• TheMadFool
    4.4k
    Language structure can be described in terms of syntax and semantics.

    Semantics, at one level, is about the meaning of single words and at another level it's about meaning in a certain context. The word ''hot'' has two meanings viz. hot as on a temperature scale and hot as in spicy food. When we use ''hot'' its meaning alters with the background info: a ''hot'' day is about temperature while a ''hot'' food is about spiciness.

    In very simple terms syntax is necessary to [avoid] confusion e.g. consider a sentence made of three words: ''dog'', ''eat'', ''man''. The sequence in which these words appear changes the meaning of the sentence as: ''man eat dog'' is different from ''dog eat man''. This is a simple reason for tge necessity of syntax or grammatical rules.

    However syntax isn't perfect: ''i punched the intruder in my pyjamas'' is ambiguous. Was it me in pyjamas or the intruder in my pyjamas?


    As you can see semantics is limited by multiple definitions of a single word which needs to be compensated through providing other words to provide context and other forms of ambiguity are addressed through syntax/grammar.

    Language is primarily about transmitting information accurately as revealed by its structure. This, as I have tried to demonstrate hasn't been achieved 100%.


    My questions are:

    1. In what ways can we ''improve'' our language (the current state of our language may be already perfect)?

    2. Which language is closest to perfection as in has effective means to avoid semantic/syntactic confusion?

    3. Can anyone prove/disprove that language can never remove ALL confusion?

    Let me have a go at question 3:

    Due to the great multiplicity of entities which would [probably] surpass our vocal capacities, it's inevitable that some words will have multiple meanings/definitions. This can only be tackled through providing context but this may not always be effective or even possible. I can't come up with an example to elucidate this but try and think of a word that has two meanings in the same context e.g. ''the food is hot'' can either mean a thermal or spiciness issue and we would need to provide other cues to lead the audience to the correct meaning. Is this always possible? I don't know. What do you think?


    As for syntax, this too isn't failsafe as I already explained before. An example would be ''John met Smith and he died''. The syntax is correct but who does ''he'' refer to?


    Back to my questions. Thanks.
  • Echarmion
    992
    1. In what ways can we ''improve'' our language (the current state of our language may be already perfect)?TheMadFool

    People have tried to come up with "perfect" languages without misunderstandings, but as far as I am aware they have not been succesfull.

    3. Can anyone prove/disprove that language can never remove ALL confusion?TheMadFool

    Perhaps it can be proven, but can that proof be expressed in language?

    One thing to consider is that the "imperfections" in language make it more efficient, they increase the information density at the cost of errors. The human brain, for all it's impressive computing power, relies on a number of shortcuts and guesses to operate at the speed necessary for it's survival. Language reflects this. Errors are a price we pay in order to have practical language that can transmit information effectively.

    A more formal argument would be that all definitions rely themselves on words which have a definition, leading to an infinite regress. The only way that a language can even transmit information is to rely on the similar brain structure and experiences of it's users. SInce those are subject to individual differences among subjects though, errors are essentially unavoidable. No matter how accurately you define a term, it's always possible for people to misunderstand the elements of that definition.
  • TheMadFool
    4.4k
    One thing to consider is that the "imperfections" in language make it more efficient, they increase the information density at the cost of errors. The human brain, for all it's impressive computing power, relies on a number of shortcuts and guesses to operate at the speed necessary for it's survival. Language reflects this. Errors are a price we pay in order to have practical language that can transmit information effectively.Echarmion

    Thanks.
    I completely forgot about efficiency and the related cost. To have an efficient language that evolves naturally there'll be costs (errors) but what about if we develop a language from scratch? Couldn't we improve the cost-benefit ratio i.e. reduce it to a minimum? Perhaps this task is extremely difficult at the moment.


    Could you try and prove/disprove that a perfect language exists. By ''perfect language'' I mean accurate transmission of information as efficiently as possible with minimum or zero errors? How about computer or machine languages? If I remember correctly there are no ambiguities in a computer language. If there were programming would be impossible as computers don't have that flexibility?

    ''Flexibility'' - perhaps that's the key element in languages that evolve naturally. A flexible language is more efficient requiring fewer moving parts (ambiguity) and a limited syntax. I guess a main feature of such a system would be context since conveying the context in some way removes ambiguity or errors in interpretation.
  • Michael
    8.3k
    You should check out Lojban.

    According to What Is Lojban?, the language's grammatical structures are "defined by a set of rules that have been tested to be unambiguous using computers", which is called the "machine grammar". Hence the characteristics of the standard syntactic (not semantic) constructs in Lojban:

    • each word has exactly one grammatical interpretation;
    • the words relate grammatically to each other in exactly one way.
  • TheMadFool
    4.4k
    Thanks. So computer languages are close to perfect languages in some sense. Lack of ambiguity in computer languages imply that we need more words but this is not as important as it is in human languages where storage capacity is a major issue. With virtually unlimited memory computers can handle large numbers of words and the syntax can be more complicated simple too.
  • Arne
    416
    Most of our language is simply about being there with others. We talk weather, we talk cars, we talk sports, we talk politics, we talk books, we talk movies. Very little of our everyday discourse hinges upon clarity. Being clear about what to get at the grocery story requires more clarity than most of our everyday conversations. So I would losing the notion of "all about."
  • Terrapin Station
    13.8k
    "Hot" and "having a high degree of heat or a high temperature" or "hot" and <pointing at a glowing coil on a stove> or anything like that don't amount to anything--there's not even any way to make a connection between the two things--without thinking about them, and thinking about them in order to make a connection between them (which therefore isn't identical to the two things), can be more variable than the number of people there are and the number of occasions that they think associatively about the two things.

    And because thinking about such things isn't identical to sounds or gestures etc. we can make, we can't avoid the variability in question. So we can't arrive at the sort of "solution" that some people would consider "perfect."
  • TheMadFool
    4.4k
    So I would losing the notion of "all about."Arne

    Indeed. Language can be a mode of self-analysis or just simply trying to express the ineffable. In such form semantics and syntax is less rigorous and interesting things may happen. However, the information or logical content may be hard to discover as the noise to signal ratio may be very high. Isn't that what happens in obscure philosophies like the Tao te ching, etc?
  • TheMadFool
    4.4k
    "Hot" and "having a high degree of heat or a high temperature" or "hot" and <pointing at a glowing coil on a stove> or anything like that don't amount to anything--there's not even any way to make a connection between the two things--without thinking about them, and thinking about them in order to make a connection between them (which therefore isn't identical to the two things), can be more variable than the number of people there are and the number of occasions that they think associatively about the two things.

    And because thinking about such things isn't identical to sounds or gestures etc. we can make, we can't avoid the variability in question. So we can't arrive at the sort of "solution" that some people would consider "perfect
    Terrapin Station

    You're saying a perfect language is impossible but your argument actually implies language itself is impossible due to varibility of actual inner experience. How do you explain existing language then? That there even exists human language flies against your claim doesn't it?
  • Terrapin Station
    13.8k


    If inner experience is variable, then language is impossible because . . . ? Well, who knows? In order to conclude that we'd need to be resting on a theory that language is only possible if inner experience (re language) isn't variable, but how would we even get to that belief in the first place?
  • Terrapin Station
    13.8k


    A simple example of how inner experience can be variable while we don't have any problem with language despite that fact is with the old "inverted spectrum" idea.

    If your experience of red is rather what my experience of green is like, and vice versa, that makes no difference in us being able to say "hand me the red color swatch," where the other person hands us the swatch we expect. Re their inner experience, they call @ "red," while we call * "red."

    What we go by is whether behavior, including other linguistic utterances, makes sense to us. (And part of that is that we develop our meanings to make sense of the behavior we observe.) As long as that's going okay--although often enough it does not--we figure that things are kosher, and it doesn't really matter what differences may be taking place internally, in other persons' minds--such as them experiencing red as we experience green.
  • TheMadFool
    4.4k
    A simple example of how inner experience can be variable while we don't have any problem with language despite that fact is with the old "inverted spectrum" idea.

    If your experience of red is rather what my experience of green is like, and vice versa, that makes no difference in us being able to say "hand me the red color swatch," where the other person hands us the swatch we expect. Re their inner experience, they call "red," while we call * "red."

    What we go by is whether behavior, including other linguistic utterances, makes sense to us. (And part of that is that we develop our meanings to make sense of the behavior we observe.) As long as that's going okay--although often enough it does not--we figure that things are kosher, and it doesn't really matter what differences may be taking place internally, in other persons' minds--such as them experiencing red as we experience green.
    Terrapin Station

    The point is there has to be some form of correspondence or agreement just as in in your example we see colors differently BUT the difference is uniform and so doesn't cause confusion. Anyway the issue you raise is in the realm of the impossible. Given that, in very simplistic terms, we all bleed when cut there's very little reason to suspect that there's such variability as you drscribe.
  • fresco
    571
    I don't see the phrase 'human context' being used in any of the above. (apologies if I missed it). Without that context, the behaviour we call 'using language' is meaningless,
  • Terrapin Station
    13.8k
    The point is there has to be some form of correspondence or agreement just as in in your example we see colors differently BUT the difference is uniform and so doesn't cause confusion. Anyway the issue you raise is in the realm of the impossible. Given that, in very simplistic terms, we all bleed when cut there's very little reason to suspect that there's such variability as you drscribe.TheMadFool

    Although there often is confusion, misunderstanding, etc. We see it here all the time.
  • Coben
    1.1k
    What we go by is whether behavior, including other linguistic utterances, makes sense to us. (And part of that is that we develop our meanings to make sense of the behavior we observe.) As long as that's going okay--although often enough it does not--we figure that things are kosher, and it doesn't really matter what differences may be taking place internally, in other persons' minds--such as them experiencing red as we experience green.Terrapin Station
    I agree.

    I once did an independent study in the phenomology of metaphors. A fancy ass way of saying that I read lines of poetry with metaphors and try to notice what I saw and felt (mainly) or otherwise imagined when I read new for me metaphors. So there were these quick flashes of images somehow mixing the two realms. Bit of both the tenor and vehicle of the metphor were blended in my mind and there would be bits of feelings I assume I associated with each part and then also with them being mixed. What happened was something I was usually vaguely aware of. What happened would really have to be really quite unique to me. Once we get into everyday language and communication with more dead metaphors and objects and categories we are more used to, sure, there is a better chance the 'stuff that actually happens' when I hear or read something could be much more similar to what the language elicits in the other person. But still, it is going to be idiosyncratic. (no cd copying here either) This is why I think most communication will involve triangulation, even sometimes over simple subjects. The cat is on grandfather's chair....probably will work very well if those nouns are clear to both parties, but what is actually happening in the mind of each person could be quite different.
  • TheMadFool
    4.4k
    Although there often is confusion, misunderstanding, etc. We see it here all the time.Terrapin Station

    Isn't that why philosophers demand that we define our terms from the get go?

    I think the errors that lead to confusion are mostly committed by novices in the field. Most discussions on the forum suggest that the people engaged understand each other well enough to have a productive conversation.
  • fresco
    571

    What do you mean by 'a productive conversation' ?
    Suppose we take the cynical view that 'philosophy is merely mental recreation for those of us fortunate to have time on our hands', how would you measure 'productive'...'killing time' ?
    My point is that 'conversation' (whether internal or social) can only be deemed 'useful' with respect to deciding subsequent action, or giving 'reassurance', in specific contexts
  • TheMadFool
    4.4k
    What do you mean by 'a productive conversation' ?
    Suppose we take the cynical view that 'philosophy is merely mental recreation for those of us fortunate to have time on our hands', how would you measure 'productive'...'killing time' ?
    My point is that 'conversation' (whether internal or social) can only be deemed 'useful' with respect to deciding subsequent action, or giving 'reassurance', in specific contexts
    fresco

    Perhaps the comment reflects my ignorance. Nevertheless what I've noticed is there's "progress" in the discussions I see around here. People seem to give each other's views on an issue and everyone seems to come out wiser if that's the appropriate word. That's all I mean by "productive".
  • fresco
    571

    It is my 'real life' experience of a monthly philosophy discussion group, that not a single one of us has significantly changed their core positions over the last 10 years. Yes, we have introduced each other to different readings but whether that made us 'wiser' rather than 'entertain us' is itself a matter of debate.

    But a more general point with respect to the OP is that 'confusion' is contextually dealt with involving negotiations of limitation of 'applicability'... not by attempting the futile task of trying to use words to define words.
  • TheMadFool
    4.4k
    But a more general point with respect to the OP is that 'confusion' is contextually dealt with involving negotiations of limitation of 'meaning'... not by attempting the futile task of trying to use words to define words.fresco

    I agree. As I responded to another poster above we it's an issue of "...negotiations of limitation of 'meaning' "
  • TogetherTurtle
    351
    Can anyone prove/disprove that language can never remove ALL confusion?TheMadFool

    I think that confusion in our language is more to blame on what we do as humans and less with what language consists of.

    I think above someone mentioned a "machine language" in which a computer makes sure that every word has only one meaning. However, the computer can't anticipate future inventions or cultural changes. That is incredibly important if we're trying to make a completely clear language.

    Take sarcasm for example. To be completely clear, I won't be using any sarcasm in my next paragraph.

    Language isn't context sensitive and doesn't need to evolve to fit our changing world. Furthermore, words are all distinct and never have similar meanings that can be interchanged either on accident or on purpose. Authors never utilize these things as they are impossible.

    Smart-assery aside, I think I do have a decent point somewhere in there. That being that if you want your "perfect language" tailored by machines to last very long, you have to both be ready to run that same program, again and again, to make sure your language isn't drifting off course and becoming imperfect through use and/or it being added to.

    A truly perfect language needs to be ready for use, otherwise, it's just a code that no one will ever use. There are a lot of things language is used for, but I would say that looking at the arts is enough for what I'm getting at. Art isn't going away as long as our brains think patterns and colors look nice. Therefore, if you want a language to be used, at least making it work for literature would be a good start. I think that's where the problem begins.

    Without misinterpretation, most works of literature with relatively deep meaning can't be translated. These are entire concepts that you can't translate into your "perfect language". Concepts you can't make up new words for because they are subtle and only make sense to the proper person in the proper context.

    I think you're on the right track if you're looking for perfection, but keep in mind that unless you're creating a simple trading language used so that merchants don't offend their foreign customers, you have a long way to go. Just keep in mind that if you want to maintain your perfect language past a few minutes, it will require maintenance, and if you wish for it to be compatible with other languages at all, you need to find a way for concepts that only exist in the context of confusion to translate perfectly.

    Of course, I'm not one to say that either of these things is impossible. I tend to think even more impossible-seeming things are possible. Or maybe you never intended for these things to part of your language. Actually, if that is the case, this perfect language would solve the problem.
  • Terrapin Station
    13.8k
    Nevertheless what I've noticed is there's "progress" in the discussions I see around here.TheMadFool

    :brow:

    :chin:

    :rofl:
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