An Official English Language

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drwho
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An Official English Language

Postby drwho » Sun Jan 13, 2008 3:07 am UTC

One of the arguments I had with my ex-gf (a doctoral student of Linguistics at Harvard) was my belief that there needs to be an official dialect. Now, before you go all storming off and ranting at me for being a grammar nazi or whatever, let me say that I am not suggesting that everyone be required to follow the rules of this language.

What I propose is a formal English, laid out in such a way as to make communication as concise and certain as possible. It would be a language in which it was impossible for a properly constructed sentence to have different meanings. There are many times when this level of precision is called for. Law comes to mind: If legislation, judicial findings, and contracts were all laid out in accordance with the rules of the English I propose, then there would be much less for the judiciary to do. Of course I know this works against the interests of those lawyers who specialize in litigation, but perhaps they could find employment in the field of contract law, which would suddenly need many documents rewritten in this new subset of English.

Please excuse me, as I have had a few beers and my mind and fingers aren't serving me as well as they would at other times. So if what I say here is a little bit, well, raw, think of it as a rough draft.

Imagine that a document would have, as a footnote, "Written in accordance with the Official English Language, 13th edition". In order to understand an exact meaning, you could consult the book "Official English Language", and the 13th edition of it, and see the relationship of this word with others, and how it means.

With such a logical and concise language, it would be possible for computers to read books, to point out flaws, and possibly to write them. It would be the synthesis of human and computer languages, readable by both, and perfect in meaning.

Now, I do not want to have all of the beautiful vernacular that we use everyday replaced by this language in fiction, poetry, song, or bar fights. In these cases, the beauty of dual meanings can be most useful. I would never want to banish the method of delivery of a phrase from its actual wording. But in order for us to communicate as a species, in order for us to truely advance in what I believe the ultimate good is (to bring life to space), we need to improve the efficiency of scientific and technological progress, and this can only be done when we have an efficient language.

Native speakers of German say that much of their technological and scientific expertise comes from the structure of their language. They may be correct. But there are many problems with German which keep it from being the ideal language. One, is that its compound words can all too easily come into existence, and that no dictionary hope to compile them all. One might argue that it is possible to break up a compound word in German and look up the meaning of its constituent parts. This presents problems of knowing where to break the compound word up, as sometimes compound words have different meanings than all of their components suggest (so does English, but as we don't have as many of such words, it is less of a problem). It might be possible for German to be reformed in a way so that compound words are created differently than they now are, and perhaps German would become the great language of the world. One one hand, there are official organs of German language, who are very active at modernizing the language. On the other hand, far fewer people speak German and it does not have the same potential for growth that English does.

Now, I am an American, but I would have no problem with this organisation of the Official English Language being based in England, and based upon English spelling and grammar as opposed to American ones. But I would expect that the linguistic contributions of 'the colonies' would be given due respect.

Now, all that's said, I need another beer...er Lager...er .6L Schwarzbier, bitte.

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby 4=5 » Sun Jan 13, 2008 3:38 am UTC

soundss cool, start working on it and let me see what you come up with

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Minchandre » Sun Jan 13, 2008 7:09 am UTC

Actually, English is said to be one of the most efficient and precise languages in the world, when it wants to. I know that almost all of the foreign scientists I've met say that they prefer English for technical writing (mostly because the language is more concise than other languages - especially the currently/former scientific lingua franca of Europe, French). Yes, a lot of judicial ambiguity comes from the language itself, but let's face it: there are many ways to write in English that leave meaning completely unambiguous; most legislation is written on purpose to maximize ambiguity and wiggle-room.

The biggest problem, however, is who'll standardize things: If the English do it, America will never use it. If Americans do it, the English never will. If anyone else does it, no one ever will. That leaves a UK-USA cooperation, which will never happen due to, well, colo(u)r, che(que/ck), theat(e)r(e), alumin(i)um...

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Asleep or Wrong » Sun Jan 13, 2008 7:57 am UTC

The Englishes used in law are already pretty unambiguous subsets of the common Englishes. I really have difficulty believing that the amount of work in training everyone involved in law to be rigorous in the use of a standard language is less than that in judges using their jurisprudence in interpreting law.
The goal you seem to be putting forth is for computers to be able to infer theorums from axioms, deduce theories from observed phenomenon, &c. But again, both of these activities use a largely unambiguous subset of natural language (if not in a formal language entirely).
As for the bit on German, does anyone take strong Sapir-Whorf seriously anymore? And would it really that hard of a computability problem to determine meaning for compound words [non-rhetorical question]?

I would recommend you read John Wilkins' essay on philisophical language. He sought to address some different percieved problems, but much the same spirit. It should interest you.

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Ari » Mon Jan 14, 2008 6:16 am UTC

Minchandre wrote:The biggest problem, however, is who'll standardize things: If the English do it, America will never use it. If Americans do it, the English never will. If anyone else does it, no one ever will. That leaves a UK-USA cooperation, which will never happen due to, well, colo(u)r, che(que/ck), theat(e)r(e), alumin(i)um...


Throw out both systems and actually start from scratch using phonetics.
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Re: An Official English Language

Postby evilbeanfiend » Mon Jan 14, 2008 2:15 pm UTC

an official english is probably not necessary to make documentation clearer, you merely need to be able to recognise unclear documents http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/
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Re: An Official English Language

Postby targetpractice » Thu Jan 24, 2008 12:13 am UTC

Asleep or Wrong wrote:The Englishes used in law are already pretty unambiguous subsets of the common Englishes. I really have difficulty believing that the amount of work in training everyone involved in law to be rigorous in the use of a standard language is less than that in judges using their jurisprudence in interpreting law.
The goal you seem to be putting forth is for computers to be able to infer theorums from axioms, deduce theories from observed phenomenon, &c. But again, both of these activities use a largely unambiguous subset of natural language (if not in a formal language entirely).
As for the bit on German, does anyone take strong Sapir-Whorf seriously anymore? And would it really that hard of a computability problem to determine meaning for compound words [non-rhetorical question]?

I would recommend you read John Wilkins' essay on philisophical language. He sought to address some different percieved problems, but much the same spirit. It should interest you.


Nobody really pays attention to Sapir-Whorf anymore, mostly because it's crap. No offense, but there's no good reliable data or method of testing his theory. Its more probable that culture influences thought, and influences language. For example, Inuit has 38 words for snow (NOT 300), but thats because the geography influences the culture, and then the culture influences the language. Same in some pacific islander languages - one of the written Phillipino languages' alphabet is beautifully curvy and circular, and looks very much like the ocean. The theory is too much about language influencing thought specifically, and not as a reflection of thought.
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Re: An Official English Language

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Jan 24, 2008 10:02 pm UTC

targetpractice wrote:Inuit has 38 words for snow (NOT 300)

I've actually read that it has four. Though dialectical differences are a plausible explanation for appearing to have more.

But to make fun of the tendency to exaggerate it so much, I usually just round up to about a million when talking about their number of words for snow. :-)
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Re: An Official English Language

Postby zenten » Thu Jan 24, 2008 10:19 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
targetpractice wrote:Inuit has 38 words for snow (NOT 300)

I've actually read that it has four. Though dialectical differences are a plausible explanation for appearing to have more.

But to make fun of the tendency to exaggerate it so much, I usually just round up to about a million when talking about their number of words for snow. :-)


English has: Snow, powder, slush, sleet and dust(ing) off the top of my head. If there are no Inuit languages with more than four words for it I'll be surprised.

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Jan 24, 2008 10:28 pm UTC

zenten wrote:English has: Snow, powder, slush, sleet and dust(ing) off the top of my head. If there are no Inuit languages with more than four words for it I'll be surprised.

That number is from a 1911 book (per Wikipedia), so I'm not certain as to its actual truth value.

But yeah, we have quite a few for snow. And even more for what comes down when it's above freezing. It can be raining, drizzling, misting, pouring, hailing, or probably several other things I can't think of off the top of my head.
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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Robin S » Thu Jan 24, 2008 10:33 pm UTC

drwho: what you want is Lojban.
This is a placeholder until I think of something more creative to put here.

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Xanthir » Tue Jan 29, 2008 4:45 pm UTC

The whole "Inuits have x many words for snow" is a filthy lie. ^_^ The fact is, the various Inuit languages are all polysynthetic, so they form phrases or even entire sentences with a single super-compound word.

So yes, they have a ton of 'words' for snow, but in context this means approximately the same thing as saying that English has a lot of sentences involving snow. It's trivially true.

For what it's worth, English has a *ton* of words for light and light levels.
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Re: An Official English Language

Postby SpitValve » Wed Jan 30, 2008 5:29 pm UTC

meh, if everybody spoke the same way, living in Canada would be much less amusing.

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Justinlrb » Fri Feb 01, 2008 8:15 pm UTC

Official English policy:
If it is not broken, fix it until it is broken.
And, tell everybody they're saying it wrong.

I personally vote for less efficient communication, creative spelling (I want the words to feel good when I type them like with rhythm and stuff), and inventing words the way we do statistics.

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Ari » Mon Feb 04, 2008 2:44 pm UTC

Justinlrb wrote:Official English policy:
If it is not broken, fix it until it is broken.
And, tell everybody they're saying it wrong.

I personally vote for less efficient communication, creative spelling (I want the words to feel good when I type them like with rhythm and stuff), and inventing words the way we do statistics.


Well, as long as your word is understandable, useful, and easy to use, there shouldn't be anything wrong with that.

I don't see how we've fixed English until it's broken. If anything, we haven't really addressed the problems that occured by latinising our alphabet, and while America has started a little, they've done so little and not followed it up that it's hardly worth the effort.

You're also only "saying it wrong" when people can't understand you. :P
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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Belial » Mon Feb 04, 2008 4:26 pm UTC

Ari wrote:You're also only "saying it wrong" when people can't understand you. :P


I don't think that's entirely true. I think that, even if they can understand you, the ease with which they understand you has a certain amount of weight. If I have to pause for 10 seconds after you speak and rerun your mouth-sounds in my brain ten or twelve times before I can figure out what the hell you just said, I'm probably going to give you grief.
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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Dextrose » Tue Feb 05, 2008 12:14 am UTC

Well. Here's the problem:

You can't do it.

Literally, I think you're putting forth a task that is logistically far too complicated to ever be completed. Consider what you'd have to put together in order to represent an "Official English:" not only would you need dictionaries that are detailed to an extreme yet unmet by dictionaries of modern English, you would also need thesauri and phrasebooks which demonstrate the full range of definition in all of the words that require it. (And there are many.)

Why?

Consider what dictionaries give us. As a matter of fact, go pick up a dictionary - a real-life, English to English dictionary would be the best choice here - and check out the definition for a word like 'definition.' That word has only one meaning in my mind. Any usage of 'definition' fits the same English idea. There ought to be, however, several somewhat distinct statements about what it's supposed to mean, and if there aren't, I expect you're reading American Heritage (cfr. Dictionary.com) and shame on you. The reason for this discrepancy is in the task that dictionaries attempt to take on: defining English words with English words.

Which is funny, because English words don't have definitions in English words.

Language isn't anything more than groups of symbols which communicate ideas. (No, I'm serious. There is nothing more or less to language than this.) Those symbols can be spoken words, glyphs, still images, motions, postures, bytes, musical notes, or anything else they need to be, but they're still just symbols and ideas. The problem we face is that these ideas don't "define" one another. We define them, and even then only in our minds, and even then only as individuals do we do this. The reason we can speak in tongues is because The Lord Jesus possesses us, and because we agree on what certain symbols mean. We spend our whole lives asking each other whether we understand each other or not, and in expressing ourselves on a constant basis we build spoken language from the ground up.

When we learn new words, something curious happens. For an idea which we may or may not understand internally at first, we receive a piece of information that allows us to crystallise the idea when previously we would use more ambiguous terms for it. Therefore the word links to the idea, not the other way around. Even if we're reading a dictionary definition of a word we don't understand, it still takes us comprehending the idea of the word before we can use it. It's important to realise this distinction, because it's demonstrative of the fact that words do not create ideas - ideas create words.

Already the conclusion follows that defining language in books is fundamentally impossible. However, the task of creating books which can teach a solid and unmoving subset of the ideas that we use in English for the purpose of officiation is not necessarily un-doable, because we do learn language from books. Just not dictionaries. (Much.) A great deal of linguistic insight comes from reading books, and I'm not talking about long-term reading/speaking for fluency, but rather a shorter-term process in which we come to understand the words we encounter in language. As we become more fluent, we learn to bend words in different ways and speak in metaphors to give our language more colour. It is this maleation that expands our self-expression and allows us to have such a thing as "official-sounding English" in the first place.

We learn to do this by reading or hearing words used with other words in different ways. I'm going to demonstrate this with the word 'yes.' Let me emphasise that saying "Yes" is not quite the most basic idea we have, but it's damn close, only being beaten out by ideas like "I am [happy|sad]" (generally, feeling positive or negative, words which English lacks) and "I am." Think of how a baby might express these thoughts, and you'll understand why I call them basic.

Now, the reason I pick the word 'yes' is because it has many, many different usages. Certainly its usages outnumber its "definitions," realistically or literally, but "real" definitions are entirely mental and thus out of grasp, and metalinguistic written definitions are simply unimportant to understanding the whole concept of the English word 'yes.' What is important here, as with any other word, is usage, and the only way to figure out how it is used is to see how it is used, instead of doing what a dictionary does, which is talk about how it might be used.

Let's look at some possible answers to the question, "Did you go to the store?" with decreasing levels of acceptability:
- "Yes."
- "I went to the store, yes."
- "Yes, I went to the store."
- "I went to the store."
Other important phrases include 'yes, sir,' 'yes or no answer,' 'yes and no,' 'yes-man' and so on. Clearly the impact of this word on the English language goes beyond its simple definition as "an affirmation of something." Words and phrases which have a similar function to or can be used in conjuction with 'yes' include 'no,' 'maybe (not),' 'possibly,' 'definitely (not),' 'of course (not),' 'not at all,' 'probably (not),' et cetera ad osmium, and to fully understand how to use the word 'yes' one must first investigate the usage of all these other nearby ideas.

Consider now that 'yes' is one of many small words which convey simple, compact meanings whose usage is incredibly difficult to explain. The bigger you get, the worse of a tangle you find yourself in. I won't even start on a word like 'bottle.' Like, fuck. And as far as translation is concerned, the boundaries in which these words exist change within the language itself, so trying to come up with a set of Engl-ish words that can be easily translated into foreign languages is just a retarded idea. There are some places where one word (and, really, one idea) is used in sentences where English would require 'none,' 'a' or 'every,' depending on context. And there are a lot of grammatical devices that are simply absent from many languages. Neither Japanese nor Estonian has a future tense; Sanskrit, Greek and Turkish all have a third-person imperative form that English lacks; etc.

So basically, you're going to need usage examples up the ass for every word you'd want to include in this lexicon of Official English you're looking for. You can do some 1984esque work on paring down the language to its barest parts, a concept in that book that always bothered me, because the idea is that there are "useless shades of meaning" in the English language. Of course, that's an outright lie, like the rest of the 1984 universe, but it's a lie that really pains me emotionally to think about, because I know there are people out there who believe it. They're called the French.

But seriousry, there are a lot of you who think that there are bits of English we can simply do away with. Or even better, the plethora of total assholes out there in the world who insist that certain bits of unorthodox but otherwise perfectly sensible English are "not words." (cfr. y'all, potheaded, maleation.) And then there's the people that think they have the balls to stand up and say something is grammatically incorrect, like there's some sort of English Grammar out there nobody knows about and they're the only ones that understand it - on that note, prepositions are perfectly acceptable at the ends of sentences, and I bet nobody here willing to assert that they're not even knows why a bunch of idiot grammarians got together to say that they weren't in the first place I'll cut open all your throats and shit in the wounds goddamn I hate when people try to tell me my grammar is wrong.

However, as much as I'd personally hate to see our "useless shades of meaning" stripped from the language I hold so dear, that's the kind of thing that would have to happen in order to create Official English, because your objection to there being a lack of solidified descriptors of English is that there is ambiguity in the language. And you'd have to do a lot of it. To clarify my statement above, nobody - NOBODY - understands the total grammar of English, which means the job of whatever grammarian is responsible for this new Official version is going to have to essentially make up a lot of new rules for things we never had rules for before per se.

The worst consequence of this all, for me, is the damage that would be done to our language in the course of creating a standard by which our language is defined. I already blame dictionaries for making people think that there is an official way in which unofficial English is spoken. (I can't count the number of times I've been told to look something up in the dictionary by somebody who was completely unwilling to accept an alternative usage of an old word.) I see things like that as attempts to make the language very, very small at put it in boxes to file it away on shelves in a musty room where it can't breathe or see sunlight, and I think that's the opposite of what should be done. We shouldn't be making the language smaller so we can understand it better. We should just work on understanding it better. All of the phrases used in writing the Constitution made sense to the framers, right? Well we haven't just lost track of the way they used the language back then. Other people were, in fact, writing at the time. So the idea shouldn't be "let's convert this old language into this new language," or else you get Constitutionalists who think that The Declaration of Independence: New Living Translation is the infallible word of Jefferson. Instead, we - all of us - should become more literate than we already are and support literacy more than we already do. If everybody spoke English better than they did now, and we at XKCD ought to know better than most that really nobody speaks it very well at all, the language itself would come into a greater level of clarity which would be more easily understandable by foreigners and future generations.

Besides, if you really want an official, unambiguous language, there's always Lojban.


So...I'm gonna go with myth busted on this one.
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Re: An Official English Language

Postby trickster721 » Tue Feb 05, 2008 7:04 am UTC

I'm not actually going to read that, but thank you for putting it in a way that those people can understand.

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby GreenEngineer » Tue Feb 05, 2008 7:49 am UTC

Math.
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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Justinlrb » Tue Feb 05, 2008 10:30 am UTC

Dextrose wrote:I'll cut open all your throats and shit in the wounds goddamn I hate when people try to tell me my grammar is wrong

An excellent illustration of why establishing an Official English is not a good idea.
But, if we were to establish one, Standard Midwestern American should definitely be the model.
Why? Because it's the best English, obviously. :wink: wink, wink

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Masuri » Tue Feb 05, 2008 12:02 pm UTC

Hmm, version control for English. Pop it into Subversion and call it good? ;)

In all seriousness, there's truly no feasible way to do such a thing to a living language - which I would think have been the start and end of your ex-girlfriend's argument. New words come into use all the time, which would mean you'd have to have rigid controls for which words are valid and acceptable in your 'official' version. And who decides such a thing - as others have asked above?

Slang is almost impossible to control, and so your official language goes right down the toilet. If a computer who only reads v23.01.32.0B of the Official English Language comes across a word that's not in the official document, what does it do? You've effectively forbidden it from adding an unknown word to its lexicon because it's nonstandard. Or do you simply forbid all books from using anything but the Official English Language v23.01.32.0B until v23.01.32.0C is released - with consideration that the word they wished to use may or may not be included in that version?

Slippery slope.

Aside from slang, there will be new technical terms, new medical procedures, new business-speak words, etc. Do you deny them entry at the door on the understanding that they may apply for validity at some government agency and wait 3 to 5 years for entry?

When we're all dead and gone and the language no longer changes from day to day, then you can version it and decide what's canon and what's not. Then none of us will have to worry if 'snark' is allowed in the version of the language we'd like to use today.

(Random thought: I picture a Demolition Man-esque English Enforcer issuing tickets: "BZZZT! Masuri you have been fined one (1) dollar for using an unofficial non-word to communicate inefficiently.")

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby 4=5 » Tue Feb 05, 2008 3:18 pm UTC

you misunderstood the idea.

a slightly less ambiguous version of english for laws and official documents (wouldn't be too hard I think, we already work with programming languages) and letting the rest of english do whatever it wants to.

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby Masuri » Tue Feb 05, 2008 3:29 pm UTC

Hmm, well, I just reread the first post for clarity and I don't believe I did misunderstand.

I see where he talked about one practical application of such a thing being law or official documents, but not where this was confined solely to those documents. I'm pretty sure he meant this for all things. I did see where he apologized for killing creativity but it needed to make way for efficiency.

Perhaps the original poster can correct me if I am wrong?

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Re: An Official English Language

Postby 4=5 » Wed Feb 06, 2008 12:59 am UTC

drwho wrote:
Now, I do not want to have all of the beautiful vernacular that we use everyday replaced by this language in fiction, poetry, song, or bar fights. In these cases, the beauty of dual meanings can be most useful. I would never want to banish the method of delivery of a phrase from its actual wording. But in order for us to communicate as a species, in order for us to truely advance in what I believe the ultimate good is (to bring life to space), we need to improve the efficiency of scientific and technological progress, and this can only be done when we have an efficient language.


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