Aug 092020

I mostly resist comparing human languages to computer languages. It’s only a narrowly useful analogy and the confusion has led to students being able to fulfil language requirements with programming classes, that just seems bizarre to me. I don’t think it does anyone any good to confuse human communication with logical instructions. That said- I think one aspect of SQL, Structured Query Language, might be useful for illustrating the communication pathway from thought, to language, to thought.

It seems intuitive that language has informational content. We encode meaning in words and that meaning is a form of data. I think the tendency is to think of the data in language as comparable to the data in a file, which contains information that could be decoded by the correct algorithm. The words carry the data. It’s not really incorrect, I just think it’s only partially correct. That works best when when we take language as a definable structure we can take apart and analyze with some objectivity. When 10 people can look at a sentence and correctly derive the same data that was encoded in it, seems like there must have been some data there.

But I think that sort of ignores the functional architecture of communication using language. No word ever started out meaning anything, it means something because it’s the sound someone made when they thought or felt something. It’s an associated meaning. That meaning can only be correctly decoded by someone who already associates a compatible internal meaning with the same sound. All the ‘data’ that language encodes, originates as thought, and is used to evoke the thought referenced by the sound. Language is a reference system for thought data.

If I say ‘chair’ I’m querying the neural classifiers you use to identify or construct an archetype for a ‘chair’ in your mind. Even for nouns it can be a wide open field. I can ask you to imagine a man in a chair, and walk you through a sequence of activities, and all the while I’m imagining a folding chair and you might be imagining a comfortable lazy boy. For the majority of informational communicative purposes this doesn’t matter, a chair is a functionally a chair, but it illustrates how quickly our queries can diverge from our meaning even for simple object references.

Human language conveys a large component of emotional and biological state information that requires neural classifiers for subjective human experience. Hunger is a pretty deeply biologically associated word. For me to communicate an experience involving hunger, I have to rely on your preexisting experiences and resulting classification of hunger to understand. 

What if I wanted to say the same thing to a hypothetical incorporeal being who has never experienced hunger?  I guess I could get into cellular activity and hormone production or whatever chemical process actually creates the state that I experience as hungar. That sort of brings us to that Alice the color scientist thought experiment about what constitutes qualia, but defining experience isn’t really the point. It’s more about how language references experience. Though I’m not sure I really have a complete point with this one- I just think there’s value to thinking of words as thought queries. 

It’s a lot more obvious in more mechanical, or technical communications. Nobody’s that surprised that someone doesn’t know words referencing esoteric parts, skill sets, or processes associated with a specialization unless they’ve been trained in and practiced it. And skills and knowledge, and the associated references for them are expected to develop gradually, with some skills and knowledge being necessary prerequisites for others. 

Music is an interesting example because I think we do a better job of intuitively recognizing that it is a reference language, not a data carrier, especially in terms of cultural musical references. Film composers seem like they have a mastery of using common experiential musical associations to evoke desired emotional states. Of course some of them are so old they were kind of the ones that created the associations in film, but they didn’t create them from thin air. Musical styles have associations with entertainment, labor, religion, war, death, pretty much everything humans do, so if you want to reference a human emotional state with music there’s a pretty broad palette of deep associations to choose from. Even an amateur songwriter seems to have an intuition about using music as an emotional reference. Without even knowing the musical theory they may choose time signature, key change, chord progression, a specific melody, with the intent of referencing an emotional state in their audience, knowing full well it is a reference that depends on their audience to understand. I’m not sure if anyone would say that’s what they were doing if you asked them, just seems like they must know it at some level.

And nobody would make the mistake that playing the Star Wars theme would mean anything without thinking of the experiential context of whoever was listening. Though we probably do a better job of recognizing the query features of language with obvious cultural topics in general, I’ve taken to asking pretty much everyone I meet if they’re Always Sunny fans so I’ll know if my references will land. Those are the trivial but obvious ones though, we take a lot of our experience of culture as universal that definitely are not, even within our own culture.

The SQL analogy is only useful to a point, of course there are no INSERT statements or anything like that. And it can be argued that there is data in language in some instances. A number is a pretty objective data symbol. But for a large amount of human ‘thought data’, a single word or phrase reference may access a wide range of constructs and we rely on each other having similar enough constructs to make the reference meaningful in context.

Thinking of language as working this way can remind us that nothing we say is definitive just because we said it the way we meant it, even to people we think we share a broad context with. We’re kind of blind querying thoughts from other minds using table and field names we think they should have relevant data in. Unfortunately that doesn’t paint a very optimistic picture of human communication since it relies on unknowable qualities of the listener as much as the quality of the communication. I used to have some grand vision of a perfect message for humanity, that if you could just encode the right meaning in some universally accessible way, humans could understand. But it just doesn’t work that way. You can mostly only work with the thought data available in the minds you’re communicating with.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to create new reference thought data in a human mind, but it’s a more complex and individual learning and experience process, I’m just talking about what talking.

Maybe I’m way off here, maybe people already think about language like this and I’m just dumb because I didn’t really think about it until I thought about it and when I finally did it was different than I thought it was before I really thought about it.

I feel compelled to mention a quote I attribute to my grandfather, but I’m not sure if he was quoting someone else. Someone said- “The greatest obstacle to communication is the illusion that it has already been achieved.” If there is a point to this post, that’s the gist of it. Unfortunately I don’t really know how to reliably see through that illusion. Seems like the illusion is all there is, it just sometimes happens to correspond with reality, at least enough to work.

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