Friday, 29 June 2012

Shakespeare would have lol'd

I think last week's entry was probably my most successful thus far, at least in terms of the amount of feedback I received. This was awesome, because I like thinking about and discussing these things and I've had quite a few of those conversations over the past week or so. However the flip side was that I was made to feel rather silly. Almost everyone I spoke to pointed out a flaw in my reasoning or a very obvious reference that I'd missed. For instance, I hadn't noticed how relevant 1984 was until it was pointed out to me (luckily just in time) and I only recently got pointed in the direction of Whorfianism, which I'd somehow skipped over entirely. It's a little humiliating, realising how little I know about a subject I've been specifically writing about, but actually, I'm choosing to see this as a positive thing. I think there are many of forms of ignorance that only really go away when you put yourself out there such that people can see how little you know and, for me, this was definitely one of those times. I am now just a little better informed.

In this entry I'm going to build on what I talked about last week to look at how the development of language may be effecting that of society. Interestingly, even last week before I knew about it, I was moving away from Whorfianism (simplifying a little, it says that thoughts and ideas are almost synonymous) and towards a more organisational way of understanding words. That a new word is like a filing cabinet for your head, suddenly you have a new place to put all of the things which fit into some category, say, dogs. This means that not only can you more easily talk about dogs, but you can also relate them to other things in your head with a lot less difficulty. You are saying 'dogs are like wolves' rather than 'these 5 small animals with four legs, which I remember are all quite similar, are like wolves'. Words don't allow thought but they do effect it, allowing it to be much more agile and precise.
In the newspeak of 1984, Orwell suggest that this could be used to limit thought. That by removing certain words you could prevent people from rebelling or even discussing rebellion. Not only is that a singularly negative way of looking at this idea, but I also think it's a little flawed. New words have always come into existence throughout human history so even a limited vocabulary wont stay that way for long*. The process through which this creation of words happens is what I'm going to be mulling over in this week's entry.

An interesting example is the fluidity of language during Shakespeare's time. At this time the printing press was only just starting to have an effect, with more people reading than ever before. This meant that most words had no definite spelling, the first dictionary didn't arrive until 1755 and even the Shakespeare himself had no single way of spelling his name (he himself used several different versions). Of course spelling isn't everything, but what I'm getting at is that there was a tremendous uncertainty in the language and this was a period when many aspects of it underwent tectonic shifts. There was huge scope for new words to come into being. In fact, if we return to Shakespeare, he is often credited with adding over 1700 words to the English language. If we accept that new words, even just a little, alter the way that we arrange things in our head, then it's exciting to think just how big of an effect 1700 new ones might have, just how many new ideas might be suddenly within reach.
Obviously this is a hand wavy theory, there would be no way to prove this. Even if we could easily map the development of language over time, it would be next to impossible to show that it was having any effect. However, if I can persuade you to put down your scientist hats for a minute and just enjoy the idea, it's easy to see how it might do, to get a feel for how big an influence this might have had on the development of human society. There's the old idea of steam engine time, that many inventions simply seemed to have a time, coming into existence at the same time on opposite sides of the world. Perhaps in some small way this, and even larger social changes, are brought about by language.**

The reason I brought up the fluidity of language in Shakespeare's time is because I believe that we are currently in a similar situation. The advent of a huge number of new forms of communication means that we are speaking to each other in an ever increasing number of different ways. Mostly this is through the likes of Facebook, text messages, Twitter, all of which heavily favour brevity. This has led to the modern abbreviations like lol, rofl and wtf ('laugh out loud', 'rolling on the floor laughing' and 'what the fuck?'). These new words allow new ways of speaking, for instance it wouldn't previously have been normal to finish a sentence by stating that you are laughing out loud, even in a purely text format like a letter. Equally these words are still in flux, for example, while there is a clear interpretation of what 'lol' means, there is no consensus on different forms of that word (every source I checked for the title of this post suggested a different form for the past tense). There are also a whole series of emotional additives, in the form of ascii faces such as :), :P and :O (smiley face, cheeky face and shocked face respectively). Though not really words, these are hugely useful and ubiquitous to the point that I genuinely find them useful in determining the intent of a statement (“You are an awful person.” and “You are an awful person :P” read completely differently to me). My point is that I think now, more than at any other time in the past two hundred years, we are on the verge of a huge expansion of the dictionary, of our every day vocabulary.
Of course a lot of these words are quite utilitarian, simply condensing emotions or feelings which were found to be needed. There is a whole other set of words which I would expect to see emerge soon, dealing with how we relate to all of this new technology, with the new concepts and situations which it brings up in our lives.***

When I started this entry, my imagined conclusion was that I would show how potent the current state of language is and then evangelise carefully adding words to lead society in a better direction. I have a tendency to err on the side of optimism and, in retrospect, I think in this case I was doing so to an extreme degree.
The trouble is that words and their meaning (particularly very potent ones) are almost always taken from the control of their original creator long before their meaning has fully taken shape. This makes it entirely impractical to alter the course of human history by intentionally creating words (no matter how attractive that concept might be to a romantic such as myself). Of course that doesn't stop people trying, the best example is in the political sphere, where phrases like 'job creators', 'pro-life' and 'broken Britain' are constantly being coined in an effort to rewire how we see the issues (I don't know if it works, but there sure are a lot of people trying). There's also the whole issue that, assuming we could create popular and carefully crafted words, what would we alter. Even something which seems innocuous, say, a word which makes you see everyone you meet as friendlier and more human, could have all sorts of unplanned knock on effects (devaluing friendships perhaps).
Sadly then, I am backing away entirely from my enthusiasm about social engineering through words. However, I still think that it is incredibly exciting that we live in such a time of change, there is so much potential for society to change in our lifetimes. Additionally, I rather like the idea that there's an opening for a Bard of the 21st century, perhaps our circumstances are crying out for a new Shakespeare, I'd rather like to see what a totally modern Hamlet equivalent might be like.

*[Of course an omnipresent and brutal dystopian police force can put a stop to that process in Orwell's world]

**[I'm taking the idea quite far here, but I like to do that with unprovable but interesting ideas. I just find that, although you're proving nothing, it can be fun to let your mind live in that world for a while and see where you end up]

***[My favourite example of this is 'Eternal September' (the original meaning of which can be seen here), which is used to refer to the ever present nostalgia that users of any internet community feel for the time when they first joined, before all the subsequent people arrived and lowered the quality (a sense which, for anyone who spends a lot of time online, can be hard to shake)]

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Words Beget Words

I love words. Used in the right combination and order they can do all sorts of wonderful or horrible things to my brain. However I've recently been thinking about the greater power they have, the idea that, words don't just allow us to explain our thoughts, they allow us to think them. That they act like little maps, allowing us to link up things and people with ideas and concepts, creating a more complex web than we would ever have arrived at without them.
The first place I encountered this idea was in George Orwell's 1984. He wrote an entire essay detailing how the totalitarian government created the new language of Newspeak specifically to be limited so that not only was there no word for rebellion, but there was no way of even constructing that concept from the existing words. This is essentially the same idea that I am talking about, that without the word for “rebel”, without a way of saying it out loud, we wont even be able to think it internally.
However, I think Orwell has chosen a singularly negative way of interpreting this idea. Indeed the more recent catalyst for this entry was an excellent podcast: Radiolab – Words, which delves into the science behind the idea. This week, using that science as my starting point, I'm going to attempt to show a much more redemptive side to the power of words

The power of new words is that they allow us to express new things. To be able to say “that is a car” rather than “what is this strange horseless chariot of yours?”. However there is real evidence that without the words to express them, we simply aren't able to think certain ideas. The wonderful example from the podcast I linked above can be found here, but in case you don't fancy listening to it, I'll try to put the gist here (if you do listen to it, just skip the next paragraph... they explain it far better than I expect I will).
It started when some researchers found a school with a large number of deaf children, where the teachers didn't know how to sign. Obviously this meant the kids didn't learn much, but it also meant that, because there were so many of them together, they created their own sign language. At first it was really basic, and this is the interesting part, because access to such a limited language allowed the researchers to do some tests with respect to that. They showed a video in which a boy puts his toy in a chest then leaves the room and, while he is gone, his brother takes the toy and hides it under the bed. The children were then asked, when the boy comes back, where will he look for the toy and, surprisingly, they said that he would look under the bed. The exciting implication is that this is because they had no words for think and know, they simply weren't able to infer that the boy didn't know what they now knew.*
It's really fascinating, we can think, albeit a little fuzzily, about what this might mean for someone with very few words. For instance, if the only word I have is “cookie”, then I might point to my mouth and use this word, expecting to taste a cookie soon. When you leave the room to fetch me my cookie, I will have no idea where you have gone. If I have a word for fetch/bring, then I might be able to infer that a cookie is being brought to me, but then, with no word for distance, or even time, I wont know how far the cookie is coming from or how long it will take. Obviously I am taking this to extremes, humans without words aren't simply unable to interact with the world, but looking into the evidence it is shocking how close we are to that state in some ways.
In this study (warning that's a pdf link, so may take a while to load) they demonstrate that even in something as utterly basic and universal as spatial reasoning (in this case figuring out which corner of a box is which) language makes an appreciable difference. Having the words to say this is to the left of that, allows you to recognise these conditions better. Another example, this study demonstrates that there are invariant factors in our understanding of geometry (which aren't effected by language), but they also reference some examples which definitely are. For instance comparing a couple of primitive tribes which were given pictures of shapes to sort, only the tribe which had words for the number of edges on an object ever sorted the pictures with that in mind, the other ignored shape entirely in their organisation.**
It surprises me that these things make such a difference, I would have thought it was reasonable to assume that shape recognition was totally independent of language. It's also worth noting that these studies look at the things which are easy to test, that is, very concrete and easily presentable ideas. More complex concepts may work in the same way or they may not, but it's certainly a lot more interesting to assume that they do.

In the previous section I presented rather a lot of actual hard science to demonstrate that this is happening, what's missing however is any mention of what is causing it, how words effect our thoughts. Science hasn't yet started to describe this, but that doesn't stop me, for the sake of intrigue, making my own attempt to do so.
I choose to think of it as though we have a lot of different nodes in our head, not individual neurons, but perhaps collections of them which make up various concepts or images. In this way we might have a concept of “car” which is a vague idea of what constitutes that type of thing. That would naturally be linked to a collection of images which show us what cars look like, then probably also to a very particular image which we know refers to our own car. What I'm getting at is that, it is these connections which allow us, when thinking (in language or otherwise) to jump between various ideas in an agile and context dependant way (to immediately go from a description 'Andy was in a car' to a reasonably accurate mental image of that scene, with no further description needed).
In this sense what is happening when we learn a new word like “time” is that first we have all of our individual concepts of the passage of time: the sun moving across the sky, the space between setting out to get somewhere and arriving there, the gap between dropping a stone and it hitting the ground. This new word then allows us to link them, to match them up so that rather than having a vague instinctive understanding of each, we can see that in fact they are all the same. I knew what time was before I had the word for it, but learning the word allowed me to better marshal my thoughts, to use the idea in a much more plastic and informative way.
This is what I think new words are doing. They are taking different nodes in our brain and providing a link where before there was none. This then allows us to much more easily leap between those nodes, making that connection not just a vague possibility but a hard wired known fact.

This whole way of understanding language seems to me hugely important. Contrary to Orwell however, I am going to choose to look for the possible benefits to be found here and that is what, over the next few weeks, I will be looking at. Next week I'll go over the changing of language and whether I think it is possible to move it (and so humanity) in a specific direction. The week after I may, if the subject still interests me, look at one particular word and the harm which I think it has done to our society.

*[The scientists also found, when they went back years later, that the language had developed. That the children now knew that the boy would, mistakenly, look for the toy in the chest where he left it. They even found the adults who had contact with these children and their new words, also now understood this fact.]

**[As I was finishing off this entry I came across an excellent visual representation showing how having different words for colours actually effects how you see colour. You can see it on youtube here]

Sunday, 3 June 2012

What to say, what not to say

Recently someone pointed out to me the possibility that I might be causing myself problems with this blog. Specifically that as my career as a writer goes forward someone may find it, causing all my various opinions to bite me in the arse. That writing I've put here, even as a throwaway aside, might come to define me and my future career in a way I hadn't intended. Honestly I had vaguely considered this idea, but not to this extent and I dismissed it without much thought. Still I'm always keen to take on criticism so, I thought, what better way to deal with this than by taking it on directly, right here.

My instinctive reaction to being challenged on this was to reject the idea. That, if some of my opinions put someone off then they simply aren't one of my readers. I enjoy writers who think deeply about controversial issues, I have a huge respect for them and that is the kind of writer I would like to be. It feels antithetical to me to self censor if you want to produce work which actually deals with subjects of any importance.
However, there is something I noticed after I had this reaction. Specifically that it came from a deep gut place which I have come to distrust. That's not to say that my gut is wrong, but that when I have such a strong reaction it normally indicates that, while this is an area where I have quite strong feelings, I also probably haven't thought about it enough for my opinion to be of much worth. That same instinctive sense of right has obstructed me from considering this issue in a more reasoned fashion.
Normally my response on finding such powerful emotions is to, with great care, put those feelings aside and make a concerted attempt (through reading and discussion) to come to a more methodical and reasoned judgement. Then I subsequently try to resolve that judgement with my emotions until I can, hopefully, coalesce these into a more rounded conclusion. In this case though, I'm reticent to do that, because this particular deep well of emotion is clearly linked to my feelings about writing, my respect for writers and my desire to be one of them. I don't want to delve too much into the architecture behind that desire for fear that I might, in doing so, undermine it. That might sound silly, but I feel that there is something inherently irrational in a desire to write. I don't want to challenge it because I recognise that it might collapse under that challenge and, really, well thought out or not, I enjoy the result of those emotions.

This is all well and good, but all I've really said so far about this problem is that, for the sake of my writing, I am prepared to ignore it. I don't think that qualifies as an answer to a question which really deserves one. After all, it is all very well to say that my readers, whoever they end up being, will need to reconcile themselves with my views on religion. However what will more likely happen is that some throwaway comment will, when taken out of context, make me sound like a massive bigot of some sort or other. Whatever other things my writing says, a slip up like that could effectively end up ruining my career before it's even begun (obviously that's assuming I achieve the level of fame such that somebody cares what I think, but let's throw some optimism in with our pessimism here). Clearly then, while I could simply ignore this problem, I probably shouldn't.

This leaves me wanting to preserve the purity of my writing while at the same time avoiding any career ruining mishaps. Honestly I want to keep this blog going, I enjoy having an excuse to think deep thoughts (and somehow, whether it's being reading it or not, I like the fact that anyone could read those thoughts and be influenced by them). Sadly, there I haven't found some grand solution. As it turned out, after some investigating (feel free to point out how wrong I am), it seems it isn't possible to link my name to this blog. In effect, this is anonymous. I'm a little irked by that, I wanted this to be about me putting myself out there and if I'm hidden then I'm doing that in a more limited way, but I think it's a compromise which I'm happy to accept for now.