C-48. Our language investment

When infrastructure needs and investments are discussed, somehow the matter of our languages – especially the so-called natural languages – does not draw much attention. Yet “language and thought,” for all its incomplete and imperfect characterization of how we come to realize possibility, is telling us that language has an infrastructural role as essential to our development as transportation systems are. Elementary education’s “3R’s” emphasize the point. Still….

Languages, in our quotidian acquaintance, seem pretty much a given. We adopt them – more or less. They may be changeable (e.g., “living languages”), so we may adapt them as well as adapt to them in their communal use. We seem to accept, to acknowledge their foundational role. (It is that “given” sense which appears to have attracted the attention of Chomsky and Skinner – for different reasons, as discussed below.)

But how well do our languages serve us? How should we think about them? Should we be contemplating a major developmental investment in languages? How much technological innovation should such an investment entail? Of what kinds? Are, for example, languages too much based on dealing with particulars and bodies (C-39) and not enough on what is general and distinctively behavioral?

Suppose we begin by looking at languages as though we were material scientists, interested in the consequentiality, current and potential, of linguistic features. In which characteristics does the materiality of languages lie? Languages are malleable – like gold and silver, lending themselves to creative forms of expression. Languages are flexible, accepting substitute and metaphoric terms. Languages are open, accepting new terms and providing context for their interpretation.

Languages give emphasis to terms (names, labels, words) for particular conditions of common acquaintance (Skinner’s point). Languages have syntactic structure that aids the coherent making and interpretation of points AT and ABOUT (Chomsky’s point).

Looking at language in the context of compositional behavior (C-47), of helping to solve our problems, a “for want of a nail” (C-12) conclusion seems warranted: Composing needs involving. Involving needs grasping and grasping needs involving (VII). Grasping needs involving that has both flexibility and reach; if language is to help us solve problems we should look to its flexibility and reach. So because we must invent representation for everything of consequence, we must maximize the quality as well as the quantity of languages’ grasp (i.e., their flexibility as well as their reach). So a more productive language might comprise different kinds of symbols, beyond what is now conventional (e.g., as now practiced with “smilies” accompanying words, as long practiced in songs’ words with music, and in print’s punctuation and emphasis symbols along with the words).

Our primary concern in the materiality of language (See App. X) is not limited to scientific investigation of existing languages – especially what there is of a oneness, i.e., their evidence of common ordering, such as of origin. As we practice our art, generally that is, as composers and as humanists with problems needing to be solved, we have to be equally interested in the materiality of language, as agents of synthesis, with respect to technological developments we might make in this vital infrastructure (App. VII, App. VIII, App. X), especially those now missing with respect to functionality (App. X).

Languages currently offer many particulars to be distinguished, to be learned and/or pondered, to be translated, to be searched for similarities – even universals … an endless expanse of particulars. But from what source or sources? Anything more than situational need(s)? With no more constraint than functional sufficiency for this or that situational problem? But this would just looking backward at a legacy. What about the future of language and the investment we might make in that future?

What new features might we, should we, add to the materiality of language? Features that respond to the principled generalities of behavior, to the fundamental force of the behavioral problem (C-41), features that are not just ad hoc adjustments to situational problems? Features, for example, that represent the compoundedness and complexity of compositional change processes (II) – such as the elaboration of cognition’s before-after relation (X) to show “all that it takes” to bring about change.

The special “common sense” that a community needs about how to make and take steps together requires a language capable of the mutual informing which that community will also require (C-10). Composing the community, and the language for it, are part of the future too.

Consider the linguistic trends and investments of the Internet, where efficiency and capacity interests of businesses overwhelm forgotten promises of effectiveness and capability (XI). Linguistic capability is being strangled, not improved. Pollution there (0: Ps) is not just one of content overload; it is also one of linguistic destruction. The ability to compose, to solve problems, is being subverted instead of enhanced.

Consider too the polluting effects of concepts as linguistic elements. Their grasp is also not up to the challenges of the future. Do we appreciate the risk attached to their continued unanchored use (C-22, C-50)? Should a productive language, as a procedural tool (App. VII), ever be less than an understanding of the Nature of Things? Conceptual terms, frail as they are, are the poster child for linguistic impoverishment.

(c) 2012 R. F. Carter