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Akilah

Of The "Best" Language.

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Now, I presume we are all familiar with the proposition, "no language is better than another"; but, just as the proposition, "no culture is better than another culture" is false, so it for the language proposition. I.e., the standard by which a language is judged as "good" or "bad" is by its achievement of that function of a language; per Ayn Rand, "language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes" (IOE). And so, my question is thus, "what language performs that function of language the best"? 

 

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The distinguished linguist James McCawley wrote:

“I know of no one in linguistics who accepts the idea that the structure of one’s native language imposes limits on what thoughts one can think.”

For example, “all languages have simple ways of referring to the future, but they don’t necessarily use tenses of verbs for that purpose. Speakers of English are no better at thinking in terms of the future than are speakers of Chinese, which has no tense forms at all, nor any worse than speakers of Kikuyu, which has distinct near future and remote future tenses.”

These are excerpts from a letter on page 6 here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Joseph Conrad and Ayn Rand were two excellent novelists in the English language, even though it was not their native language. Rand was also able to express philosophical ideas well in English. However, among people I've personally known, I've found that if English was not their native language, they have trouble understanding and expressing philosophical ideas with precision in English. So although grasp and expression of some ideas might be inherently more direct or more roundabout in one language or another as one navigates reality with it, I suggest that one's greatest competence for grasping reality is, for most of us, our own native language.

Edited by Boydstun

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Latin is a wonderful language for abstract expression, and still very good for all the concrete stuff. And it helps with abstract understanding. But this is more because so many languages stem from it, not because it has special characteristics.

For the most part, most modern languages just have differences in the way you navigate words, as Stephen said. There is no best in that context, except your native language. There are some languages in the Amazon spoken by tribal communities, and some of those languages lack words for numbers beyond 2. This presents difficulties with dealing with counting, and ordering items (there is still some debate if this is due to the nature of the language, or due to the lack of education). If anything, this is how language was thousands of years ago; modern languages are much more advanced. 

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The question of “best language” has plagued (pestered) linguists for decades, the question being a plague because there are so many different purposes that could be used as the standard for evaluating. Admirably, you specify a particular function – converting concepts into concretes (not e.g. “physical efficiency”, “popularity” and so on). I think it would be advisable to say what it means to evaluate a language as a means of concretizing concepts. However, I have to disagree with Rand’s statement that the function of language is expressing concepts: it is expressing concepts and propositions. We don’t just utter words – “horse”, “eat” – we utter propositions – “I need to borrow your horse so I can get something to eat at the store”. What would it mean for a language to be good for this purpose, or bad?

If it were completely impossible in some language to express certain propositions (including contradictions), that would be a “bad language”. But every human language has that capacity. Differences between languages are not in terms of what can be somehow expressed, but in terms of computational efficiency. As an example, in North Saami, there is a word gabba which in a single word refers to “an all-white reindeer”. That language has a concept that is lacking in English: we can express the same thing, but it requires a more complex propositional arrangement (not just white, not entirely white; that color is then attributed to “reindeer”). So where Saami has more vocabulary in a certain domain, we can call on the resources of language rules (and can express “all-white pig; all-white house; all-white horse” and so on in an analogous fashion, where Saami does not have specific words for these other all-white things). Of course they can use the same rule-based mechanism as we do for expressing thoughts about all-white horses; they just have some additional concepts, befitting their particular circumstances.

Languages do differ substantially in their systems of rules in a way that might seem to relate to “goodness”. In some languages, the rules for putting words together are very transparent, general and simple (Turkish is usually the example brought out to illustrate that point), and in other languages, the rules are very complex and item-specific – English is on that end of the spectrum of complexity. For example, you know what “up” means, but it doesn’t mean that in collocations like “look up”, “take up”, “mess up”, “give up”.

While English is more chaotic in this respect, we still can convey all possible concepts and propositions using the resources of English. It’s just that we have to call on a larger set of more specific rules to do that. There is no real cognitive downside to having more rules that are more specific compared to some other language, as long as there are, in fact, rules in the language. If every proposition required its own rules, that would be a bad language, because you can express an unlimited number of propositions, but you can’t learn an unlimited set of rules.

Back to my question: what does it mean for a language to be good or bad for the purpose of expressing propositions?

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59 minutes ago, DavidOdden said:

The question of “best language” has plagued (pestered) linguists for decades, the question being a plague because there are so many different purposes that could be used as the standard for evaluating. Admirably, you specify a particular function – converting concepts into concretes (not e.g. “physical efficiency”, “popularity” and so on). I think it would be advisable to say what it means to evaluate a language as a means of concretizing concepts. However, I have to disagree with Rand’s statement that the function of language is expressing concepts: it is expressing concepts and propositions. We don’t just utter words – “horse”, “eat” – we utter propositions – “I need to borrow your horse so I can get something to eat at the store”. What would it mean for a language to be good for this purpose, or bad?

If it were completely impossible in some language to express certain propositions (including contradictions), that would be a “bad language”. But every human language has that capacity. Differences between languages are not in terms of what can be somehow expressed, but in terms of computational efficiency. As an example, in North Saami, there is a word gabba which in a single word refers to “an all-white reindeer”. That language has a concept that is lacking in English: we can express the same thing, but it requires a more complex propositional arrangement (not just white, not entirely white; that color is then attributed to “reindeer”). So where Saami has more vocabulary in a certain domain, we can call on the resources of language rules (and can express “all-white pig; all-white house; all-white horse” and so on in an analogous fashion, where Saami does not have specific words for these other all-white things). Of course they can use the same rule-based mechanism as we do for expressing thoughts about all-white horses; they just have some additional concepts, befitting their particular circumstances.

Languages do differ substantially in their systems of rules in a way that might seem to relate to “goodness”. In some languages, the rules for putting words together are very transparent, general and simple (Turkish is usually the example brought out to illustrate that point), and in other languages, the rules are very complex and item-specific – English is on that end of the spectrum of complexity. For example, you know what “up” means, but it doesn’t mean that in collocations like “look up”, “take up”, “mess up”, “give up”.

While English is more chaotic in this respect, we still can convey all possible concepts and propositions using the resources of English. It’s just that we have to call on a larger set of more specific rules to do that. There is no real cognitive downside to having more rules that are more specific compared to some other language, as long as there are, in fact, rules in the language. If every proposition required its own rules, that would be a bad language, because you can express an unlimited number of propositions, but you can’t learn an unlimited set of rules.

Back to my question: what does it mean for a language to be good or bad for the purpose of expressing propositions?

I think every language of sufficient complexity could be used to express ideas which are beyond everyday complexity and use of a language... but if a language included, as part of everyday usage, words which automatically express, clarify, or distinguish that extra complexity, then slightly more complex ideas are more straightforwardly communicable, and understandable.

Assuming all languages can express any idea with sufficient number of words and sentences,  then the economy of words and sentences with which a language can convey complex meaning is likely a good standard to judge languages, one against another.

 

That said, some conceptual conflations may be avoided if the language has inherently built in checks to avoid them.

I do not have any real world examples (I am no linguist) but I would assume if a language included modifiers to attach to nouns and such for everything previously experienced in reality, versus other modifiers to label nouns and such in connection with imagination or fiction or invention then that might be useful in orienting a mind toward distinguishing reality from fancy.

A language without the word form of "wish" (as a verb), as in mentally wishing something...  while doing nothing... might be equivalent to our lack of a common everyday single term designating something like: "casting a spell to do the impossible" or "using the force to move things" or "invoking a supernatural agency to effect some cause" (although "curse" or "bless" comes close to this last... two words I would also strike from the language if I could) ...  The term "wish" then might commonly be replaced with more sensible phrases (whose use causes some reflection regarding the validity of the sentiment): "if that were to happen it would make me happy", or "if I had the ability to somehow cause that to happen, I would act to do so", or "I really would prefer it if you would stop talking". or "I would be much happier if it were the case that reality was different from the way it actually is"

 

Again I have no real world examples, but since culture causes the evolution of language, a culture's philosophy and thinking inform and shape the commonly used words and phrases... so I would conjecture, a culture of rational thinkers would produce a better language.

 

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2 hours ago, DavidOdden said:

The question of “best language” has plagued (pestered) linguists for decades, the question being a plague because there are so many different purposes that could be used as the standard for evaluating. Admirably, you specify a particular function – converting concepts into concretes (not e.g. “physical efficiency”, “popularity” and so on). I think it would be advisable to say what it means to evaluate a language as a means of concretizing concepts. However, I have to disagree with Rand’s statement that the function of language is expressing concepts: it is expressing concepts and propositions. We don’t just utter words – “horse”, “eat” – we utter propositions – “I need to borrow your horse so I can get something to eat at the store”. What would it mean for a language to be good for this purpose, or bad?

If it were completely impossible in some language to express certain propositions (including contradictions), that would be a “bad language”. But every human language has that capacity. Differences between languages are not in terms of what can be somehow expressed, but in terms of computational efficiency. As an example, in North Saami, there is a word gabba which in a single word refers to “an all-white reindeer”. That language has a concept that is lacking in English: we can express the same thing, but it requires a more complex propositional arrangement (not just white, not entirely white; that color is then attributed to “reindeer”). So where Saami has more vocabulary in a certain domain, we can call on the resources of language rules (and can express “all-white pig; all-white house; all-white horse” and so on in an analogous fashion, where Saami does not have specific words for these other all-white things). Of course they can use the same rule-based mechanism as we do for expressing thoughts about all-white horses; they just have some additional concepts, befitting their particular circumstances.

Languages do differ substantially in their systems of rules in a way that might seem to relate to “goodness”. In some languages, the rules for putting words together are very transparent, general and simple (Turkish is usually the example brought out to illustrate that point), and in other languages, the rules are very complex and item-specific – English is on that end of the spectrum of complexity. For example, you know what “up” means, but it doesn’t mean that in collocations like “look up”, “take up”, “mess up”, “give up”.

While English is more chaotic in this respect, we still can convey all possible concepts and propositions using the resources of English. It’s just that we have to call on a larger set of more specific rules to do that. There is no real cognitive downside to having more rules that are more specific compared to some other language, as long as there are, in fact, rules in the language. If every proposition required its own rules, that would be a bad language, because you can express an unlimited number of propositions, but you can’t learn an unlimited set of rules.

Back to my question: what does it mean for a language to be good or bad for the purpose of expressing propositions?

 

1 hour ago, StrictlyLogical said:

I think every language of sufficient complexity could be used to express ideas which are beyond everyday complexity and use of a language... but if a language included, as part of everyday usage, words which automatically express, clarify, or distinguish that extra complexity, then slightly more complex ideas are more straightforwardly communicable, and understandable.

Assuming all languages can express any idea with sufficient number of words and sentences,  then the economy of words and sentences with which a language can convey complex meaning is likely a good standard to judge languages, one against another.

 

That said, some conceptual conflations may be avoided if the language has inherently built in checks to avoid them.

I do not have any real world examples (I am no linguist) but I would assume if a language included modifiers to attach to nouns and such for everything previously experienced in reality, versus other modifiers to label nouns and such in connection with imagination or fiction or invention then that might be useful in orienting a mind toward distinguishing reality from fancy.

A language without the word form of "wish" (as a verb), as in mentally wishing something...  while doing nothing... might be equivalent to our lack of a common everyday single term designating something like: "casting a spell to do the impossible" or "using the force to move things" or "invoking a supernatural agency to effect some cause" (although "curse" or "bless" comes close to this last... two words I would also strike from the language if I could) ...  The term "wish" then might commonly be replaced with more sensible phrases (whose use causes some reflection regarding the validity of the sentiment): "if that were to happen it would make me happy", or "if I had the ability to somehow cause that to happen, I would act to do so", or "I really would prefer it if you would stop talking". or "I would be much happier if it were the case that reality was different from the way it actually is"

 

Again I have no real world examples, but since culture causes the evolution of language, a culture's philosophy and thinking inform and shape the commonly used words and phrases... so I would conjecture, a culture of rational thinkers would produce a better language.

 

Okay, so let us suppose the premise, that, all languages can perform the function of a language by one way or another—the means matters not, so long as the process of conceptualization is able to be achieved.

Now, the only differentiating factor between languages then, is how they sound; i.e., Latin doesn't sound like Mandarin of which Mandarin doesn't sound like English—is language preference then just reduced to a matter of aesthetics? And if so, by what criterion does a Man judge this language better sounding than another? 

I absolutely love the way Latin sounds, and hate the way Mandarin sounds; but I cannot answer why that is, and whether it is rational. I have hypothesized it is because of the crisp, clear-cut sounds of Latin as opposed to Mandarin. 

Also, Latin was the spoken language of the Renaissance, so one may speculatively infer that the rational aesthetics of that age manifested in Latin. 

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5 minutes ago, Akilah said:

Now, the only differentiating factor between languages then, is how they sound

I disagree.

 

1 hour ago, StrictlyLogical said:

the economy of words and sentences with which a language can convey complex meaning is likely a good standard to judge languages, one against another

So if I need 3 sentences and 100 words to convey something in L1 and only 1 sentence and 25 words to convey the same meaning (with as much accuracy) in L2, then L2 is the better language... it is more powerful and efficient to communicate, express, and/or record (for posterity) complex ideas.

 

(That said L2 would be harder to learn than L1, and would likely also have a larger dictionary)

Edited by StrictlyLogical

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3 minutes ago, StrictlyLogical said:

I disagree.

 

So if I need 3 sentences and 100 words to convey something in L1 and only 1 sentence and 25 words to convey the same meaning (with as much accuracy) in L2, then L2 is the better language... it is more powerful and efficient to communicate, express, and/or record (for posterity) complex ideas.

 

(That said L2 would be harder to learn than L1, and would likely also have a larger dictionary)

That would be an aesthetic preference; I would prefer it as well. 

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9 hours ago, Akilah said:

And so, my question is thus, "what language performs that function of language the best"? 

Basically we're asking which language has the most words. Oxford Dictionaries thinks it's English. The quality and usefulness of those words is a different question, though. There's a lot of junk in the English language.

Of course, a language must serve the needs and abilities of the particular people who speak it. Even their environment might affect the language they develop. But, essentially, a language must communicate the things that exist in reality. So the more of reality observed and identified, including one's own mental phenomena, the better one's language must be. I therefore don't think that it's a coincidence that English, Hindi, Spanish, French and Chinese are some of the top spoken languages, given the history of exploration, conquest, migration, and spiritual investigation of their native speakers. Users of these languages, or the languages from which they sprang, have been some of the great explorers and thinkers of mankind. So, in considering the best language, they should be at the top of the list. I'm naturally biased toward English, but I think it should score bonus points for being the first language spoken on the moon, and for being the language in which Objectivism was first articulated.

Edited by MisterSwig

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6 hours ago, Akilah said:

Also, Latin was the spoken language of the Renaissance, so one may speculatively infer that the rational aesthetics of that age manifested in Latin. 

What are you talking about? It's pretty common knowledge that Latin was the language of ancient Rome.  Not to mention that the Latin used during the Renaissance was very different than the kind used during the Roman Republic. The common Latin became what was known as the vulgar Latin, the Latin spoken by the average person.

There isn't much to say that is special about Latin as a language. So no, you can't even infer that its characteristics reflected some sort of rationality. I find Mandarin relatively nice, and Cantonese more so. The apparent crispness of Latin compared to Mandarin is because Mandarin is a tonal language. People who speak non-tonal languages generally have a much more difficult time grasping the crispness of a tonal language - it requires a different kind of skill. I know a very basic amount of Cantonese, but once I learned that, Cantonese itself sounded a lot more beautiful to me.

When it comes to linguistic flexibility, which I think is the most important aspect of language (both cognitively and aesthetically), we might be able to make fair judgments. Sort of like what Swig is saying. Latin partly became so widespread because it could adapt with many other cultures around it during Roman conquest. It could effectively adopt words from other languages, which also aided with artistic developments, and philosophical developments. But perhaps all languages could attain this? Or maybe languages become flexible when more cultures are taken into that language. 

Not to mention that it is so easy to come up with new words in English. Trying to create new words in Japanese is very difficult - and not surprisingly, instead of making a new Japanese word, the Japanese people just used the English word. I think it comes down to the way a language is used and for what end, not the features of the language. At least, when it comes to modern languages.

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There is vastly more that distinguishes languages besides “how the languages sound”. Mandarin grammar and Latin grammar as pretty close to opposites on the structural spectrum. There are rational individual reasons for preferring one language over another that aren’t just aesthetics. If I plan to do business in France, it would be more sensible for me to learn French than to learn Russian: and vice versa. I personally like languages that exploit consonants more than vowels and that have a strong rhythmic pattern, on aesthetic grounds. But that’s just language as object of entertainment – it doesn’t determine which languages I will study, where the choice is based on practical utility to me (it turns out that the “pleasing” languages are not professionally so useful to me).

Another aesthetic basis for distinguishing languages is the logic of its structure (meaning that you have to actually understand the logic of the language’s structure). Of course, you also need a basis for making a judgement – should you value arbitrary quirkiness, or symmetry and regularity? I value languages which have the superficial appearance of irregularity and complexity whose logical structure is in fact simple and regular, but involves the interaction of rules. There is a competing aesthetic that values transparency: simple rules that don’t involve thinking about the context where the rules apply. My preference for the former is based on what it reveals about cognition, and not whether I might effortlessly learn a language so that I can negotiate contracts.

Because the efficiency argument is used widely in discussions of “best language”, I have to point out that counting words and sentences is not the right way to view efficiency. Word can be extremely short or extremely long, and correspondingly, in some languages a single word can frequently convey an entire proposition (example: Greenlandic), but in some languages virtually all propositions require multiple words (example: Vietnamese). Greenlandic words can be very long, Vietnamese words are very short. Efficiency is about effort expended to do something, so what effort is expended in uttering a sentence, or three? You have to move your articulators; you have to compute the structure of the utterance (there is more, but start there). We still have no idea how to objectively measure the cost of uttering or computing a sentence. A slightly better metric would be the number of articulatory units needed to express a proposition (it does not matter how many sentences or words) – the fewer, the better. If it takes 10 minutes to ask for a sandwich, or a ride to the airport, then maybe the language is truly inefficient. My experience is that such a situation when it arises is not a result of the language, it is the result of social norms in that society (don’t just bluntly ask for a ride, circumlocute and get to the point after 10 minutes).

So again, a language cannot be evaluated as a floating abstraction, it has to be in the context of a specific purpose. You learning a language will be different from me learning a language. Experiencing sound-aesthetics is something else; analyzing the logical structure of a language is a third thing. Communicating with others is a fourth. The context of you as evaluator matters hugely: do you only speak English and are you picking up a language so that you can do business in Japan? Or are you trying to deepen your understanding of man by learning more about this vital tool of thought?

 

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