Stephen Fry on Language

Stephen Fry’s soliloquy on Language and pedants who play spoilsport. Beautifully animated by Mathew Rogers.

Realizational Chain

I just began skimming through a book on information extraction

In the first chapter I came across the phrase which is the title of this post. Such depth and beauty in that phrase, that was my first impression when I cognized the meaning. And did not have to wait too long to know its origin, I reproduce the words of the author below…

This theoretical notion has its roots in the grammar that was written by the Indian grammarian Panini in the 6th – 5th century BC. According to this notion, meaning in a language is realized in the linguistic surface structure through a number of distinct linguistic levels, each of which is the result of a projection of the properties of higher, more abstract levels. For instance, for Panini the meaning of a simple sentence starts as an idea in the mind of a writer. It
then passes through the stage in which the event and all its participants are translated into a set of semantic concepts, each of which is in its turn translated in a set of grammatical and lexical concepts. These are in their turn translated into the character sequences that we see written down on a page of paper.

I have heard of Panini before and know that his contributions have extended beyond the Sanskrit language and has influenced advances in linguistics and the generative grammar work of Noam Chomsky. What was interesting in this quote above though was the detail of how language is wielded, or in a certain sense how language is created. Note the sentence that starts ‘For instance, for Panini…’ and follow it until end of quote.

What power or skill is it that brings about this magic, this act of conceiving a thought, placing it in the context of its environment and translating it into symbols of sound or letters! This process is like a miracle and yet so commonplace that we pay nary a thought to it. So common even kids of a few years are able to pull this feat off!

Imagine, to perceive something as intangible and bring it to reality, to even give it form is what the Creator or God is supposed to be doing, not common place folks like you and I! This notion got me thinking, if a common man can pull this feat of language, what is to prevent the giants of creation, the elect of God, to create things with a mere will? Christ creating bread and wine, Adi Shankara summoning Shiva and Narayana to receive his dying mother, Sri Krishna with his numerous acts of divine intervention, Rishi Vishwamitra creating a heaven for Trisanku..all seem within the scope of possibility. Not myths to entertain and keep chained a gullible public, but acts of such high order within the scheme of creation that only a handful of them are able to pull it off.

Sublime are the moments when reason falters and gives way to a simple awe, like a child looking upon in wonder the simple deeds of its parent. Perhaps we too are like that when witnessing the marvels of the Creator, after letting go of our vain imaginings of course!

I shall leave you with a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy“. And perhaps we need to mention modern science in addition to philosophy. Tags: , , ,

Language parallels

Have been reading Guns, germs and steel by Jared Diamond, a highly fascinating book that explores a variety of themes on evolution. One of the topics was the evolution of written language. Diamond identifies three strategies that humans have taken to evolve written forms of language i) Alphabet, the form most of us are familiar with ii) Logograms, a single sign representing a whole word like Chinese and iii) Syllabaries, a single sign stands for a syllable. Apart from the seeming validity of his propositions what struck me was the parallels in how programming languages have evolved.

The first strategy is perhaps the most popular paradigm followed by most programming languages, if one can look at the keywords of any language as constituting the alphabets. The ancient egyptian hieroglyphs are no archaic languages, they are just a different set of symbols like perhaps that used by the Chinese today.

What is amazing is that the process by which an idea or thought is communicated in written form seems similar for all languages, whether intended to communicate with machines or humans. The componentization and encoding of thought seems an universal skill that is deeply embedded in humans. And of course we always make our machines in our own image!

Maybe its a perception thing but after going through Diamond’s book am inclined to view UML and other diagramming notations in a new light, or should I say a clearer light. Each language has a character that makes it suitable for a particular task – Ancient greek or sanskrit for epic poetry, UML swim lanes for parallel processes and so on. Instead of discrete islands of written forms of human and machine languages I now see an entire continuum of techniques to transcribe thought into communication.