Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On Languages

   One of the issues with looking at the preservation of information is what language to store it in.  While the immediate and obvious answer is "the language that the people saving the information speak," consider the following case -- a plague wipes out most human life and the only remaining pocket of humanity is on a remote Pacific island populated by people who don't speak any of the more common languages the "Codex Universalis" is preserved in. 


   Apocalyptic corner-cases really aren't the focus of the Leibowitz Society, but it does raise an interesting mental question -- how are people going to be able to use the information available if it's not in a form they can understand?  It was probably a fortunate accident of history that Latin was also the language of the Catholic Church in addition to being the language of the Roman Empire before it, meaning that all the works of the Roman scholars were accessible.  Of couse, it's possible that the Latin works would have found translation by other means, but consider that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were only able to be understood by the chance creation and discovery of the Rosetta Stone. 

   People will probably point out that the language that the information is stored in will likely still exist, in one form or another, so people should still be able to go back and read it.  This may be true to a point, but anyone who has tried to go read Beowulf, Chaucer or even Shakespeare in the original form will have nothing but trouble without an interpretation guide to go with it.  Even within the last hundred or so years, it's possible to witness the mutation of the English language.  How quickly would it begin to split into different dialects, then forms, at the onset of a new Dark Age when people's travel would be limited to perhaps a day's hike and commerce would grind to a halt?

   Using a known dead language, such as Latin is an example, is an option.  Latin is still used in the Catholic church for the simple reason that it doesn't change over time.  The only problem here is that it is not much used any more outside of religious (and some scientific circles).  The benefit is that is at least somewhat known to English speakers through a constant exposure of English to Latin words and uses.  It might also be feasible to create a new language, possibly one designed with information storage in mind.

   Regardless of whether or not the Society materials are in English, Latin, or something else, the problem of interpretation remains.  Imagine a large trove of materials recorded in Latin, with English, Spanish and French dictionaries included.  Those dictionaries stored will be a snapshot of those languages at that time.  So, in order for the stored materials to be used, there would have to be an effort to update the accompanying dictionaries and provide translations for the translations.

   One option might be to include a visual dictionary of some sort, a symbolic "key" for written words, perhaps enough to include large scale translation of obsolete writings.  The problem here is the accuracy of visual images and subsequent translation to written words, as well as even getting a future viewer to understand what their purpose is (and not mediocre, stylized art). 

   Going further, another option might be to create a mathematical process for converting knowledge to something using mathematical symbols, numbers, etc.  Experimentation or study along this path (or even input from a learned reader) may uncover an efficient means of storing information. 

   At the root of all this is still a justification and need for having a body of membership that can interpret the recorded knowledge, in addition to storing it, maintaining it and adding to it.  Regardless of how much effort and thought goes into making sure that the knowledge can be used at a future time, the most foolproof way to maintain access to it is through successive generations of people who are taught, and in turn teach, how to unlock it.  When I speak of the Leibowitz Society as being a generational effort, or of generational survival, this is what I mean.  Secrets written in lost languages may have a mystic appeal, but they are useless to people who need to know what they mean.


  1. Just stumbled on your blog…seen you over at Kunstler (CFN).
    I have read all your blog entries and have enjoyed them immensely! The whole language thing is very interesting to me, but I have no idea what would be the right approach. Upon reading your blog post I initially felt that the visual dictionary might be the best idea (especially in our current dumb down/ small attention span society) but then I remembered how the movie industry (visual) has turned out a whole lot of thoughtless/plot less crap over the years in an effort to reach a worldwide audience, so the visual thing might lack details.
    I am sure this topic will be on my mind for while, thanks for creating something that has me thinking!

  2. I think one avenue to explore would be the development of the linkage in the brain between hearing, reading and speaking. You are absolutely correct that using a visual dictionary may be too broad-based in comparison to a more specific written dictionary. I'm not an expert in the fields, but it seems we define words by other words, based on what appear to be mental constructs which are themselves a collection of impressions, actions, and experiences. In other words, we would know what a dog or tree is before we know the words for these things. So, a child can define some simple things by direct experience and can then build on them over time. I think maybe a visual dictionary would be able to go at least a certain depth down, maybe far enough to get a future scholar rolling on something with a reasonable accuracy. I think we could probably do some experimentation by deriving a visual dictionary for a language no one speaks commonly or hasn't had exposure to and then seeing how much headway could be made into translating a basic document.

    Part of the focus of the Leibowitz Society is not just reading and storing material, but also doing some hands-on experimentation and practice, so I think this would be a good first project at some point.

    Again, thanks for the good words. I'm glad to see that the idea of the society has found fertile ground.


  3. hmmm, looks like the blogspot software just ate my comment (regarding english & low power fm). If this comment goes thru I'll try to repost it later.

  4. You have to love computers. I'm in the habit of copying everything before I hit the post button -- been on a few forums where the timeout was a ridiculously low value. :)