A definition of “language”?

Lately while doing research on automated language translation, I’ve come to realize that there isn’t a clear, concise, well accepted definition of human language itself. A quick check on google reveals the wealth of interpretations. So then, kindly, let me proffer one more.

Language is the serialization of thought.

The term “serialization” should be ready accessible to programmers et al. For others, a quick explanation is in order. Serialization is the process of taking a complex (e.g wide) entity and transforming it, re-constructively,  such that is can be passed through a much simpler (e.g narrower) channel. A typical requirement for correct serialization is the ability to de-serialize the serialized data to result in exactly the original entity.

A very simple analogy would be “serializing” a bunch of untidy children through a narrow gate, one child at a time. The only caveat being that, if the serialization process was perfect, then the children would regroup on the other side in the exact same configuration as before the serialization started.
Once the concept of serialization is clear, the intent of my definiton of language should also be clear, although you may or may not agree with it.

If we go along this line of thought (pardon the pun), a corollary immediately follows:

Language is the ultimate compression engine.


If we believe that human thought is one of the most complex phenomena known to us, and if language allows serialization of a complex thought into a small compact representation that can be communicated and stored in a myriad of ways, and ultimately easily de-serialized by target humans to reveal the original thought, then the corollary must be true.

When one thinks hard to solve a problem, it is likely he or she uses bits of language in self-communication to focus attention on particular aspects, annotate the intermediate results, and proceed one by one onto higher level steps. Although the most revealing flashes of insight most likely occur during a moment of unbounded “massively parallel” thought, knowledge of language undoubtedly plays a role in allowing the thinker to carry out elaborate thought experiments.

In primitive cultures (or in someone never exposed to the concept of language), undoubtedly the enterprising inventors of that time devised their own methods of mentally labelling specific ideas with individual symbols, and then using those symbols to ease the task of deriving higher level constructs.

Also, if the above corollary holds weight, I think it has some additional fantastic implications.

This means that if we were to one day achieve “brain dumps”, or “downloading a brain” and their ilk, the best format to allow accurate storage and re-construction would be plain text! If the brain could somehow be tricked into emitting a high speed lecture on its current and past states, then the language best suited for that would be the mother-tongue of the brain’s owner. Nothing else we conceive will probably ever come close in accuracy or compactness.

Of course, this does not bode well for automated machine translation attempts. To be fully successful at that task, implies the ability to de-serialize a piece of text into the original speaker’s thoughts. If we accept that human thought is one of the most complex or mysterious activities known to mankind, then we are accepting that automated machine translation is a pipe dream for many years to come.

On the other hand, if the code of language does get cracked soon, will it mean that human thought is not so complex after all?


6 Comments on “A definition of “language”?

  1. Pingback: 27 Sept - First Look at the Web « oldephartteintraining

  2. I like this – which builds on the idea of language as a tool of logic and projects a possible theoretical program for the layout of synaptic paths.
    Have you followed the Orwellian concept of ‘duckspeak’, where a wordset is resticted and perverted to channel thought into a preplanned canalization ? This is a media concept which is sometimes referred to as ‘Mind Control’ and is achieved by ‘moving the goalposts’ and other logical fallacies.
    Check out my links on ‘Moving the Overton Window’ and “Why the right-wing gets it..” if you find this concept interesting.

  3. Great post!

    Only thing I kind of miss in it is, what do you at all consider as “[human] language”? I think that could help a lot on the whole quest for definition.

    What I mean – do you e.g. consider gramatical rules to be part of language?

    As for your remark, that “Language is the ultimate compression engine.”, I can agree only partly.

    First thing to say, it’s definitely a loosy compression; how often people run into trouble of “not having enough words to express the thought”?

    Not only that, in my opinion, language has a (much) lower “dimension” than thought, so to say. Language in fact seems to me as just a projection of thought (or, since language is so often very helpful in expressing thoughts, maybe it could be called “Poincare map of thought” 😉
    How often it happens to you, that in evening you write down a note to yourself about an amazing idea, and in morning you’re wondering what it’s supposed to mean?
    I guess that would be my reply to “On the other hand, if the code of language does get cracked soon, will it mean that human thought is not so complex after all?”

    As for your remark: “When one thinks hard to solve a problem, it is likely he or she uses bits of language in self-communication to focus attention on particular aspects, annotate the intermediate results, and proceed one by one onto higher level steps.”
    I can’t agree more, and this is a very helpful point. Also, it raises 2 interesting questions: 1) “Could he/she solve the same set of problems without the use of words?” and 2) “Is language artificial or natural phenomenon to our brain?”.

    What I mean – 1) Words are very helpful in solving problems; in fact, they’re in my opinion brains “up-to-down” decomposition equivalent. [can’t remember after of the following quote, sorry] “Originality is to give name to things that do not have a name yet.” And “To be able to think about something, we need to give it a name first.”
    2) This question might seem weird to be asked, but why are people the only ones to use such a complex system of expressing oneself? [or, if not the only ones, at least one of very few animal kinds]
    Is language “natural milestone” on the path of evolution, or it’s artificial concept that is specific only to humans?

  4. If one can visualize, I am not sure one cannot think about it without giving it a name first. For example, I can think about a shape for which I am not certain that it has a name. It is closed, 2-dimentional, I can draw it with a pencil on a piece of paper, visualize it, measure its area, think about its relative size, … its shape may remind me of a lake or a cloud.

    “To be able to think about something, we need to give it a name first.”

    … A square could be thought about before anyone came up with a name for it, just like the squiggly drawing which currently does not have a name and probably never will.

    Sometimes we give names to things as a kind of shorthand. One may think about the idea of working from home, using ones home computer – and later come up with the name “telecommute”, for example. The word becomes a convenience.

    We do not have a word for the person who talks really long on their cell phone in public yet.

  5. In formal logic, we typically deconstruct language as syntax and semantics. The former is relatively easy — you begin with atomic units, add conjuntion, disjuntion, conditional, etc., and you build-up into sentences.

    So, a sentence is a set of atomic units connected together by conjunction, disjunction, etc. That is the syntax of a language. We can further add existential and universal qualifiers to sentences such as “there exists” and “for all.”

    Semantics, on the other hand, is pretty tough. This is where AI is optimally challenging. Dealing with word-sense disambiguation (word senses such as “bass”=fish versus “bass”=musical note), metaphor, sarcasm — the syntax is easy enough via basic langauge parsing, but extracting meaning is very, very tough as you know.

    Just a point of clarification on deconstructing language.

    For example, my article axiomatizing the majority rule system is pretty easy to prove via formal logic — but, who cares? Showing that a system is internally consistent and valid is only interesting to theoreticians like me, but for legislators, they deal with the soft stuff — which is the really, really hard stuff — hence, semantics: meaning — internalized meaning.

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