Messy world, messy languages

One human compulsion that fascinates me is the one to construct languages. Surely not everyone has this compulsion, but many do (there are hundreds of publicly documented- and many more privately documented- such languages, “artificial languages”). Reasons for constructing a language vary, but most constructed languages are created with hopes of somehow shaping their speakers’ thoughts.

In the seventeenth century, language invention was commonplace among intellectuals. One such intellectual was John Wilkins, who described his language as “a man-made language free from the ambiguity and imprecision that afflicted natural languages. It would directly represent concepts; it would reveal the truth” (Okrent, 2010, p. 24). In order to do so, he needed to know the basic units of meaning, or how concepts broke down, which necessitated distinguishing everything from everything that it is not, in turn necessitating a hierarchy of everything in the universe. However, as with almost every other constructed language, Wilkins’s language never gained popularity, nor did the many similar languages to follow, such as Newton’s.

Okrent points out a crucial problem with such languages that are based on their creators’ ideas of the true nature of the universe and everything within it: “when it comes to expressing ourselves, we need some fuzzy edges, a chance to discover what we’re trying to say even as we say it” (2010, p. 72-3).

This comment got me thinking: I can really only come up with 2 (related) commonalities among all natural languages (that I know of). First, they change over time. As every other aspect of their speakers’ lives and cultures evolve, so do the languages. Second, they have irregularities- mostly thanks to their evolution over time.

But the point of languages like Wilkins’ and Newton’s is that they don’t have irregularities and they don’t change, since the order of the universe, the basis for their languages, doesn’t change. This makes their languages inflexible. Maybe flexibility is crucial for the survival of a language. I think a lot about how “messy” (unpredictable, non-causal) life is, though we often try to ignore that and conceptualize it in neat terms (like: A leads to B). Since life is messy, maybe the languages we use in life need to be a little messy as well.

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