Thursday, July 13, 2006

Language and Communication

Oriental languages are doomed.

This is one conclusion I’ve come to after reading The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, and The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman.

As the world gets smaller — with shorter, faster connections between people and places — and flatter — with horizontal relationships between people and organizations replacing vertical models — the need for effective communication becomes increasingly important.

Effective communication must be both simple and complex. The ability to express complex ideas, to use nuance and subtle shadings that are well understood, is of great value. Many languages can do this (although English may be the most adept, due to its liberal borrowing of words and phrases from other languages).

But the other key factor is simplicity of representation. This is where English writing excels, and where the Oriental languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) show their fatal flaw.

Since every word requires its own symbol, Chinese script is immensely complicated. It possesses some 50,000 characters, of which about 4,000 are in common use…[i]

[W]hereas Western letters can be represented on computer screens by as few as 35 dots of light, Japanese characters can require up to 576 dots to be clearly distinguishable.[ii]

It was digits — zeroes and ones — that drove the Information Revolution. When a system developed to express and process highly complex algorithms in a profoundly simple way, basically a long string of yes/no choices, the world changed.

Similarly, Western writing — especially English — allows for relatively simple representation of complex expressions.

English has additional advantages, such as its simplicity of inflected forms — “in Latin, the verb has up to 120 inflections; in English, it never has more than five and often gets by with just three”[iii] — near total absence of gender cases, and elimination of diacritical marks (umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes, and so on) that complicate other languages.

American English has become the dominant language in the online world, and not only because American culture is so pervasive. It’s a two-way street. American culture can be pervasive because the language it uses is so good at effective communication; it possesses the killer combination of complex expression and simple representation.

Shrinking and flattening will continue. Effective communication between diverse groups will matter more and more. And ideas — scientific, technical, commercial, political, and cultural ideas — will shape the future.

Today, perhaps 3,000 languages are in significant use (by 10,000 or more speakers), although this number is rapidly declining. It’s estimated that as few as 10% of these will remain by the end of this century. Looking further ahead, it’s not hard to imagine only a handful of languages persisting.

Given the factors I’ve listed above, it’s probably a safe bet to say that some version of English will become humanity’s common language, and that the ancient and beautiful Oriental scripts will become antiquated.

[i] Bryson, Bill (1990) The Mother Tongue, p. 108

[ii] Ibid, p. 111

[iii] Ibid, p. 125


Dale Carrico said...

I dunno about this one, Mike!

When you speak of the "simplicity" "effectiveness" "nuance" and so on of yours and my own native English vis-a-vis various Asian languages I suspect that some value judgments are getting smuggled under cover of an apparently neutral instrumental vocabulary.

(Why, simply to speak of these languages as "Oriental" in the first place risks situating and defining them disadvantageously to the West in a way that kinda sorta sets the scene for the eclipse you subsequently "discern" in them.)

But, okay, let's say they're not. Let's say that there is some sort of "objective" sense in which English is the more descriptively flexible and powerful instrument (I think this is highly debatable, but I'll accept it momentarily as a premise):

This wouldn't yield the "safe bet" that this language would become the default language of humanity unless it were the case that social forms and default cultural practices fail and prevail on exclusively or even predominately on demonstrable instrumental grounds. But has this ever been true?

The vicissitudes of language change, technology diffusion, cultural dissemination, social transformation are regularly characterized by accident and counter-intuitive developmental trajectories. Sure, retrospectively it is usually possible to create a fable explaining just how rational and inevitable that trajectory was -- but such tales are usually little more than self-congratulatory.

It's funny you mention Thomas Friendman since I would accuse him of indulging regularly in precisely this kind of self-congratulatory fable-writing. He describes as "trends" or even "accomplishments" what are in fact incredibly rosy scenarios that become alibis for complacency for America's "investor class" (the ones who invite him to speak at their events with the greatest eagerness).

I certainly think it would be desirable for organizational models to horizontalize via a proliferation of co-ops and p2p, say -- but I think the flows of the neoliberal "free trade" globalization Friedman famously champions in his bestsellers bespeak some pretty breathtaking verticality!

Social forms incline toward rationality only when we organize to ensure this outcome. Friedman has blinders on and puts blinders on his readers (he was wrong in his digirati phase, he was wrong in his Hawk phase, he is likely to be wrong again -- so long as he writes to make powerful people feel good about themselves by assuring them they are conduits through which destiny is working to make the world better rather than writing to encourage everyone to take up the power that should be theirs and work to make the world better).

At the moment, China is relatively ascendant, the North Atlantic democracies in trouble (many caveats here, of course!), but given this landscape and, I mean, jeez, given the sheer numbers of billions of people involved when we speak of Asian cultural and social formations, I think it is probably a wee bit premature to predict the proximate triumph of English on "instrumental" grounds.

I've heard interesting discussions about how computer-assisted translation might produce a radically contrary result on altogether different grounds than the ones I've made here so far, but probably that is a topic for a later discussion. Best to you, d

Tom FitzGerald said...

Four quick comments:

1) "Northeast Asian" might be a better choice than "Oriental" in this context.

2)Let's say you have a very small space in which to convey your information--about 1 character, that is.
Too little space for the word DANGER. The kanji for danger would fit, though.

3) If change happened in society based on what practices were more efficient, rather than on what's entrenched or politically possible to change, the U.S. would be on the metric system, and we might (depends on who you ask) be typing all this on Dvorak keyboards.

4)English orthography is hardly the one you'd pick for a world language, if something other than economic and military power were really at play here.