Doing the Hard Work

The most straightforward and most laborious way to cross the language gap is to learn another language, and translate for others who don’t speak it. History says this work is so arduous that humankind doesn’t keep it up for long.

My help in this post is a book called Empires of the Word – A Language History of the World, written by British linguist Nicholas Ostler. In this book, he studies languages that prevailed over large areas for significant periods in human history. Ostler’s book is a quest to find out why and how those languages prevailed while others didn’t, and how they lost their significance over time (if that happened). Continue reading

Disruption and Progress

In this blog, I promised stories about the history of language technology, and the promise still stands: stories will come. But the things that happen in science and technology do not happen in themselves or by themselves, and when you tell stories about events in technology, it helps if you are conscious about how and why they happen.

Humankind created amazing things since the dawn of history, which brought about unprecedented wealth and an almost twofold increase in the life expectancy of those lucky enough to be born in the so-called “developed” world. This makes us talk about the development – or progress – of science and technology, and the improvement of the quality of life along with it. Continue reading

What makes languages different? Part Two: Signals and Understanding

When we speak, we emit signals1,2, mostly audible ones – although we shouldn’t ignore the accompanying body language that forms the visual part. These signals are formed – encoded – from the items in the mental lexicon. It’s quite astonishing, in fact: whatever form a lexicon item takes in our minds, it’s translated into a hugely complex choreography of many-many muscles in our body3. The conversion of an electric signal into sound – the job of a loudspeaker4 – is much more direct and much simpler.

When we hear speech, we receive the audible signal that is created through that immensely complex dance of muscles. Our brain needs to match this signal against the mental lexicon, finding a combination of items that are similar enough to what we just heard. So, on the receiving end the audio signal is translated into something conceptual, and on the transmitting end (the source), the conceptual items translate into body movements. No wonder we need two very different regions in our brains for that, one to understand, and another to form (produce) speech. This also partly explains why we understand things we don’t deliberately speak. Continue reading

What makes languages different? Part One: Language and languages

They say there were 6,909 different registered languages in the world as of 2009 (source: Ethnologue, SIL International, 2009). But there are many aspects that make us decide that two different individuals speak two different languages. One of these aspects is how well the two of them can understand each other (or if they can understand each other at all). Another aspect is when the two individuals declare that they speak two different tongues, even while they understand each other without a problem. The latter is the identity aspect, which quickly becomes a language policy dimension, escalating to all-round politics, sometimes with wars fought about it.

I will deliberately ignore this latter dimension, and focus on how well those two individuals understand each other. This is where technology can help us. As to technology helping politics, I would not go so far as to envisage some sort of a clever decision-planning computer, simply because I can’t imagine it. On the other hand, war is something that technology can assist pretty well.

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Dreamers and Doers

This blog is about language and technology. Not language technology, although at first I plan to explore what people dreamed up and crafted through history to bring down language barriers. Hence the title ‘Dreamers and doers’ – I see development as a whirlwind where dreams and actions endlessly spin around each other. Later, we might also look at how language influenced the development of technology (or if we can talk about development at all), but first, let’s just think of this:

Language has immense power: to name things. Once you can name things, you can talk to others about it, and then several people together might even create them. Just think: humans, through language, can name things that don’t exist in the physical world – and the moment you name one such thing it is brought into existence. Maybe not in a tangible form, but it will exist.

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