Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The source code of language

On a particular TED talk, an Ajit Narayan talked about his methods for teaching autistic children the structure of abstract language through the use of some concrete thought maps, and how those thought maps (which he called "Free Speech", not to be confused with the US Constitution's first amendment right) could be converted into grammatical speech in any language via fairly simple rules.

Being a software developer, this struck a particular chord with me, because that sounds like he has discovered the source code of language itself. His thought maps are the ideas we are trying to express, and the rule engine applied to them is the compiler of language. If you're looking to translate a document into many different languages, then, what you're doing is decompiling it into source code, which, for any language, involves a fair bit of nuanced understanding and reworking. If you succeed, though, you'll have a thought source document that can be compiled into any human language. If you are all for the preservation of languages, then these compiler engines are what you should be working on.

I'm sure there's a lot more complexity to the process than I'm getting, especially since the subtleties of language are many, but it is at least a good start. To include all human language subtleties, you would need to ask a lot of questions that aren't relevant for all target languages. In some cases, for instance, to talk about people's relatives, you may need to draw out a full family tree to illustrate the links, including ages, where, in English, the word "cousin" would cover all that detail. Also, technical vocabulary would be very complicated to convey. Unless there's an icon for "coeliac", how would you convey it in simple terms?

It sounds like the key to universal translators, the end of Babel, but picture this: people all have subtly different understandings of language itself. Not just dialects, but to the extent that my mental associations with the word "cat" might be very different to yours. All communication might be done via these thought maps, but what if every person maintained their own compiler engine for them? We would all be speaking slightly different versions of English, French, Spanish, Portugese, German, whatever, and they would drift further apart without interaction and correction. In the end, only the thought maps would make sense.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And maybe then our understanding of those would start to drift apart.
PPS - Hopefully not.

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