It may be said that the origin of human civilisation is to be found in the development of language, those complex systems which enable us to organize our ideas and each other, and which allow us to develop insights that lead us to alter the natural world in complex and sometimes catastrophic ways.
While it’s true that many other species also have complex language systems, humans are unique in their attachment of sentiments to their languages. The languages we know mark out our identity, our circle of solidarity and affiliations. They also secure our access to exclusive communities of people with similar linguistic abilities. The way we think linguistically, record our ideas through writing, and form relationships through conversation is the substance of our complex language that distinguishes us from how non-human animals communicate.
For humans, language performs more than just an evolutionary function; it is a means by which we assert our place within our wider communities, marking out our distinctiveness and expressing our value by sharing and continually embodying the products of its heritage. Language defines us because, when we use the word us, we are referring less to our species and more to our geographical and cultural affinities, the people with whom we experience day to day bonds through the sharing of language.
In this way, language is also a deeply political subject, evidence of which we see in places like Catalunya, where the recent history of its Catalan language has been deeply wedded to the political history of Spain. During Franco’s dictatorship, children were forbidden from being taught Catalan in schools, so as to prioritise the national language of Spanish.
The consequence of this was the establishment of greater resolve within many parts of the Catalan community, who sought to demonstrably express their identity and reassert their self-determination through language, once Franco’s power was lost.
It is because of this intricate and deeply rooted importance of language within our lives, that determining its future is a precarious business. It’s widely known that the diversity of spoken languages within the world is in sharp decline, with the Google backed ‘Endangered Languages Project’ determining that we are facing a linguistic mass extinction with ’40 percent’ of the world’s ‘7,000 languages’ at ‘risk of disappearing’ And this may well be a conservative estimation.
Writing in 2007, Suzanne Romaine considered that ’60 to 90% of the world’s’ languages may become extinct over the next 100 years, noting also that, as the global population has grown, so too has the dominance of a tiny fraction of these languages. In fact 85% of the languages in the world have fewer than 100,000 speakers, whereas at least 8 of them have over 100 million native speakers.
The figures are mind blowing and they point to the growing omnipotence of some languages and the possibility that the world may, one day, converge towards knowing just one language, which is spoken and written by all people.
For anyone familiar with more than one language or, simply for those who value diversity, this is an abhorrent prospect and it may be our current technological circumstances that enables such change.
Among the latest innovations within our communication society is the capacity of digital platforms to provide live audio translations, so that when you speak in your language, the person you’re speaking to can hear it in their own language simultaneously, a bit like having your own personal translator. Within the industry, this is widely seen as a good thing and something that we should aspire to realising.
This kind of service is also found in social media more widely, where platforms like Facebook or Twitter automatically translate text from one language to another. Readers may not even perceive this translation, unless they happen to glance upon the text that explains this just happened. And yet, despite the tendency for such technology to flatten language into something that everyone can understand, we’ve also seen how global language trends follow global economics.
Over the last 10 years, schools in the United Kingdom have begun to offer Mandarin, signalling the emerging power of Chinese industry, despite the fact that the overall picture of children who take language qualifications has reduced significantly. I can’t help but wonder whether this loss of interest is correlated with the growing global community in which the perceived need to learn other languages has been reduced. These patterns of adoption also coincide with the rise of a small number of other types of languages, namely, computing languages.
Now, I know that the way we use the word language in computer programming is different from how we communicate through human to human interactions, but I can’t help but think that, in the future, we might all communicate through computer language. And it sometimes feels like public discourse is increasingly becoming polarised into a series of messages that are either one thing or another, one state or another, zeros or ones, right or wrong. There’s no hint of a quantum computing within our public sphere, no capacity to occupy two conflicting states at the same time.
I also am reminded of the work by John Searle who, when thinking through the problem of what we mean by artificial intelligence, described the ‘Chinese room’ scenario, where, what appears to be someone knowing Chinese is, in fact, someone inside the room translating from one language into Chinese. From the outside, it appears as if they know Chinese, but the inside tells the full story. The question he sought to answer was whether knowledge of Chinese — or anything else perhaps — is anything more than just becoming a better translation machine, rather than actually claiming to know something. Or maybe that’s all knowing entails. We assimilate through pattern recognition and memory entirety new bodies of information, which then manifest as thought, speech, or action
With these technological trends, I also think about the work of my friend Kevin Warwick, whose efforts to realise neurological interpersonal communication lead me to believe that, while language enriches our lives, it functions as an interface, a translation of our thoughts into expressed meanings, which we seek to be understood or, at times, misunderstood.
An ideal communication system is capable of removing the translating device that is usually needed to shift ideas from thought to action. We know this because, when we experience the feeling that someone understands our intentions, without having to use words, we feel joy in the knowledge that words are not necessary. We treat such moments as the pinnacle of human communication. When someone doesn’t need to say ‘i love you’ in order to convey love, then there is a depth to this that speaks louder than words.
Language, in this sense, is a mechanism we invoke when there is an absence of common understanding. It is there to fix a problem, rather than to represent an ideal system, to build a bridge to others. And yet our words are always inadequate, either because our grasp of our language is always failing us, or because there may not be words to fully express what we want to say.
We know this when studying other languages where there are many examples of ideas that appear in one language, but not quite in another. This is why we love to read wonderful books, the authors of which demonstrate the fullness of what language can do, when marshalled with excellence and eloquence.
And while this may sound like a thesis that is against language, it could not be farther from the truth. Insead, my thoughts about the future of language lead me to conclude that we also evolve linguistically and that we will continue to develop more sophisticated range in our language. And this may yet involve moving beyond words and images towards more abstract ideas as thoughts.
When we can tell how someone is feeling without having to ask, or for them to explain, we experience these kinds of capabilities. In such circumstances we have no need for language or, more accurately, we are employing a high form of language, which is beyond words. I admit that the consequence of such achievements may well be the erosion of the spoken or written word, as it is currently understand. And this certainly sounds like a bad thing. We love talking, writing, and reading.
But it is only bad because we value and cherish our languages as they are formed presently — and by present, i do include the entirety of human history — because, as I said at the start they are part of our identity and it is this attachment we make to language as part of how we see ourselves compared to others that determines its importance within our lives.
It’s mind blowing to imagine that, in the future, we might be able to communicate with each other using just our minds, without the need for an audible or visual expression of words, and yet we know that this is also what we do already through other sensory behaviours. When we hold someone’s hand in moments of difficulty, each person knows what it means. The future I imagine is characterised by more of this and is still reliant on the cultivation of language.
I spoke recently to Liviu Babitz, founder of the Cyborg Nest, which became big with their North Sense device, a body technology that allowed the wearer to experience the perception of magnetic north.
The design provokes us to think about capabilities that are beyond human and to imagine a range of other sensory inputs and outputs that may come to affect our day to day lives. Their next design, called Sentero, seeks to provide sensations that tell us more about how our loved ones are doing. It will share the heartbeats of people we care about, indicating when they may be calm or excited, active or inactive. Essentially, it will connect us to each other in ways that are only possible through linguistic communication. When you put the device on, you can feel what the other person is feeling.
In this short term, i doubt that such innovations will lead to a reduced use of words and text, but it might mean that, when we do rely on such things, we focus our attention on other words, other things we want to express, things that we don’t need to express anymore because these devices are already sharing these sentiments.
To me, a lot of this sounds incredible. The possibility of increasing the precision and depth of our communication capabilities is an exciting prospect. And yet, I’m reminded of the story of the Hitchhiker’s Gjuife to the Galaxy in which the Babelfish is described to us as a life form which, when placed in a person’s ear, allows them to understand any language that is spoken to them.
It achieves what many of today’s technology companies seek to perfect through their services. And yet, for its author Douglas Adams,, the babelfish is described as having been responsible for the bloodiest wars in the history of creation. We learn that, when there are no barriers to communication, populations are completely aware of the ways in which their way of life conflicts with others and, with such clarity, they march firmly unto war. I’m not sure I can subscribe to this as the likely outcome of perfect clarity in our language, but it’s a good reminder of how the absence of clarity in meaning may elicit greater empathy than may otherwise be forthcoming. Better to say less, if you want to get on with someone, and allow them to imagine that you are not such a bad sort after all.
Finally, all this talk of the future of language and the evoution of our communicative capacities, reminds me of my friend David Peterson, whom I met in 2013. David was speaking about his role in the development of the Dortaki and Valyrian languages. You’ll likely know these languages and appreciate that they are spoken by fictional populations from the series Game of Thrones.
David’s services were needed to transform the literary text into a fully fledged language, which was rich enough for dialogue that was written beyond the pages of the book. David reminds me that we live in a world where humans enjoy creating languages for pleasure, not just for function. And I think this will continue for long into the future
In fact, during his discussion at the event with famous Catalan cartoonist Javier Mariscal, he was asked ‘why make new languages, when we have so many already and when there are so many that are struggling to be heard. His reply was simple. Given the logic of the question, why continue to illustrate, when we have photographers?
Mariscal had no reply.
So, if the beginnings of language are aligned with the beginnings of civilisation, might we also say that the demise of the reduced complexity of our linguistic world signals the end of civilisation.
I think there is good reason to believe this may be true. And this is why we need to fight for their support and avoid thinking of language only as a means to an end. While much of our day to day language can be quite simple, we need complexity to push the boundaries of human imagination. We need great writers who are masters of language to show us how much is possible and what we have yet to imagine. And, above all, we need to seek the proliferation of linguistic diversity within our languages, to achieve our potential.