Language and Its Children

Language is a wonderful thing -- without it I wouldn't be able to have these thoughts, let alone communicate them to you.

It's so wonderful that we sometimes forget how measly it is: setting aside intonation and gesture, which only exist in spoken language, it purely consists of the arrangement of a finite set of characters in various finite lists.

How amazing that these finite arrangements, these encodings, can serve as such a powerful tool for communication and coordination among intelligences!

But language also has its limitations, and our future may hold some better tools.

Lessons from Lojban

One of the most interesting languages on Earth is Lojban, which is a written and spoken language for everyday informal communication that has a syntax and semantics based on predicate logic (a form of mathematical logic). Lojban is precisely parse-able in the same way as a computer programming language, yet can be used to communicate everyday things between people.

mi cu tavla do la lojban

("I speak Lojban to you")

One of the lessons Lojban has to teach us is where language gets its communicative power. The difference between Lojban and mathematics is that, in Lojban, even though the syntax is mathematically defined and the general semantic relationships between elements of a sentence are mathematically defined, the relationships between words and the world are left informal.

Lojban attempts to make words as precise as possible -- for instance, instead of a vague word like "write" there are separate words for "authoring" a book versus "scribing" a book (i.e. typing it or writing it out by hand). But there are limits. Ultimately, even in Lojban, the significance of a word in a context has to be figured out via nonlinguistic reasoning or intuition.

What this tells us is: language exists to channel and direct nonlinguistic understanding among minds with a shared understanding of a commonly perceived reality. It doesn't exactly "describe" reality -- it serves as a tool that members of a community can use to coordinate and channel their shared, internal descriptions of reality.

Limitations of Language

And language has profound limitations. Not all aspects of shared understanding can effectively be channeled through language.

Even accounting for the power of love poetry -- still, love is best communicated nonverbally. (Language seems to do a better job of communicating love when coupled with music; hence the popularity of love songs.) So are many other emotions and aspects of interpersonal relationships.

"Mathematical maturity" -- the ability to approach complex math proofs in an appropriate way -- is best communicated via example and via cooperation in theorem-proving, rather than by linguistic explanation.

Beyond Language

It seems likely that as transhumanity unfolds, language as we now understand it will become a thing of the past. Direct mind-to-mind transmission of information will be the most likely replacement.

Different minds have different internal vocabularies, and so there may emerge "intermediary minds" serving as common conceptual vocabularies, so that two vary different minds can communicate by exchanging thoughts via an intermediary. One could think of this as a kind of "Psynese" language, but it would be very different than anything we call "language" today.

Writing a book like this makes me acutely aware of the limitations of language. How much more fun, and useful, it would be if I could transmit the underlying thoughts more directly into your mind!

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