25 October 2010

Why English is a poor international language.

English is now the international language of trade and commerce, but it's not fit for purpose.  That's not to say any other language genuinely is either.  For all the spelling quirks, inconsistent borrowings and weird pronunciations in English, the most important problem, to my mind, is the result of the natural evolution of language.

Language evolved to be spoken, for face-to-face communication.  It's only modern technology that has allowed remote communications (written and by telephone) to really take off.

Languages take advantage of the face-to-face medium implicitly.  We have three grammatical "persons".  The first is who is speaking, the second is who is being spoken to, the third is anybody else -- absolutely anybody else.

To me, this is one of the concrete physical underpinnings of language, which is not as abstract as some would like to think.

Ramachandran and Hubbard put forward the case for language as a synaesthetic phenomenon.  Even if this is overstating the case, their theory uses the proximity of the auditory parts of the brain with the parts involved in physical movements.  Signers have often held that they are not "reading" or "writing" when they engage in a sign-language conversation, but speaking, and it has long been accepted that sign languages are genuine languages, not mere abstract codes.  Other academics than Ramachandran and Hubbard that language was a series of gestures, but that they just happened to be gestures of the mouth.  Ramachandran and Hubbard merely suggest a mechanism that would allow us to perceive these gestures in the absence of visual data.

But I'm at risk of digressing here, as this theory is something I find absolutely fascinating.

The 1st, 2nd, 3rd distinction is not just about people, but also more generally about location.  Many languages have 3 words where English only has "here" and "there".  If you think about it, "here" is "where I am".  "There" is merely anywhere that I am not.  However, in Gaelic, "an seo" is where I am, "an sin" is where you are, and "an siud" is where neither of us are -- a "third place", effectively.  In older English we had "here", "there" and "yonder", and we still have remnants of this distinction in the phrase "this, that and the other".

This is where the physicality comes in.  When we talk face to face, I can point to "you" and "me" unambiguously, but third parties would be a vague wave off to one side.  Now, because you can see me, and I can see you, we know lots about who's speaking, not least of which is gender.  Very few languages encode gender in their 1st and 2nd plural pronouns because it's not information that really is particularly useful. But in the 3rd person, it helps a great deal, because it helps us categorise and reduce the number of potential candidates.  It lets us talk about 2 people without confusing them, if they happen to be of a different sex -- so he says, and she says, and he says...

But now on the internet, with text based communications and screen-names that are often not real names and give no clues about gender, what are we to do?  In French, it's possible that someone would give themselves away by using a gender-specific adjective, but these are vanishingly rare in English.  So when I refer to someone else's comments, I often end up arbitrarily ascribing a gender to them.  And it's normally male, which often winds up women.

This alone can be sorted by using a truly ungendered language (Quechua as the new language of the internet, anyone?) but there's another problem that slips a lot of people by: in text-based conversations, "you" is also prone to misinterpretation.

Think about it.  I can't see you.  You can't see me.  Am I really talking to you?  Perhaps I'm talking to someone else, and calling him (or her!) "you".  But you think I'm talking to you, because you're seeing that word "you" and there's no reason to think it's someone else.  In the physical world, you would hear me saying "you" and you would see whether I was looking at you as I said it or not.  In the internet there is no physical relationship, no "pointing", so the boundary between 2nd and 3rd person has been completely broken.  This leads to confusion and unnecessary offense so often, not just on the text-based side of the internet, but in conference calls too.

I've been on phone conferences where someone's asked a question to "you", and no-one has answered because they all think it's someone else who is being addressed.  In language classes, a teacher will start by asking "how are you?" to the whole class, and everyone will answer in turn, but on an internet tutorial, the latest joiner appears to assume that the question was addressed to him only, and starts a conversation.

A true "remote" language would have to have a radically different structure, and perhaps people would reject it.  What would it be?

Maybe it would just be a matter of collapsing second and third into one.  This is already how many IE languages handle politeness.  Even in English, we are somewhat familiar with the idea of speaking about the 2nd person in the 3rd person, even if only in posh restaurants and in period drama.  "Does sir want to see the menu?" "Is sir ready to order?"

Another option would be to maintain the 1st, 2nd, 3rd distinction, but (and this takes a bit of getting your head round) remove the "you" from the 2nd person singular and require that the person's name is used instead.  "Do John want to see the menu?" "Are John ready to order?"

But what would have happened to language if humans had originally evolved in a conference call environment?  This really messes with your head.

I suspect we would have had a 3 person distinction -- 1: me, 2: anyone on the call, 3: anyone not on the call -- but augmented by a some manner of direct address vs reference in the 2nd, so that I can ask a question to a person in the call and refer to something someone else in the call said without ambiguity.  So that's actually 4 persons.  I think.  My head hurts.

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