(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘language

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world”*…

It seems clear that we are on the verge of an impactful new wave of technology. Venkatesh Rao suggests that it may be a lot more impactful than most of us imagine…

In October 2013, I wrote a post arguing that computing was disrupting language and that this was the Mother of All Disruptions. My specific argument was that human-to-human communication was an over-served market, and that computing was driving a classic disruption pattern by serving an under-served marginal market: machine-to-machine and organization-to-organization communications. At the time, I didn’t have AI in mind, just the torrents of non-human-readable data flowing across the internet.

But now, a decade later, it’s obvious that AI is a big part of how the disruption is unfolding.

Here is the thing: There is no good reason for the source and destination AIs to talk to each other in human language, compressed or otherwise, and people are already experimenting with prompts that dig into internal latent representations used by the models. It seems obvious to me that machines will communicate with each other in a much more expressive and efficient latent language, closer to a mind-meld than communication, and human language will be relegated to a “last-mile” artifact used primarily for communicating with humans. And the more they talk to each other for reasons other than mediating between humans, the more the internal languages involved will evolve independently. Mediating human communication is only one reason for machines to talk to each other.

And last-mile usage, as it evolves and begins to dominate all communication involving a human, will increasingly drift away from human-to-human language as it exists today. My last-mile language for interacting with my AI assistant need not even remotely resemble yours…

What about unmediated human-to-human communication? To the extent AIs begin to mediate most practical kinds of communication, what’s left for direct, unmediated human-to-human interaction will be some mix of phatic speech, and intimate speech. We might retreat into our own, largely wordless patterns of conviviality, where affective, gestural, and somatic modes begin to dominate. And since technology does not stand still, human-to-human linking technologies might start to amplify those alternate modes. Perhaps brain-to-brain sentiment connections mediated by phones and bio-sensors?

What about internal monologues and private thoughts. Certainly, it seems to me right now that I “think in English.” But how fundamental is that? If this invisible behavior is not being constantly reinforced by voluminous mass-media intake and mutual communications, is there a reason for my private thoughts to stay anchored to “English?” If an AI can translate all the world’s information into a more idiosyncratic and solipsistic private language of my own, do I need to be in a state of linguistic consensus with you?…

There is no fundamental reason human society has to be built around natural language as a kind of machine code. Plenty of other species manage fine with simpler languages or no language at all. And it is not clear to me that intelligence has much to do with the linguistic fabric of contemporary society.

This means that once natural language becomes a kind of compile target during a transient technological phase, everything built on top is up for radical re-architecture.

Is there a precedent for this kind of wholesale shift in human relationships? I think there is. Screen media, television in particular, have already driven a similar shift in the last half-century (David Foster Wallace’s E Unibas Pluram is a good exploration of the specifics). In screen-saturated cultures, humans already speak in ways heavily shaped by references to TV shows and movies. And this material does more than homogenize language patterns; once a mass media complex has digested the language of its society, starts to create them. And where possible, we don’t just borrow language first encountered on screen: we literally use video fragments, in the form of reaction gifs, to communicate. Reaction gifs constitute a kind of primitive post-idiomatic hyper-language comprising stock phrases and non-verbal whole-body communication fragments.

Now that a future beyond language is imaginable, it suddenly seems to me that humanity has been stuck in a linguistically constrained phase of its evolution for far too long. I’m not quite sure how it will happen, or if I’ll live to participate in it, but I suspect we’re entering a world beyond language where we’ll begin to realize just how deeply blinding language has been for the human consciousness and psyche…

Eminently worth reading in full (along with his earlier piece, linked in the text above): “Life After Language,” from @vgr.

(Image above: source)

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logigo-philosphicus


As we ruminate on rhetoric, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Bertrand Russell; he was born on this date in 1872. A mathematician, philosopher, logician, and public intellectual, his thinking has had a powerful influence on mathematics, logic, set theory, linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer science. and various areas of analytic philosophy, especially philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics.

Indeed, Russell was– with his predecessor Gottlob Frege, his friend and colleague G. E. Moore, and his student and protégé Wittgenstein— a founder of analytic philosophy, one principal focus of which was the philosophy of language.


“One word brings another”*…

The Choice of Hercules by Carracci, 1596. Depicts Hercules deciding between Vice (right) and Virtue, or Arete (left)

Recovering the wisdom of ancient Greece…

… while actually dedicating years to learning this beautiful and complicated ancient language might not be the most practical use of your time, I do think you should at least learn a few of the most important concepts.

In fact, I reckon these 12 terms should definitely make a comeback in our current society… and that we might be a lot better for it…

From Aidos (Greek: Αἰδώς) and Arete (Greek: ἀρετή) to Phronesis (Greek: φρόνησῐς) and Xenia (Greek: ξενία): “12 Ancient Greek Terms that Should Totally Make a Comeback,” from @ClassicalWisdom.

* Euripides, Trojan Women


As we learn from our elders, we might recall that it was on this date (as nearly as one can tell) in 327 BCE that Alexander the Great (heir of Philip II of Macedon and tutee of Aristotle) launched his Indian Campaign. Within two years, Alexander expanded the Macedonian Empire to include present-day Punjab and Sindh in what is Modern-day Pakistan, surpassing the earlier frontiers that had been established by the Persian conquest of the Indus Valley.

Alexander in the Alexander Mosaic (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 13, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Roget’s Thesaurus is an oddball philosophy of language masquerading as a reference book”*…

Austin Kleon on Roget’s Thesaurus

I have always assumed — and maybe you have, too — that a thesaurus is just a synonym dictionary, the words arranged alphabetically with a list of synonyms and antonyms below. Somehow, every thesaurus I’d ever come across — even ones with “Roget” in the title! — had this alphabetic arrangement.

Because of this, it was easy for me to effectively ignore the thesaurus. If I needed a synonym or antonym, I’d just open an actual dictionary, or do a quick online search…

It turns out that Roget‘s Thesaurus is not at all what I thought it was. It is weirder and much more interesting…

… if you understand the man, you understand where his book came from. Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) was a Victorian polymath: a doctor by trade, but he did all sorts of stuff: he was a consultant on pandemics, he wrote Encyclopedia Brittanica entries and a book about natural theology, he helped catalog several libraries, he invented the scale on the slide rule, and he may have written a paper that contributed to the birth of cinema. Oh, and he was also obsessed with chess problems.

The thing he is now most famous for — his thesaurus — was actually a side project he took up in retirement, in his seventies. His whole life he’d made lists as a way of soothing himself. He carried a notebook around with him and jotted down lists of related words and phrases to help him with his own writing and lecturing. He made his own personal thesaurus in his twenties, but in retirement he thought maybe it might be helpful to others, and after four years of work, he published the first edition of his Thesaurus (from the Greek word thēsauros, meaning “storehouse” or “treasure”) in 1852, overseeing new editions until he died in 1869. His son, John Lewis Roget, a lawyer, painter, and art critic, then took over the project.

Roget, like many Victorians, was obsessed with order and classification. His hero was Carl Linnaeus, known as the father of modern taxonomy. Roget wanted to classify and organize words in the English language. This is the best way to understand Roget’s Thesaurus: it’s not just a book of words, it’s like a library of words.

When you go to the library, the books are not arranged in alphabetical order — they’re organized topically. In order to find a book in my local library, you have to look up the book in the catalog, note the Dewey Decimal Number, then find it on the shelf. The beauty of this system, and a major argument for physical browsing collections, is that when you find the book on the shelf, it will be surrounded by books on the similar subject. You may go looking for one particular book and while browsing you might find a better book or the book you didn’t even know you were looking for. This is the way a thesaurus is supposed to work.

In the very beginning of his introduction to his book, Roget emphasizes that what makes his book unique and helpful is that the words are not arranged alphabetically, like a Dictionary, but “according to the ideas which they express.”…

The fascinating story of Roget’s Thesaurus: “A Library of Words,” from @austinkleon.

Browse the 1911 edition– still in the format Roget intended– at the Internet Archive.

Ted Gioia (@tedgioia)


As we look it up, we might send tasty birthday greetings to the literary genius behind green eggs and ham, Theodor Seuss Geisel, AKA “Dr. Seuss”; he was born on this date in 1904.  After a fascinating series of early-career explorations, Geisel settled on a style that created what turned out to be the perfect “gateway drug” to book addiction– and a love of words– for generations of young readers.

The more that you read,

The more things you will know.

The more that you learn,

The more places you’ll go.

I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! (1978)


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 2, 2023 at 1:00 am

“For the sake of the science, it might be time for scientists to start trusting each other a little less”*…

We’ve looked at methodical problems in scientific and medical research before (see here, here, and here). Let us turn now to outright dishonesty. The rising number of retracted research papers suggests that either medical research fraud is on the rise or that efforts to spot it are getting better. Either way, it’s a problem …

… Partly or entirely fabricated papers are being found in ever-larger numbers, thanks to sleuths like Dr Mol. Retraction Watch, an online database, lists nearly 19,000 papers on biomedical-science topics that have been retracted (see chart 1). In 2022 there were about 2,600 retractions in this area—more than twice the number in 2018. Some were the results of honest mistakes, but misconduct of one sort or another is involved in the vast majority of them…

… Yet journals can take years to retract, if they ever do so. Going by these numbers, roughly one in 1,000 papers gets retracted. That does not sound too bad. However, Ivan Oransky, one of Retraction Watch’s founders, reckons, based on various studies of the matter and reports from sleuths, that something more like one in 50 papers has results which are unreliable because of fabrication, plagiarism or serious errors…

… It is often asserted that science is self-correcting. And it is true that, if a claimed result is important enough, an inability to replicate it or of subsequent work to conform to it will eventually be noticed. In the short term, though, it is easy to hide in the shadows. Even co-authors of a data-fabricating scientist—those, in other words, who are closest to him or her—may not notice what the culprit is up to. In complex studies of a particular disease, several types of researchers will be involved, who are, by definition, not experts in each other’s fields. As Dr Bishop observes, “You just tend to take on trust the bits of data that somebody else has given you.”…

In the end, however, keeping fakes out of the scientific record depends on the willingness of publishers to stump up more resources. Statistical checks of clinical-trial papers often involve laborious manual work, such as typing up specific data in spreadsheets. This would require journals to hire dedicated staff, cutting into profits.

Many academics who have spent years trying to get fabricated papers retracted are pessimistic that better ways to detect fraud will, alone, make a big difference. Dr Roberts and Dr Mol want journals to be regulated in the way that social media and the news business are in some countries, with standards on what they publish. Peter Wilmshurst, a British cardiologist who has raised the alarm about numerous cases of research misconduct in his field, thinks there should be criminal penalties for those who fabricate data. Dr Gunsalus wants universities to make public the reports from their research-fraud investigations. And everyone agrees that publish or perish is a recipe for disaster.

None of these solutions will be quick or straightforward. But it is now clear that choosing to look the other way is causing palpable harm to patients…

“There is a worrying amount of fraud in medical research- and a worrying unwillingness to do anything about it,” from @TheEconomist.

* Stuart Ritchie, Science Fictions


As we look harder, we might spare a thought for Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski; he died on this date in 1950. Trained as an engineer, he developed a field called general semantics, which he viewed as both distinct from, and more encompassing than, the field of semantics. He argued that human knowledge of the world is limited both by the human nervous system and the languages humans have developed, and thus no one can have direct access to reality, given that the most we can know is that which is filtered through the brain’s responses to reality. (Korzybski assumed that the quest for knowledge was an authentic, honest one; that said, if “human nervous system” an be understood to extend to “human nature”…)

Korzybski was influential in fields across the sciences and humanities through the 1940s and 50s (perhaps most notably, gestalt therapists), and inspired science fiction writers (like Robery Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt) and philosophers like Alan Watts.

His best known dictum is “The map is not the territory.”


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 1, 2023 at 1:00 am

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice”*…

As we pivot into 2023 (Happy New Year!), a retrospective on the way that 2022– Ukraine, the economy, China, climate change, pivots at Facebook and Twitter, the lingering pandemic– changed our language…

The story of a year is sometimes easy to identify: the financial crisis of 2008, the Brexit-Trump populist wave of 2016 or the pandemic of 2020. The most wrenching event of 2022 has been the war in Ukraine, yet those earlier stories have lingered in the headlines. For language-watchers, all that meant much new vocabulary to consider…

[After considering a number of other candidates…]

After the lockdowns of 2020, followed, in 2021, by a slow return to the office, 2022 was the year that hybrid work settled in. Working at home some of the time has advantages (decongesting cities and fewer painful commutes), and disadvantages (fears of lower productivity combined with a sense of never being off duty). In the spring Twitter announced a policy of unlimited working from home for those who wanted it. When Elon Musk bought the company he promptly decreed the opposite. But most firms have not gone to either extreme, instead trying to find the best of both worlds.

As a coinage, hybrid work is no beauty. But it will reshape cities, careers, family life and free time. That is ample qualification for a word of the year…

From @TheEconomist: “And the word of 2022 is…

Here are some candidates for this year’s “word of the year”: “23 items of vital vocabulary you’ll need to know in 2023.”

And because it’s New Years Day, and it’s appropriate to look forward, not just back, some advice-like thoughts on 2023″: “Blank Page.”

* T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets


As we name it, we might recall that, on this date in 1995, the last installment of Gary Larsen‘s comic strip The Far Side (which had premiered on New Year’s Eve, 1979) ran. Carried by more than 1,900 daily newspapers, the strip was translated into 17 languages, and collected into calendars, greeting cards, and 23 compilation books; reruns are still carried in many newspapers. Indeed, after a 25 year hiatus, in July 2020 Larson began drawing new Far Side strips offered through the comic’s official website.

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 1, 2023 at 1:00 am

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