LING: Language adequacy

James Rogers (
Wed, 29 Jan 1997 00:48:53 -0800

At 01:43 PM 1/28/97 -0800, Lee Daniel Crocker wrote:
>(1) The sample set of human languages is so small, and the evaluation
>period so short, that I don't think one can draw any conclusions from
>its present dominance. It just happened to be the language that was
>used my the world's major imperial power, and later by the world's
>leader in technology. To evaluate language as a technology itself, I
>think it makes more sense to look at earlier cultures where it had more
>obvious influence. Chinese comes out the winner there, and for some
>good reasons, especially the writing system. It is far more efficient
>than alphabetic systems: more words per page, fewer penstrokes per word,
>faster to read and comprehend.

Nonetheless, Chinese is a poor language for coding new concepts that are too
far outside their existing concept set. One of the big problems faced by
many Asian countries (especially less developed ones) is that most written
language is translated *through* Chinese, even if neither the original nor
the end translation were in Chinese.

An example: When books are translated from English into Vietnamese, they
are first translated into Chinese (even the Vietnamese-Americans do this!).
The problem is that Chinese translations force every English concept and
word into their symbol set, even if it has no equivalent. The Chinese
language does poor distinction, especially when nouns are involved IMO. The
translation from Chinese into Vietnamese is easy, but the result is very
poor even though the languages map onto each other pretty well. Proper
nouns are demolished. New conceptual containers are destroyed. "Software"
becomes translated as "a soft thing" (like a pillow!) and "Frame Relay"
makes no sense at all. "Frame" and "Relay" are broken apart and translated
into their more mundane definitions which apparently must make sense in
Chinese. Yet direct English-Vietnamese translations do not suffer this type
of problem. Apparently the "translate through Chinese" thing is a really
big issue in Asia right now because it is putting a lot of countries at a
disadvantage in technology fields. Even most American book publishers
translate through Chinese first. I understand there is a historical reason
why this is, but I don't know what it is.

English may not be very efficient, organized, or pretty, but it is a superb
conceptual container, mostly for the same reasons. English descriptive
containers are somewhat fuzzy, but noun-like conceptual containers are very
good IMO.

THOUGHT: maybe technological development is hindered/helped by the
constructs/nature of your native language. I find it possible that Chinese
technological development slowed when (among other things, of course) their
technology reached the limit supported by their language. I would be very
curious in knowing how the Chinese language stores the equivalent of English
words/concepts such as "hydrocarbon" or "quantum mechanics".

>(3) The vast, detailed, expressive vocabulary of English is indeed a
>good thing, and works well for expressing fine distinctions that would
>be difficult in other languages (only French and German come close),
>but it also encourages ambiguity: words created or borrowed to express
>some narrow, specific idea are often diluted into more general meanings.
>"Replica", for example, once meant "a reproduction of an artifact by
>the original artisan". Now it swims in the same soup as "copy" and
>"duplicate"--it has even migrated into the territory of "model".

An interesting feature of certain Polynesian dialects is that they have a
very small set of descriptive words (adjectives, adverbs, etc) which can be
given a large number of degrees of distinction by repeating the appropriate
syllables in the root descriptive a certain number of times. You can get an
amazing amount of mileage out of a very small vocabulary and alphabet if you
know how to use it.

The diffusion of meaning in English is almost unavoidable, but is especially
obvious in the American forms, which have been subject to much more diverse
ethnic and cultural influences than the average language. Naturally,
languages spoken by more homogeneous groups of people tend to have a more
homogeneous nature.

>English has served us adequately, but we can do much better. In
>particular, we can try to fix the well-known identifiable problems
>like sexism, unintentional ambiguity, poor adaptability to new
>concepts, cultural dependencies, and others. Whatever we create
>will no doubt evolve other problems--but we'll never find our way
>out of the maze until we free ourselves from the straitjacket first.

I think the problems you stated regarding English, are mostly due to the
fact that it evolves so easily, which in my opinion isn't such a bad thing,
even if it is inconvenient. English may allow us to "evolve" out of
problems such as sexism, although things like ambiguity seem to be a more
permanent feature.

To be honest, I kind of like the ambiguous nature of English. It lets you
code many levels of thought into a single phrase much easier than with more
structured languages. I have found many languages (primarily Asian ones in
my experience) to be inadequate for expressing complex ideas concisely,
forcing me to revert back to English for those concepts. Some of the more
limited Asian languages actually incorporate a European language into their
own language when describing some complex concepts, even when spoken by natives.

-James Rogers