I just read Stephen's post about language, and it inspired me to write a sort of short story thing. It's not really much good as a story - I'm not convinced by the plot, the pacing is not great, and I lost it a bit towards the end because I was running out of lunch hour at work and ended up scribbling down the first thing I thought of - but I was hoping someone on here might appreciate it anyway!
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I would like to begin by apologising for mixing my language castes in the following work; however, this is not a usual treatise, and I find myself, somewhat shockingly, unable to find a single Set which encompasses all that I am endeavouring to communicate. No doubt you will question what I am about to reveal; I therefore beg your indulgence in using a more biographical format, with the double purpose of presenting to you my credentials, and ensuring that the gist of my reasoning will be understood by those without the background to recreate the technical equations which have led me to my unfortunate conclusion.
As a child, I was always very interested in linguistical mathematics. My parents were been similarly inclined and encouraged my interest, showing me how each basic equation memorised at school stemmed from the same conecepts, and encouraging me to investigate and play with higher caste language. You may think me immodest when I claim that language came easily to me, that word concepts made sense inside my head and grammar seemed almost intuitive. I have often had people telling me how clever I must be to have studied linguistical mathematics; please believe me when I say that I do not believe this to be the case, it is simply that my mind works that way; I cannot draw, nor am I good at sports or drama; this does not make me less intelligent than those who are more capable at such things.
I worked hard at school and sixth form, and achieved the grades I needed to be accepted at Oxford for a course which would make me a Master of Linguistical Mathematics. In the first year, I studied a mixture of pure and applied language. A brief interlude with a particularly malignant pure tutor almost pushed me to the applied side, but thankfully good sense prevailed, and I went with my natural inclinations and chose pure language. Despite a brief panic when a question on Chomsky’s fourth lemma came up in my exam, I passed with a first-class degree.
Tired of academia, I briefly tried moving to London and getting a job in industry; but I soon missed Oxford. I found it now all but impossible to speak to people outside of my field, and frustrating to have to restrict my word usage to those with only a rudimentary knowledge. Confined within the Oxford bubble, it had simply not occurred to me in a long while that most people might not understand the elegant theories that drove my own use of language. I took to furtively naming leaves on trees as I walked past and calculating the exact word to describe my shopping in the supermarket. It did leave me contemplating something I found interesting however; I spoke to someone who had no word for either tree or leaves, and yet they assured me when pointing at one that they knew what it was, despite being unable to communicate to me the concept they could see in my head. This disconnect fascinated me; I have always found myself able to describe a concept using linguistical equations, even though they sometimes seem ugly and inelegant without the requisite polishing. The idea also went against accepted theory, which held that the man who was unable to speak about a tree was also unable to think about one. Impossible to prove or disprove, unfortunately, until the day we develop telepathy – imagine what such a discovery would do for language! It might even enable us to develop the fabled Grand Unified Theory – but I am forgetting my eventual topic.
I moved back to Oxford for my DPhil, and began looking into the history of language. I was curious as to how the development of new language led to new concepts and thus changed our way of life. I soon realised that there were some large holes in he accepted version. For example, it is widely known that the language needed to develop linguistical mathematics itself were only developed four thousand years ago, at the beginning of civilisation – but if this is so, then where did the tools themselves come from? And how was it that man survived for so long without being able to communicate to one another, or think beyond their basic instincts? Perhaps there is something more innate than the language we construct; is this the basis for the true words we can discover, or is there yet another higher caste of language, and if so then perhaps the best way to discover it is to restrict our knowledge of language entirely.
It was at this point that I began to get suspicious. I was puzzled why it was that nobody had ever had similar questions, and I was also beginning to realise just how much I had just accepted as true. For example, I could not recall reading a single historical paper where old work had been re-examined. After much sweet-talking of the librarian at the Bodleian, I finally managed to find my way to a copy of an old paper where Shakespeare proved his usage of the word ‘bruit’, a word which has now officially fallen into disuse. Endeavouring to get myself locked into the library for the weekend, I carefully read through and reproved all the reasoning Shakespeare had used. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with his reasoning – and yet this word meant nothing. Inside my head, spoken aloud, directed at the shadows where I know from the paper it should be significant – still the word took on no meaning, just like those words that ambitious undergraduates attempt to create from some sort of erroneous logic.
I am not sure how to describe my feeling at that moment. You may well choose not to believe it, and as I have said I cannot prove it, but I found within me no language, no sure rock, from which I could articulate. Perhaps the error was in the premise; I re-examined it. Yes, that one; the reliance on an older word. If I could but trace the workings there also, then I could find the problem. After much frantic searching and comparing references with the database, I found the paper I was searching for. Again, I found no error, nothing to show that the reasoning used to prove the word was in any way incorrect; yet once again, the work proved meaningless. What was worrying me now was the thought that there were many aspects of language, particularly in the higher castes, based upon Shakespeare and even upon this word in particular. Yet these words all worked; I myself had used them on countless occasions, and successfully used them to communicate complex thoughts.
It was a long time before I eventually came to my startling conclusion. The basic axioms were wrong. Specifically: ‘Language is immutable. It is the same yesterday, today, and forever’.
Do you see now why I find it so difficult to write this piece; why, incredibly, I struggle to pin my thoughts down and communicate them with the words I once thought to be absolute? Perhaps, like myself, you will be further concerned if you do a little more research – how previous academics following similar tracks to myself can no longer be found in any of the databases; quashed stories of people who upon receiving a blow to the head find themselves unable to comprehend speech; whispers of government cover-ups which I would once have thought ridiculous.
My conclusion is as follows: Language is not immutable. Left to develop naturally, it is an organic thing; it changes and evolves, adapts itself to the speaker. Concepts and language evolve together, the two enhancing the other. Language should not stifle the imagination as it does now, but enable it. I go further in my speculation that for a long time now, human civilisation has been run by a group of grammar dictators, who have created a self-perpetuating myth to keep our language, and our culture, pure as they see purity. And we have believed them, and their successors have believed them, and so has our progress been slowed. Sometimes I think that perhaps after all it is right to prevent such uncommunicable chaos; then I speculate about a world where our language is no longer defined by the confines of mathematical ability and description, but is allowed to fly free.