Empire and Language, and a Strange Future Imagined

It’s pricey, but Guardian Unlimited Books | By genre | Review: Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler looks interesting to me.

The original link is from Conservative blog for peace, where the posted muses on the possible fate of the English language. Me, I enjoyed the moment in Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire when an old Polish (I think it was) photographic artist stated plainly something like, “English? Nobody writes poetry in English anymore.” Sterling writes that the poetry fell out of English when it (futuristically) really became the global language, and from then on people turned to their vernaculars for poetry. No word on what Anglophones would resort to, of course.

As for me, I think English will go strong for a while, and probably morph a lot if it is to remain the global language. Soon arguments about whether this or that regional dialect is really English will become as relevant as arguments about whether French or Portuguese is “better Latin” now seem to us. Of course, depending on future technological developments—not machine translation technology per se, but the development of AI, which is the only thing that will enable machine translation to produce anything other than garble—English may no longer need to be studied so widely, and all other languages may just continue as they are.

However, imagine the development of really smart AI-driven machine translation, cheap and affordable enough for anyone to use. The possibilities for the fate of language seem even more striking. If good AI-driven autotranslation is available between languages, between dialects, and even smoothing over or translating/simulating regionalisms (reconstructing Alabaman-styled speech where Alabaman idioms are replaced with New Englander idioms—meaning, using standard speech where necessary, and sometimes inserting idioms where the original speech had none, to make up for the loss of the original idioms, and more importantly to imply tone and attitude and level of formality, etc.)…

Wait, I know. This is all a really big if. It would depend on an AI that “knew” and “understood” an individual’s speech habits intimately—in other words, a tool that had been “trained” to its individual user. Still, imagine such a thing were to develop. Would it not also be possible that the machine could translate directly across personal linguistic idiosyncracies? And if that machine were able to automatically interface with anothers’ machine, and assuming that some kind of deep-structured, highly contextual logic/meaning lexicon—both perhaps using an intermediate lexicon, something like a massive, highly sophisticated and flexible version of MIDI applied to concepts and meanings—it seems possible that ambiguity could actually be literally minimized.

Which would mean people could talk even worse than they do now, and still be understood.

Then again, I imagine a Republican and a Democrat using such machines to communicate, and imagine a lot of smoke and maybe an explosion. Though, hey, if Korean-to-English and Korean-to-Arabic could be reasonably done, allowing for the need for basic cultural awareness, maybe Republican-Democrat could be coded, as well. Maybe.

It’s a strange notion, of course, since considering it generally, I can’t imagine whether the net total of language diversity would increase—via an increase in idiosyncracy, easily translated—or decrease—because of less raw, direct interaction with others’ idiosyncratic use of language. I do imagine the writing of poetry wuold be difficult of all language experience were mediated in this way, though. I daresay it might be impossible. I also can’t decide whether it smacks of prescriptivism or not… in fact, it seems to me a kind of foregoing of language altogether, a kind of quasi-telepathy. Would it be an impoverishment? I would think so, being so interested in the particularities of expression as—in my writerly way—I am. But I imagine a lot of people would think it an improvement.

I wonder what someone like languagehat would think about such a device, were it to develop. He sure hates prescriptivism (scroll down after following this link), and I imagine he’d see it thick here. And I’m certain he’d see it as an improverishment, too.

Ah well, I think it would be basically impossible for flesh-and-blood people anyway. (Though I vaguely recall Ray Kurzweil positing some kind of version of his in one of his books, as a natural thing to develop in a society of AIs.) Seems to me that the removal of the possibility for misunderstanding, for particularized expression in language, would be more an impoverishment than an enrichment of thought and communication. Then again, should this be surprising? MIDI is useful for certain things, but it has never compared to a real acoustic musical instrument.

Then again, MIDI’s far from perfected. Who knows what could be developed? If you believe Donald Merlin’s take on language evolution (as I posted about here), then all the ambiguity is something like an imperfection in something that—okay, originally—could have developed as a system of “dismbiguation” of gestural communication within early human cultures, to use Merlin’s word. Not that we can’t enjoy it for all its strange beauty and coolness, but it seems unsurprising that a move to make it even less ambiguous could come in the future.

Ah, futurity…

UPDATE: As it would have it, Languagehat posts on some interesting sites with other SFnal takes on futuristic language change (and other goodies)!

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