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.

On the conscious level, we experience the world through language. Aristotle, in Umberto Eco’s interpretation, says

“… being manifests itself to us right from the outset as an effect of language.” (Eco: Kant and the Platypus, 1999)

But we don’t stop here. When we speak, we act. In linguistics and philosophy, we talk of locutionary acts, or speech acts, actions that we perform by speaking. [The term ‘locutionary act’ was coined by philosopher John L. Austin in his work ‘How to Do Things with Words’ (1962).]

People of old understood this all too well. Take the Book of Genesis, for example. God speaks the name of things and then they spring into existence. But it’s not only that: later (in Genesis 2:19) he gives man a chance to exercise his power of language:

“The Lord God formed out of the ground every living animal of the field and every bird of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them, and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” [All Biblical references will use the so-called New English Translation.]

The trouble comes when we no longer get to use language, but we must face several different languages, mutually incomprehensible to each other. [There are a lot of fundamental differences between ‘language’ as such, and ‘languages’ as in the plural form, and we can also speak volumes about what makes languages different: I’ll dedicate at least one more post to that discussion.]

When there is language, but people speak in mutually incomprehensible languages, most of the creative power of language is stripped away. The co-operation that groups of humans need to create physical things is no longer possible. Some thought of this as a consequence of man’s original sin. Throughout history, we come across several legends where people aspire to become gods themselves, or at least attain equal footing with them – and then fail because God or the gods don’t allow it.

Probably the best-known of all those legends is the story of the Tower of Babel where God prevents humans from reaching Heaven, and prevents them by linguistic means:

“The whole earth had a common language and a common vocabulary.” [Genesis 11:1] Then: “And the Lord said, ‘If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them. Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.’”. [Genesis 11:6,7].

This story is so amazing that I must go deeper into it some other time. For now, suffice it to say that this perspective had a long-lasting cultural effect: even in 1975, George Steiner wrote his famous book about the linguistics of translation under the title ‘After Babel’, and there are several pieces of language technology that sport the name ‘Babel’ in a manner or another. Some even speculate that the English verb ‘babble’ has its etymology in the name of Babel or Babylon, although the most credible sources seem to know otherwise (see here and here).

It seems quite certain that the language barrier was not created like this. However, because the early Biblical stories are highly symbolic – and thus quite significant, in my opinion –, the Babel account (put in written form around 950 BC according to the documentary hypothesis) probably has to do with the original authors’ shock when they had encountered people who spoke differently.

There are several competing theories on how different languages came to exist originally (see here, but I’ll also write another post on this), some of them highly sensitive and political – because we have very limited evidence on how language itself emerged in those ancient times. But different languages can also evolve when a group separates from another, initially speaking the same language, and in time, the other group’s language diverges from the original one, often to the point of becoming incomprehensible for the original group. We have more and better evidence of the latter because such changes happened relatively recently. However, right now this is not the point.

The point is that crossing the language barrier, no matter how it came about, is hard work. It is difficult to learn a foreign language, and it is difficult to translate. It seems quite natural then that people, when they had realized they had to communicate in another language, also started to seek ways to make it easier.

Through history, those who were aware of the language barrier grasped it at two different levels. The practical ones – the doers – had accepted the difference in languages as a given, and took to learning foreign languages and translating for other people who didn’t learn them.

The dreamers in turn had looked at the language barrier from a moral or religious perspective, and started working to undo the consequences of what they saw as punishment for the original sin. Later, starting from the 17th century, scientific dreamers (mainly philosophers, mathematicians and authors of fiction) had also emerged. Although their motives were different, they were – and still are – aiming at the same result: to communicate with foreign or alien speakers with little or no effort.

The dreams often proved useful because they made some doers think differently. These doers then started the hard work of creating technology to ease the burden of learning, communicating in, or translating between different languages. The things doers created then caused new dreamers to dream new dreams.

Through this blog, I plan to recount the stories of dreaming and doing, always looking at how they lead up and relate to today’s language technologies. Since I want this to be as much a technology blog as a language blog, I’ll include stories of underlying technologies – writing (!), printing, telecommunications, computing, just to name a few.

The writings in here fulfill their purpose if readers who are strong with language and humanities gain a better grasp of technology – and, conversely, highly technical people get a better understanding of how language works for them and all of humanity.

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