TITLE: Language Science AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 05, 2007 3:59 PM DESC: ----- BODY: My previous entry discussed the scientific study of language. It occurred to me that the scientists who object to computing as science might also object to the study of language as "real" science. Certainly, the biological and neurological foundation of language seems to meet the criterion that a phenomenon occur in the natural world in order to be in the realm of science. But what of syntax and semantics? Even if we computer scientists speak of "natural language" Do they occur naturally in the world? According to Chomsky, the answer is 'yes': People are born with a universal grammar implemented in their brains, which makes it possible for us to learn what otherwise might not be learnable in a tractable way. This is a claim that is open to empirical study, at least in principle, though the story of the Pirahã shows how difficult it is to support and falsify claims in this area. (And according to the article I cited last time, there are some are who concerned with how engaged Chomsky himself is in empirical verification these days.) But isn't natural language man-made? We grow and evolve our vocabulary with some degree of intention. Syntax changes over time, too, and at least part of that change is intentional. Not everyone thinks of language as a designed artifact. Consider this quote from an essay at Design Observer
According to new book by linguist David Harrison, "Languages can package knowledge in radically different ways, thus facilitating different ways of conceptualizing, naming, and discussing the world." If languages package information, can they be considered design objects?
I'm a computer scientist, so my first thought was, "Well, duh." Had I written a separate blog entry on that piece, I would have titled it "Yet Another Example of Why Non-Computer Scientists Should Study CS". Maybe, though, I am betrayed by living in a world artificial -- designed -- languages. (Well, if you can call a language like Perl "designed".) I'm not a linguist, so it is hard for me to say to what extent primitive languages such as Pirahã esp. pre-literate ones, are designed and to what extent they flow out of the machinery of the human brain. Interestingly, a few years ago we had a multidisciplinary language science seminar at my university. You can see the web page from our last full semester of activity. It was a diverse crew, ranging from folks interested in the biological and neurological side of language, to a cognitive psychologist, to linguists, on up to teachers of modern languages and literature profs interested in the use of language in poetry and prose. And there was one person interested in artificial languages and their interplay with natural language -- me. The group is dead now, but I found it quite valuable both as a teacher and as someone interested in programming languages. I miss our biweekly sessions. -----