Wednesday, June 10, 2015

There is no perfect language

From The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick:

It was once thought that a perfect language should have an exact one-to-one correspondence between words and their meanings. There should be no ambiguity, no vagueness, no confusion. Our earthly Babel is a falling off from the lost speech of Eden: a catastrophe and a punishment. “I imagine,” writes the novelist Dexter Palmer, “that the entries of the dictionary that lies on the desk in God’s study must have one-to-one correspondences between the words and their definitions, so that when God sends directives to his angels, they are completely free from ambiguity. Each sentence that He speaks or writes must be perfect, and therefore a miracle.” We know better now. With or without God, there is no perfect language.

Leibniz thought that if natural language could not be perfect, at least the calculus could: a language of symbols rigorously assigned. “All human thoughts might be entirely resolvable into a small number of thoughts considered as primitive.” These could then be combined and dissected mechanically, as it were. “Once this had been done, whoever uses such characters would either never make an error, or, at least, would have the possibility of immediately recognizing his mistakes, by using the simplest of tests.” Gödel ended that dream.

On the contrary, the idea of perfection is contrary to the nature of language. Information theory has helped us understand that — or, if you are a pessimist, forced us to understand it.

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