Tag Archives: Language

A Post-Em-Era Hint

A few months ago I noticed a pattern across the past eras of forager, farmer industry: each era has a major cycle (ice ages, empires rise & fall, business cycle) with a period of about one third of that era’s doubling time. So I tentatively suggested that a em future might also have a major cycle of roughly one third of its doubling time. If that economic doubling time is about a month, the em major cycle period might be about a week.

Now I report another pattern, to be treated similarly. In roughly the middle of each past era, a pair of major innovations in calculating and communicating appeared, and gradually went from barely existing to having big social impacts.

  • Forager: At unknown periods during the roughly two million year forager era, humanoids evolved reasoning and language. That is, we became able to think about and say many complex things to each other, including our reasons for and against claims.
  • Farmer: While the farming era lasted roughly 7 to 10 millennia, the first known writing was 5 millennia ago, and the first known math textbooks 4 millennia ago. About 2.5 millennia ago writing became widespread enough to induce major religious changes worldwide.
  • Industry: While the industry era has lasted roughly 16 to 24 decades, depending on how you count, the telegraph was developed 18 decades ago, and the wholesale switch from mechanical to digital electronic communication happened 4 to 6 decades ago. The idea of the computer was described 20 decades ago, the first digital computer was made 7 decades ago, and computers became widespread roughly 3 decades ago.

Note that innovations in calculation and communication were not independent, but instead intertwined with and enabled each other. Note also that these innovations did not change the growth rate of the world economy at the time; each era continued doubling at the same rate as before. But these innovations still seem essential to enabling the following era. It is hard to imagine farming before language and reasoning, nor industry before math and writing, nor ems before digital computers and communication.

This pattern weakly suggests that another pair of key innovations in calculation and communication may appear and then grow in importance across a wide middle of the em era. This era may only last a year or two in objective time, though typical ems may experience millennia during this time.

This innovation pair would be interdependent, not change the growth rate, and perhaps enable a new era to follow. I can think of two plausible candidates:

  1. Ems might discover a better language for expressing and manipulating something like brain states. This could help ems to share their thoughts and use auxiliary hardware to help calculate useful thoughts.
  2. Ems might develop analogues to combinatorial prediction markets, and thus better share beliefs and aggregate information on a wide range of topics.

(Or maybe the innovation produces some combination of these.) Again, these are crude speculations based on a weak inference from a rough pattern in only three data points. But even so, they give us a vague hint about what an age after ems might look like. And such hints are actually pretty hard to find.

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The Future of Language

More from Henrich’s The Secret Of Our Success:

Linguists and linguistic anthropologists .. have often assumed that all languages are more or less equal, along all the dimensions that we might care about – equally learnable, efficient, and expressive. .. Recently .. cracks in these intellectual barricades have begun to multiply. .. Like [other kinds of cultural] toolkits, the size and interconnectedness of populations favors culturally evolving and sustaining larger vocabularies, more phonemes, shorter words, and certain kinds of more complex grammatical tools, like subordinating conjunctions. (p. 233, 259)

The most ancient languages we know of are visibly impoverished compared to modern languages today. It just takes longer to say similar complex things in those languages. Assuming that the size and interconnectedness of populations speaking the main languages continues to increase into the future (as they do in my em scenario), we can make some obvious predictions about future languages.

Future languages should make more distinctions such as between colors, and have larger vocabularies, more phonemes, and shorter words. They should also have more grammatical tools such as adjectives, tenses, prepositions, pronouns, and subordinating conjunctions. Technology to assist us in more clearly hearing the words that others speak should also push to increase the number of phonemes, and thus shorten future words.

For obvious reasons, science fiction almost always fails to show these features of future language.

If you search for “future of language” you’ll find many articles noting that the world is losing many unpopular languages, and speculating on which of today’s languages will be the most popular later. And this creative attempt to guess specific changes. But oddly I can’t find any articles that discuss the basic trends I mention above.

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Is `Libby’ A Slur?

I recently used the the word “Jews” in a draft, and someone suggested that might be offensive, and that I should instead used something like “people of Jewish descent.” I asked around, and while most people didn’t see any offense, at least a few thought that a few others would take offense.

I suspect people are using a simple signaling heuristic here. When people insult or denigrate something they tend to do so with short familiar easy to say and understand words and phrases. So when other people want to signal that they do not intend to insult or denigrate something, they instead choose long awkward words and phrases.

Also, it is probably in fact easier for listeners to unthinkingly apply stereotypes when they hear short easy words and phrases. There is less time for thought, and less thought is needed. In contrast, long awkward words and phrases directly invite more conscious reflection on what is being said. In addition, using a noun rather than an adjective to indicate a feature may invite listeners to see that feature as more essential.

This fits with many racial and ethnic slurs and their “politically correct” alternatives. For example, “African american” is less short and easy than “black” or “negro” (which is just “black” in Spanish). And “a Chinese person” is apparently less likely to offend than “a Chinese”.

I’ve been involved in several communities specialized in concepts associated with these relatively easy words: “nanotech”, “transhuman”, and “singularity.” When their concept got popular and used much by others, insiders lost control over their words’ public associations. In each case, insiders then began media campaigns to try to substitute another new phrase.

The new phrases were: “atomically-precise manufacturing”, “humanity plus” and “artificial intelligence risk”. In each case, the new approved phrases were longer and more awkward, and so less likely to be used by a wider public. But even if these new phrases never caught on with outsiders, insiders could still use them to signal loyalty to these groups.

We can also note the related phenomena of people preferring long awkward titles for their jobs, like “Vice President of Social Advertising Media and Sales”. And academics often prefer long awkward names for academic theories and fields, like “construal level theory” instead of “near/far effects”.

While I understand this overall urge, I feel inclined to usually resist it. After all, the more groups for which we use long awkward phrases to show that we are not insulting them, the longer and more awkward our communication becomes. And if we are not willing to treat all groups this way, then our signals become relative – we must end up showing that we care more about not insulting some groups than we do about other groups.

Libertarians may think themselves immune from this. But I’d guess that if libertarians were often called “libbies”, and if that word were often used within insults and criticisms of libertarians, then libertarians might well get in the habit of saying that they felt insulted by that word, saying in effect “You insult us if you do not show your respect for us by using all five syllables of our official name.”

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Lost For Words, On Purpose

When we use words to say how we feel, the more relevant concepts and distinctions that we know, the more precisely we can express our feelings. So you might think that the number of relevant distinctions we can express on a topic rises with a topic’s importance. That is, the more we care about something, the more distinctions we can make about it.

But consider the two cases of food and love/sex (which I’m lumping together here). It seems to me that while these topics are of comparable importance, we have a lot more ways to clearly express distinctions on foods than on love/sex. So when people want to express feelings on love/sex, they often retreat to awkward analogies and suggestive poetry. Two different categories of explanations stand out here:

1) Love/sex is low dimensional. While we care a lot about love/sex, there are only a few things we care about. Consider money as an analogy. While money is important, and finance experts know a great many distinctions, for most people the key relevant distinction is usually more vs. less money; the rest is detail. Similarly, evolution theory suggests that only a small number of dimensions about love/sex matter much to us.

2) Clear love/sex talk looks bad.  Love/sex are to supposed to have lots of non-verbal talk, so a verbal focus can detract from that. We have a norm that love/sex is to be personal and private, a norm you might seem to violate via comfortable impersonal talk that could easily be understood if quoted. And if you only talk in private, you learn fewer words, and need them less. Also, a precise vocabulary used clearly could make it seem like what you wanted from love/sex was fungible – you aren’t so much attached to particular people as to the bundle of features they provide. Precise talk could make it easier for us to consciously know what we want when, which makes it harder to self-deceive about what we want. And having available more precise words about our love/sex relations could force us to acknowledge smaller changes in relation status — if “love” is all there is, you can keep “loving” someone even as many things change.

It seems to me that both kinds of things must be going on. Even when we care greatly about a topic, we may not care about many dimensions, and we may be better off not being able to express ourselves clearly.

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In Praise Of Profanity

Cursing … is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, whether living or dead, spoken by millions or by a single small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech. … The earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions. …

“Studies show that if you’re with a group of close friends, the more relaxed you are, the more you swear,” Burridge said. “It’s a way of saying: ‘I’m so comfortable here, I can let off steam. I can say whatever I like.’ ” Evidence also suggests that cursing can be an effective means of venting aggression and thereby forestalling physical violence. …

Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center. … Chimpanzees engage in what appears to be a kind of cursing match as a means of venting aggression and avoiding a potentially dangerous physical clash. (more)

My parents were very religious. They never drank alcohol, gambled, or used profanity. Since leaving them I’ve become comfortable with alcohol, and with gambling on important topics, but I’ve never been comfortable with profanity. Yet on refection, that is mostly a problem with me, not with profanity. Let me explain.

Traditionally, lower classes did hard physical labor, and as a result wore tough work clothes, and had skin that was callused, tanned, and wrinkled. Upper classes showed that they were too rich or skilled for such work by wearing fragile clothes and having soft smooth light skin. Similarly, upper classes have often nurtured polite language, avoidance of direct insult, and a heightened sensitivity and squeamishness on topics like sex or excrement. Such habits have helped the upper classes to contrast themselves with the tough and calloused attitudes of lower classes toward such things.

While upper classes have often portrayed lower class habits as due to ignorance of the universal benefits of politeness and sensitivity, lower class habits seem to me to in fact be functional adaptations to common environments. Just as it can be important to judge physical strength and toughness when allocating workers to hard physical labor, it can also be important to judge emotional toughness for tasks that may be emotionally stressful.

So lower class cultures tend to not only have more demonstrations of physical strength and toughness, including dangerous dares, fist fights, and excess drinking, such cultures also tend to have more direct and aggressive verbal challenges as well as profanity, insults, teasing, and taunting. People are even given nicknames that highlight their embarrassing weaknesses.

Such habits not only let lower class workers distinguish themselves from upper class managers and customers, they also help such workers to better express and gauge their physical and emotional weaknesses and strengths. This lets them better select and allocate people to tasks, and to push group members up to but not beyond their limits. So it makes sense that today profanity is more common in work groups that depend closely on one another, and who have high levels of physical and emotional stress. This includes surgeons, warriors, finance traders, movie makers, and restaurant servers.

Today, laws against sexual harassment, and wider monitoring of worker speech, discourage workplace profanity, in an apparent attempt to impose high class cultural standards on other classes. We should expect this to raise our status in the eyes of the world, even as it reduces the functionality of workgroups who strain against the limits of their capacities.

I also expect us to allow exceptions for work we consider to be especially important, like war and movies. I take recent increases in campus speech codes that basically ban any talk that anyone might offend anyone as further evidence that schools are more about signaling status than about gaining productivity.

If the world continues to get richer and more pampered, expect more rules against profanity in places that want to show themselves as high status. If, however, the world ever returns to really needing to get things done, expect any such rules to be mostly ignored, as people focus on productivity.

The em world scenario that I’ve been working on should have low wages, more competition, and work groups pushed to the limits of their emotional abilities, even as differences in physical abilities disappear. Em kids would also be rare, and rarely mix with adults. This all suggests that em work groups would more often adopt traditional working class habits, except emphasizing emotional over physical toughness. Em work groups will probably use lots of strongly emotional profanity, insults, and teasing.

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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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Missing Life-Lessons

We learn many things over the space of our lives. With language, we can share such things with many others distant in space and time. With such a fantastic capacity, you might think we humans would hardly ever have to learn anything important directly for ourselves. But while we do learn many things from textbooks and mentors, we are surprisingly bad at teaching the most important life lessons. Like, for example, what its like to be married a long time, how to stay married, and when that is worth the trouble.

One contributing factor is that folks, late in life, almost never write essays, or books, on “what I’ve learned about life.” It would only take a few pages, and would seem to offer great value to others early in their lives. Why the silence? Some possible explanations:

  1. People don’t actually learn much that can be abstracted from their life details.
  2. People don’t want to hear the truth, and they won’t find lies useful, so why bother.
  3. Young folks already think they know all the answers, so won’t listen.
  4. It seems arrogant to offer lessons from your life when few others do this.
  5. When folks write on their life, they care much more to brag about what they did.
  6. Useful lessons will suggest the author had average success, which is shameful.
  7. The lessons of folks with way above average success aren’t useful to average folks.
  8. People are too weak to write when they feel old enough to tell lessons.
  9. Few care what people will think of them after they are dead.
  10. Most lessons have been written, but few can be bothered to read them.

None of these explanations seem especially satisfactory. What’s going on?

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Slang Signals

From a review of the new book “The Life of Slang”:

“The arguments in favor of slang [are] about slang itself: it is vibrant, creative, and so on,” she writes. “These qualities might be attributed to slang-creators. The arguments against [are] largely about slang-users: they’re unintelligent and have limited vocabularies. And that’s one of the reasons why I find it hard to take sides in this argument: slang words often are witty and appealing, but not all slang-users are. On the other hand, slang-users might be perfectly charming were it not for their irritating repetition of tired slang words. …

What really sets slang apart from Standard English is the way it functions in social contexts: communicating meaning is often a secondary function for slang; it’s really for communicating attitudes and cementing relationships.”

Slang “creates in-groups and out-groups and acts as an emblem of belonging.” To Coleman, “the importance of slang in creating and maintaining a sense of group or personal identity” is paramount, and all the evidence supports her. Groups that have developed slang as a way of cementing their identity include the military, especially in the lower ranks. …

In sum, according to Coleman, “slang is an attitude (insolence, for example, coolness, disdain, admiration, or a desire for conformity) expressed in words.” … “Slang was once considered a sign of poor breeding or poor taste,” Coleman writes, “but now it indicates that the speaker is fun-loving, youthful, and in touch with the latest trends.” (more)

I suppose this helps explains why I’m not into slang. I want to talk to the widest possible audience, and to focus on timeless issues and insights, as opposed to the latest fashionable topics. I can see why people want to signal loyalty to their groups, especially in the military, but I have little confidence that this is good for the world as a whole.

While I have fun talking the way I do, that isn’t really what people mean by “fun-loving, youthful” – they mean more that if you were young you’d be sending the right signals about your being a good person for others to have fun with. You’d be a good person for the typical young person to have as a friend, associate, or lover. And that, I’m not.

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Near Is Warm, Relational

I had heard before: warm is near:

‘Holding warm feelings toward someone’’ and ‘‘giving someone the cold shoulder’’ indicate different levels of social proximity. In this article, we show effects of temperature that go beyond these metaphors people live by. In three experiments, warmer conditions, compared with colder conditions, induced (a) greater social proximity, (b) use of more concrete language, and (c) a more relational focus. Different temperature conditions were created by either handing participants warm or cold beverages (Experiment 1) or placing them in comfortable warm or cold ambient conditions (Experiments 2 and 3). (more; HT Eric Barker via Katja Grace)

I had not heard: in near mode we talk more about the relations between things, relative to their categories or properties:

An … argument found in cultural psychology suggests that cultures emphasizing interdependence (placing the self in general in social proximity to others) are more likely to emphasize relationships, whereas cultures emphasizing independence (placing the self in general in lower social proximity to others) are more likely to emphasize properties. Similar conclusions have been drawn in a wide array of research: Individuals from cultures emphasizing interdependence not only tend to categorize objects on the basis of interrelatedness, but also perceive Rorschach cards more as patterns and detect more changes in relationships between objects, compared with individuals from cultures emphasizing independence, who tend more to categorize objects on the basis of shared categories (and features), to focus on details, and to detect changes in central properties of objects. …

On the basis of this reasoning in cultural psychology, and the fact that warmer temperatures led to use of more concrete language in Experiment 2, we hypothesized that a warmer temperature would produce a greater focus on relationships, or interdependence, between objects portrayed in a perceptual focus task, and that this effect would be mediated by language use. … [Our data] analysis confirmed that participants in the warm condition had a greater relational perspective than participants in the cold condition.

See also more support for far being happy.

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Data On Sarcasm

Our capacities to communicate covertly, out of view of social reporting, are central to our abilities to coordinate to hypocritically pretend to support norms while actually evading them. Like laughter and eye-contact, sarcasm seems a central supporting skill. Here is some of what we know about sarcasm:

According to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. … Brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm. …

Lsten[ing] to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line, … students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. … The mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is [sometimes] perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. … “You’re distancing yourself, you’re making yourself superior,” Haiman says. “If you’re sincere all the time, you seem naive.” …

We’re more likely to use sarcasm with our friends than our enemies, … [New York students] were more likely [than Memphis students to suggest sarcastic jibes when asked to fill in the dialogue in a hypothetical conversation. Northerners also were more likely to think sarcasm was funny. …

Haiman lists more than two dozen ways that a speaker or a writer can indicate sarcasm with pitch, tone, volume, pauses, duration and punctuation. … Expressions around the mouth, as opposed to the eyes or eyebrows, were most often cited as a clue to a sarcastic statement. (more; HT David Brin)

Note that higher status and IQ cultures tend to use sarcasm more, just as smart folks tend to lie more, even though they are no better at discerning lies (source: Triver’s new book).

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