features, we understand that these details are not
>necessarily all described. In most cases, the fictional nature of the culture
>using the language ensures that what we see of the fictional language is not
>a "code", since fictional authors tend to focus on what is different, and we
>see the differences in these languages more clearly.
People can easily live within a vocabulary of a few thousand words, so that
even a perfectly respectable level of completeness is open to a conlanger.
The fact that such a language would have to borrow or coin many new words
to be used in our contemporary society is an accidental, not an essential
Many of your points have to do with practical efficacy and vocabulary size.
What of dead languages where we have only a small corpus of texts. Is
Gothic not a language because we have lost knowledge of most of its
vocabulary? Are the Rongo-rongo tablets not language because they've not
been deciphered yet? Would they suddenly become a language once they were,
or could that never be? The tiny corpus size (probably no more than a few
thousand words) means that the vocabulary would be too small to make it a
language on basis of quantitative inadequacy?
David Durand firstname.lastname@example.org \ david@dynamicDiagrams.com
Boston University Computer Science \ Sr. Analyst
http://www.cs.bu.edu/students/grads/dgd/ \ Dynamic Diagrams
MAPA: mapping for the WWW \__________________________