Tower Of Babel Still

If language evolved to allow us to exchange information, how come most people cannot understand what most other people are saying? This perennial question was famously addressed in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel. … The real puzzle is that the greatest diversity of human societies and languages arises not where people are most spread out, but where they are most closely packed together. Papua New Guinea is a classic case. That relatively small land mass – only slightly larger than California – is home to between 800 and 1000 distinct languages, or around 15 per cent of all languages spoken on the planet. This linguistic diversity is not the result of migration and physical isolation of different populations. Instead, people living in close quarters seem to have chosen to separate into many distinct societies, leading lives so separate that they have become incapable of talking to one another. Why? …

Languages act as powerful social anchors of our tribal identity. … distinct languages are an effective way to prevent eavesdropping or the loss of important information to a competitor. In support of this idea, I have found anthropological accounts of tribes deciding to change their language, with immediate effect, for no other reason than to distinguish themselves from neighbouring groups. …

Today, around 1.2 billion people – about 1 in 6 of us – speak Mandarin. Next come Spanish and English with about 400 million speakers each, and Bengali and Hindi follow close behind. (more)

Today much larger communities speak the same “language” in the sense of speaking English or Mandarin. But when it comes to the higher levels of specialized terminologies, styles of analysis, prototypical examples, etc. that naturally arise in different communities, organizations, and disciplines, it seems to me that a Tower of Babel still reigns. People quite often find it prohibitively hard to talk merely because different groups have gotten into the habit of talking differently, even though their concepts could be translated without great difficulty. And members of these groups often go out of their way to signal group loyalty by choosing to talk differently than outsiders.

The world fails dramatically to coordinate on language, both at the basic English-like level, and at these higher levels. Sometimes a nation will push hard to get everyone in the nation to speak the same basic language, in order to strengthen national solidarity. But beyond that, there is very little government effort to try to coordinate on language. Which just shows how hard is coordination, and how little of government is about coordination.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=599840205 Christian Kleineidam

    The German government reformed the way we write around a decade ago. In the EU terms like biofood also get defined by the government. 

    Both Japan and China had some government push to reduce the amount of signs in their language. 

    • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

       > Both Japan and China had some government push to reduce the amount of signs in their language.

      I think Robin writes off those language standardization efforts (which date at least back to the Meiji in Japan and Qing in China, or Qin if you want to go really far back) as being just “Sometimes a nation will push hard to get everyone in the nation to speak
      the same basic language, in order to strengthen national solidarity”.

      Personally, I’m not sure how much we *should* expect to see countries abandon their ancestral languages, such that any level of linguistic fragmentation is blatantly irrational; consider the costs, they’re abandoning their entire history, which is of high value to them. There were serious proposals by some Meiji-era intellectuals to switch Japan to English, period, but they never had a chance because it would’ve meant turning their backs on their entire literature, history, and installed language base.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=599840205 Christian Kleineidam

        As far as I understood the purpose of the Chinese/Japanese efforts was to make it easier to become literate in those languages.
        It wasn’t about preventing people from speaking other languages.

        When it comes to pushing to get everyone to speak the same language I rather think about events in countries like Turkey, where Kurdish people get forced to speak some Turkish.

      • CarlosFM

        I don’t know for Japan.

        In China the push for standardizing the script was to restore order (Qing). Several languages used the same written script, and they (the confucians anyway) wanted each object to have a unique and proper name, else political chaos would take over.

        In the 20th century script was modernized as to make reading/writting easier.

        Even today China is far from being a (spoken) unilingual country. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

         ”I think Robin writes off those language standardization efforts as being just “Sometimes a nation will
        push hard to get everyone in the nation to speak
        the same basic language, in order to strengthen national solidarity”.

        I don’t see the point. It might have that *motivation*, but then it still might have the side-effect of enhancing communication.

      • AspiringRationalist

        Actually, the Simplified Chinese character set was a created as a government effort specifically to increase the literacy rate by making the writing system easier to learn.

  • Doug

    “ But when it comes to the higher levels of specialized terminologies, styles of analysis, prototypical examples, etc. that naturally arise in different communities, organizations, and disciplines, it seems to me that a Tower of Babel still reigns.”

    High-level workers frequently have to deal with very abstract concepts for which the existing vocabulary is often insufficient. They deal with it by ad-hoc adapting new words and terms to try to establish a common language to describe their specific domain. 

    If you’ve ever done large-scale computer programming you’ll know what I’m talking about from the challenge of assigning clear and descriptive names to variables, functions and classes.

    Try to fit the description that this do-hickey here checks the data for any changes, if its changed compares it against the cache, merges the differences if there are any then pushes it to either the database if its running on a top-level node or to its parent node if its not, (checking to see if its parent is running and pushing to its alternative if not).

    So instead the development team, which has to do this operation all the time in many related contexts. So they might appropriate the relatively descriptive work “intermix” to describe this. They’re somewhat using the original meaning of intermix, but they’ve just loaded with a lot of specific connotations, and separated their groups language ever so slightly from common English.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond
    People quite often find it prohibitively hard to talk merely because different groups have gotten into the habit of talking differently, even though their concepts could be translated without great difficulty. And members of these groups often go out of their way to signal group loyalty by choosing to talk differently than outsiders.

    An excellent description of Less Wrong style “rationalism.” Eliezer Yudkowsky has made a career of inventing novel terms for commonsense concepts.

    • Nancy Lebovitz

      Examples?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

         ”Taboo”: Replace an equivocal term by an unequivocal term

        “Not even false”: Illogical

        “update priors”: Reconsider beliefs after getting new information

        “win”: get what you want

      • Richard4

        “Not even false” does *not* mean illogical. Also, the phrase is “not even wrong,” not “not even false.” Yudkowsky didn’t invent it, it is a common saying in physics that dates back at least half a century:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_even_wrong

        Yudkowsky didn’t invent the terms “taboo” or “update your priors;” they come from Hasbro and standard math, respectively.

        “Win” is an English word. Yudkowsky is using it as an English word, with the exact normal definition. Do you have a problem with this?

      • Patrick Robotham

         You don’t update priors, you update posteriors! *mutters about insufficient group loyalty*

        I do agree that “reconsider” is a hell of a lot less pretentious than “update”, humans aren’t AI’s after all.

    • warpinsf

      How would you phrase the bolded text without novel terms?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        I don’t think it’s possible. Signaling theory is a substantive theoretical innovation–unlike, say, “tabooing.”

        However, even with a legitimate technical term like signaling, there’s a danger with jargon of substituting habitual phrases for thought. When you apply signaling theory to language differentiation, it’s valuable to ask the relevant question: if it is caused by signaling, what is the cost? A basic maxim of signaling theory is (seems to be) that signals must be costly.

        The answer tends to confirm the signaling explanation because linguistic differentiation is a costly signal. The conforming tribe member sacrifices his ability to communicate with those outside the tribe. It not only demonstrates his loyalty but renders him unable to coordinate with rivals.

        As with cultish intellectual movements.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=599840205 Christian Kleineidam

        If you want to signal high status than you need a costly signal. 

        If you just want to signal that you are a fan of a certain band, wearing a T-Shirt of the band is a very clear signal. No observer would think that you are lying about being a fan of the band because it’s not valuable to lie. 

      • Patrick Robotham

         ”And members of these groups often go out of their way to show off how loyal they are by talking differently to outsiders.”

      • warpinsf

        Yes, but “often go out of their way to show off how X they are” is essentially the wordy phrase “signalling” was created to replace.

    • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

       Sort of. Actually a lot of them are rather rarified concepts. And a fair chunk of it is caused by simply no knowing that there is an existing term. Ie re-invention of wheels rather than ingroup-signalling. Although the latter might explain why they don’t switch to the established terms.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

     

    But when it comes to the higher levels of specialized terminologies, styles of analysis, prototypical examples, etc. that naturally arise in different communities, organizations, and disciplines, it seems to me that a Tower of Babel still reigns. People quite often find it prohibitively hard to talk merely because different groups have gotten into the habit of talking differently, even though their concepts could be translated without great difficulty.

    But the most influential writers write in “classic prose” and resist the tribalist pressures and speak in a universal vocabulary. (On linguistic “formality” and status norms, see my http://tinyurl.com/4wx5mr6 )

    • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

       Sort of. Influential writers tend to write in a formal, official language rather than a street slang. OTOH, given academic specialisation, highly educated writers will also tend to write for an audience of specialists, with jargon to match.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5310494 Sam Dangremond

    Shaka, when the walls fell.

    • AnthonyC

      :)

  • http://twitter.com/mtraven sɹǝʌɐɹʇ ǝʞıɯ

    If language evolved to allow us to exchange information, how come most people cannot understand what most other people are saying? 

    For one thing, it probably didn’t evolve for that purpose. Language evolved out of animal signaling behaviors which are always more about strategic moves in survival and reproduction games than some kind of pure information exchange. 

    Thus the evolution of separate languages is completely to be expected given the tribal origins of human nature. Street slang, with its very obvious purpose of communicating within a community, excluding those not in the community, and signalling affiliation, is a better model of language than the journal article or whatever you think the ideal of langugae should be.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      The information exchange may not be pure, but animal signalling still falls under it. So there’s a combination of information theory and game theory going on, but for the human variety of animal and the rest, although I have to say humans can exchange far more reliable information per second than other species we know of.

  • Tim Tyler

    The internet seems likely to bring coordination on spoken language eventually – but it might take a while yet.

  • mjgeddes

    I’m more sure than ever that ALL the AGI problems are in fact entirely reducible to language problems , that is to say, the reason no AI has achieved general intelligence to date is the lack of a sufficiently deep standardized ontology.  

    The probability stuff scarcely scratches the surface of the deep ontology problem.  The categorizations and logical pinpointings are always PRIOR to probabilistic calculations.  I told you all so many times right here on this blog, it was all logical pinpointing (i.e categorization). 

    An entirely new general-purpose ‘language of thought’ needs to be built up from scratch, starting from a finite set of ontoogical ‘prims’, which constitute the basic ‘building blocks’ of thought.  Only logical pinpointing of the most primative categories of thought (the base categorizations used by  minds) can finally collapse the tower of babel.

    • Guest

       How exactly is the relative inability or ability of an AI to see and recognize objects – for instance – is related to language problems? The language exists for communication. Far more than language specific areas light up on fMRI when humans solve problems. Damage to language specific areas can leave cognition mostly intact.

      • mjgeddes

        My usage of the word ‘language’ is in the most general sense to mean a representational system of manipulating concepts and logical relations.  So this would include mathematics, data modelling and ontology, ‘languages’ far more powerful than ordinary natural languages used for speaking. 

        Even such a low-level task as object recognition can be reinterpreted as a language problem in this more general sense, by using the notion of ‘logical pinpointing’ (moving from abstract to ever more specific systems of logic) and viewing computation as a model (or simulation) of reality (with the program and data models constituting the ‘language’).

         

    • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

      “The probability stuff scarcely scratches the surface of the deep
      ontology problem.  The categorizations and logical pinpointings are
      always PRIOR to probabilistic calculations. ”

      Strongly agree. The LW approach is misplaced effort. They obsess about numbers and calculations, but that is no use until you have got the conceptual map sorted.

      “An entirely new general-purpose ‘language of thought’ needs to be built
      up from scratch, starting from a finite set of ontological ‘prims’, which
      constitute the basic ‘building blocks’ of thought. ”

      Strongly disagree. People have been trying to come up with unequivocal thought-languages for centuries, and none of them managed to transcend their own world view. (A 17thC version had God as a fundamental category. Do you see LW buying that?)
      You can’t start from omniscience. *General* intelligence has to be fluid, flexible intelligence, not intelligence that’s constrained to one ontology..or one way of calculating probabilities, for that matter.

      • mjgeddes

        >People have been trying to come up with unequivocal thought-languages for centuries, and none of them managed to transcend their own world view.

        The problem was that none of these people were me.  Are you sure I haven’t already done it? ;)

        >You can’t start from omniscience.

        You can’t start from a blank slate either. 

        >*General* intelligence has to be fluid, flexible intelligence, not intelligence that’s constrained to one ontology..

         But that’s exactly why you need a sufficiently general built-in ontological framework to start with.  Not one based on a fixed ontology with neccessary definitions, but an open-ended one based on prototypes.

      • Peterdjones

         ”You can’t start from a blank slate either.”

        And as for false dichotomies…:-)

        “Not one based on a fixed ontology with neccessary definitions, but an open-ended one based on prototypes.”

        A maximally general ontology would be “stuff exists”. The more general you make it, the less informational content it has. How much use is something with minimal informational content?

        –PDJ

      • mjgeddes

        >A maximally general ontology would be “stuff exists”. The more general you make it, the less informational content it has. How much use is something with minimal informational content?
        –PDJ

        Yes, we obviously don’t want something with minimal informational content.  But that’s not what I was suggesting.

        Recall the context of what we were talking about.  That was minds/artificial intelligence.  I wanted an ontology sufficiently general to cover the domain ‘minds’,  NOT an ontology concerned with the more nebulous domain ‘reality’.  So that does change the game somewhat.

        We can then ask what ontology is maximally general within the context of the domain ‘intelligent minds’ and this question is one which doesn’t fall into the trap of minimal information content. 

        To sum up: We looking for a language sufficiently general to fully describe the domain ’intelligent minds’.  This is all we need, because this would include all thoughts that minds could ever think about reality.

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  • Arch1

    Fragmentation within a nominally identical language is driven by many factors, which are unlikely to all go away soon.  The first three examples which came to my mind (tennis fans using “pace” for “speed”, religious people using “faith” for “superstition”, and baseball fans using “philosopher” for “one who can think reflectively”) seem mostly to happen for different reasons (signalling group membership, PR/perception, group vs public norms)

  • Muga Sofer

    > But when it comes to the higher levels of specialized terminologies, styles of analysis, prototypical examples, etc. that naturally arise in different communities, organizations, and disciplines, it seems to me that a Tower of Babel still reigns. People quite often find it prohibitively hard to talk merely because different groups have gotten into the habit of talking differently, even though their concepts could be translated without great difficulty. And members of these groups often go out of their way to signal group loyalty by choosing to talk differently than outsiders.

    Anyone else immediately think of LessWrong?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

    “. Sometimes a nation will push hard to get everyone in the nation to
    speak the same basic language, in order to strengthen national
    solidarity”

    I think that is actually usual, not “sometimes”. Pretty much everything we call a language is a set of dialects, and pretty much every nation teaches a standard or official dialect in schools. Standard Spanish is Castillian, standard German is the Prussian dialect, and so on.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    Reading a Smithsonian article reminded me: why do you say that this is a problem when the 20th and 21st century have witnessed the deaths of many languages with thousands of language extinctions estimated in the future?

    “The general consensus is that there are between 6000[2] and 7000 languages currently spoken, and that between 50-90% of those will have become extinct by the year 2100.[1]” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endangered_language or: “The top 20 languages
    spoken by more than 50 million speakers each, are spoken by 50% of the
    world’s population, whereas many of the other languages are spoken by
    small communities, most of them with less than 10,000 speakers.”

    Isn’t this exactly what you would expect on economic and coordination grounds? With an increasingly developed global economy, small languages lose their benefits compared to the opportunity costs, with ever more coordination on a few very widespread languages and a single lingua franca, while medium size languages poke along and the top languages enjoy outsized benefits (consider how many people speak any form of English even after the fall of the English Empire).