Context for the day: sunshine, clarity, reflection
A friend yesterday reminded me how valuable and important it is to take time to step back and reflect on one’s direction and focus. And how we should all do this more often. The meta-context was the value of sabbaticals, and the possibility for organizations to do the same thing. (For instance, from recent threads here: the chance for olpc pilots to reflect on their shared vision and principles, while considering how to pool resources; for wikimedia organs to reconsider their purpose; for OER visionaries to review what they want to help society accomplish.)
Today is an excellent day for this reflection – warm sun, tesselated waves, clear skies. I mean to see what I can sort and extrapolate from the wealth of raw individual ideas and motivations that I have seen over the last two weeks.
This context makes me want a more orderly family of terms to describe the form of analytical thought that includes strategy (military, corporate planning), systems thinking (systematics, synergetics), lateral thinking (thinking hats, parallel analysis), and pattern analysis (I Ching, oblique strategies, mesh decomposition). Now… where to file feature requests like this for one’s own language?
We still need better demographic data, and an understanding of our own sample biases, as this recent floatingsheep article indicates.
How to become a skilled language-crafting society
We like to think of humans as defined by being tool-users and language-users. But while we respect people who create new tools and languages, we don’t prioritize such work, nor have we developed fields that study how to become more efficient at developing, measuring, and improving theoretical tool and language designs and implementations.
There is the idea, in each case, that undirected evolution over time will sort out the best new tools or words or languages, organically producing [successful, widespread] inventions and [popular, widespread] terms that address all significant opportunities for us to become more effective [as tool- or language-users].
I’m not sure where this idea comes from. Three people whose thinking I admire have independently offered a version of this idea as a rationalization for why we the current level of interest in tool- and language-crafting is ‘optimal‘ or ‘sensible’. I think there are quick ways to quantify the extent to which this is not the case.
(As an example of this idea of default optimality: my clever linguist friend last night explained that there is a popular assumption in linguistics that “all living languages are equally good at transmitting all kinds of ideas,” modulo new vocabulary.)
As an example of quantifying what is missing: mathematics & physics in the last century have very actively started creating new collections of axioms, and trying to use them as a language to define what is known about math & the world. If one frames this as language-formation, it was consciously designing a better, more elegant, more expressive language — and designing one that is capable of explaining in simply terms new complex things that we observe or have discovered.
Stephen Wolfram makes the case that there are an enumerable number of different systems of logic (on the order of 50,000), and that we chose one fo these long ago which we’ve built up into moder mathematics and logic, and use to define which srots of theorems or proofs seem ‘elegant’ and ‘simple’ and can be derived quickly from its axioms. He suggests that choosing other systems of logic (and repeating the process of building out an infrastcuture of theorems and propositions) will provide fertile ground for further advances in understanding the universe. What I like most about this argument is the attempt to identify opportunities for understanding which we cannot yet approach conceptually, for lack of language to take us there.
One could do the same by moving backwards in the history of mathematics, trying to describe problems of broad modern interest without concepts and terms developed in the last 200 years. But in that case one could still imagine a single broad highway of ‘increasing sophistication’ along which we progress, adding more nuanced language as we go — when in contrast I feel that here, as in most walks of life, we have made a choice at some point to limit the building blocks of subtle communication, and are filling in the space of ideas that follows naturally from those early assumptions, but are no longer able to see what other building blocks would make possible. In particular, we have no way of estimating gaps in our understanding, or how to reach them.
So the question is: how do we reframe our development of languages outside of math so that we can start improving them consciously, measuring their effectiveness and acknowledging successes that we have discovered in the past through random-walk exploration? How do we merge the valuable properties of different spoken languages; create new auditory or visual languages; develop better sublanguages for effective communication in negotiation, love, large-scale collaboration? How can we use modern tools (wordnik, ngrams) to take control of the language-creation process, identifying trends and demands, and helping visualize new discoveries across all languages?
I sconded with a few amusing poems the other day in A Matter of Antics, to ensure that stellation of wordplay is preserved and highlighted for the long now — something along the lines of my older post on the perils of English pronunciation, Concordant Chaos. If you have a few moments, both are worth a read. See also the Language Log for ling.
The Tower of Babel : normalizing language representation
Part of a series on difficult topics from the Wikimedia community
There are some perennial projects that take more than a single barnraising to understand and plan for. One is the issue of supporting different languages equally — the world’s largest and smallest languages are both underrepresented among the projects. While I would like to see Wikimedia become a model for the rest of the online world in this area, how a global community can provide support, bugfixes, and advice to different/new language groups is an issue for many multilingual projects. So I offer these questions to all readers – feel free to answer them for the projects you are most familiar with.
- What technical and other support do various language projects need to become awesome?
- What variations are needed for projects whose main goal is language and cultural preservation?
- What sharing of advice or practices would make starting new projects easier?
- How can established projects help new projects with outreach, communication, and planning?
Let me offer one example of how this has been difficult to grasp within Wikimedia: discussions on the early international list were generally in English. This led to a certain founder effect among participants, and in how the projects are today framed to the world, from elaborations of the vision to interface design. And this has forked discussions of what language projects need – those in the language of the project, which can happen easily and fluidly among its participants and contributors, and those meta-discussions in one or two shared languages with the potential of setting Wikimedia-wide policy or affecting all projects.
What are your examples? What am I leaving out? How can the global community and the Foundation better support small and underrepresented languages? Feel free to leave links to current or historical discussions about problems and opportunities.