Limits of Language Part 2: Language Map

This is part of my Limits of Language series. Read Part 1 first. See also Part 3.

We know what emergent and fundamental are. So what does this have to do with language?

Understanding the fundamental versus emergent distinction is critical in understanding one of the main limitations of human language: all of our regular vocabulary is designed to discuss things which are emergent. Because of this, all normal words have some degree of ambiguity embedded in them.

The best way to understand this is to imagine all the possible observable things in the universe within a flat “space”. Things which closely resemble each other will be close to each other in this space. Things which are very dissimilar will be far apart.

Any particular assemblage of subatomic particles represents one exact point in the language space. If there is another possible assemblage of particles which is almost exactly the same, it can be thought of as very close by in the the language space.

A particular car is an assemblage of particles, so it exists in the language space as a point. Now think of all the other cars in the world. They will all bear some degree of similarity to each other and so will lie in a group on the language space. This grouping forms a region. Everything within this region is defined as a car. Everything outside this region is not.

A word, then, is something which defines a region in the language space. In most cases this causes no problem because our language has evolved to fit our everyday needs.

The difficulty arises when we are discussing things which exist close to the edges of these regions. Word regions are not sharp-edged. There are fuzzy parts at the edges. These fuzzy parts, some of which join into other words, and some of which join into a wordless void, encompass the ambiguity which is inherent in our language.

This leads to a 3-part view of the language map. Some points on the language map exist in one region. Other points exist in a fuzzy, indeterminate area between regions. They may lean one way or the other, but they are not definite. Finally, some points exist in no named region at all. They correspond to all things which could exist and have no name.

Possible Problems

This view of language brings forward a few possible problems.

All words which refer to emergent things are actually generalizations, so they always mean more than one thing. They usually also have some overlap with other words. Other things exist in the void, and there is no word that refers to them.

These limitations are severe, but if they are understood they should generally not cause too many problems.

The first possible problem is that there may be no proper word for whatever is being described. This means that it represents a point in the void. The only solution here is to make a new word and clearly communicate its meaning before continuing.

The second possible problem is that whatever is being described may appear in the fuzzy boundary on the edge of a word region. Whether this edge fades into the region of another word or fades into the word, the solutions are the same. Sometimes creating a new word is a good solution here, but more commonly, appropriate words already exist.

We already understand that anything emergent is made of smaller pieces. Therefore, if a word does not totally fit what is being discussed, the best thing to do may be to do a “demerge”. A demerge is when you stop using the original word because it generalizes too much, and instead demerge to a lower level of emergence, and use the words that refer to the things that make up the original word.

Any word referring to something emergent is really referring to a grouping of smaller things. If you are not talking about the whole group, you cannot use the word that refers to the whole group. Demerging means that you abandon the original word and start using components.

Misplaced Significance

This all may seem rather excessive. At first glance, it seems that all that might be lost from overgeneralization is some level of clarity in communication. While clarity is a factor, there are much greater consequences to not understanding the problems with language.

One problem stems from the fact that communication of ideas can only be done through language. When an idea is communicated, any information that is impossible to encode in language is lost. The limitations on language lead to a situation where everyone who learns a new idea needs to do their own extrapolation on it to fill in the parts that could not be communicated in the original message. This is part of the reason why children and adolescents cannot simply be told much of how the world works, and must always figure it out for themselves. They can only be told the basics. A lot of useful knowledge is either very difficult or impossible to impart through language and so much be created inside every human head independently. This is a major duplication of effort.

In fact, we go to incredible lengths to try to bypass the limitations of the language channel. All forms of art could, on some level, be considered as attempts to communicate through non-linguistic channels in order to convery messages which cannot be contained in words.

Another problem with language arises from the fact that it is not only a medium for communication. It is also used as a way to organize thoughts. Beliefs and ideas are expressed as well as remembered in scriptures, codes, laws and catchphrases.

This is especially important in group consciousness. In order for a group of people to have some sort of synchronized belief, it must be grounded in a linguistic base which can be externalized outside the thoughts of an individual person. We end up with a situation where massive emotional and political importance is conferred on an idea contained in a linguistic construct – a deeply flawed linguistic construct.

In situations where one remains firmly in the central part of the word region, this doesn’t cause problems. The problems arise when we approach the edge of the definition of a word on which people place great meaning. One ends up struggling with questions which are meaningless and mired in definitional confusion, because the significance placed on the original word is ignorant of the fact that it is really just a label for a group of smaller elements.

The net effect is that people tend to place a lot of significance on things which don’t really exist in any absolute sense, which causes all sorts of confusion when they are presented with cases near the edge of the word region. As examples, using words like life, death, good or evil as the basis for moral, ethical, religious, or legal codes consistently causes difficulty all over the world. Wars have been fought over these words – words which lack all substance. In contrast, wars are never fought over the laws of physics.

See also Part 3.