Nancy Salzman
Nancy Salzman

The Siecnce and Art of Lnauagge

The pheonmneal pweor of the human mnid aoccdrnig to rsceearch at Cmabrigde _________…

Incredible, is it not? To decode written language, simply have the correct first and last letters of a word—the others can be scrambled—and our minds will do the rest! If you correctly decoded both the title of this piece and the leading sentence, you should have read, “The Science and Art of Language,” with the next sentence, “The phenomenal power of the human mind according to research at Cambridge University.” Your decoding was enabled by progressively finer levels of associative structure overlaid on incoming data. In the above title you perceived the written symbols “Lnauagge” and, in effect, saw the associative structure, “Lxxxxxxe.” You then utilized a finer level of discernment and saw something more like, “Lnxuagxe.” As you continued to decipher the symbols and compared the forming word to a general template of all words you have seen beginning with “L,” ending with “e,” about eight letters long, you probably refined your decoding further. You likely associated letter symbols and lengths of combinations of letter symbols with known word forms. For example, in “Lnauagge” you might have found the segment “uag” a familiar letter combination, and the unfamiliar segment “Lna” close to the known combination “Lan.” Once these basic building blocks had been deciphered, within the context of the first and last letters, the word “Language” appeared. Had the original symbols been “Lnauaguge” with an extra “u,” you may still have deciphered them—albeit incorrectly—as the word “Language,” although the scrambled word probably would have “felt” too long.

To further decipher the message, you utilized grammar and syntax patterns with a series of cultural heuristics to ultimately understand each word, the sentence and the bonus word; which was left blank. When the rest of the jumbled message was decoded, it revealed the phrase “research at Cambridge ______” as a final puzzle. How did you determine what should fit in this blank? If you strictly looked at the preceding word “Cambridge,” you might have been inclined to think “Diet,” but as you examined the context more generally, you found a better solution: “University.” The word just seemed to jump out—you did not even have to sort through other possibilities such as, “Massachusetts.” How did this happen?

According to one theory, you may have knowledge of template phrases such as, “research at ______ University” (along with the knowledge research often occurs at universities) and have also heard the word combination “Cambridge University.” The juxtaposition of these elements increases the associative probability of finding the word “University” as the completion of the puzzle. This method allows you to potentially find the answer even if you have never heard the exact phrase “research at Cambridge University.” There is obviously great redundancy in the written word—the last word of the message was not even necessary! Or was it?

Suppose we delete the word “University” from the final phrase. Almost everyone who reads the sentence will still understand the message and even “fill in” the missing word. Evidently, the word “University” is not essential to understanding this message. But take this one step further: always leave out the word “University” in the phrase “Cambridge University.” Once this revision has come to be standard usage, the blank space in the above message will be indecipherable. By changing our sociocultural language template, we have eliminated a redundancy but also reduced precision and our ability to predict similar constructions. Here are just a few changed templates resulting in lost precision: Sears is actually Sears, Roebuck & Company; Intel comes from Integrated Electronics Corporation; and MCI is actually a contraction of Microwave Communications, Inc. During the early twentieth century, most people could easily fill in the missing blank of, “American Telephone & ______” (AT&T). Currently, I suspect most people do not know the second “T” in AT&T stands for the word “Telegraph.” In the above examples, the loss of precision appears to be inconsequential. After all, what harm could there be in thinking the final “T” of AT&T stood for some other relevant word like “telecommunications”?

The general process of template transformation can lead to destruction of relevant precision. In our titular example, if the word “University” is no longer strongly associated with the word “Cambridge,” our puzzle “Cambridge _________” could be a place, a company or even something we cannot decipher. It is evident sociocultural templates play an essential role in the understanding of language.

Over time, sociocultural templates are reduced, expanded and distorted. The resulting transformations often dramatically affect our understanding of the written word. Many contemporary readers of Gulliver’s Travels cannot solve the puzzle, “English Lilliputians, ________ Blefuscudians,” which readers during the time of its publishing easily completed with the word “French.”

Beyond the sociocultural, cognitive shortcuts we use to understand and create language, we are also limited and guided by our non-cognitive, sense-perceptual mechanisms. By the time data reaches our cognition, we have imposed at least two layers of organizing, non-cognitive filters. First, our sense discrimination is limited in range and degree. As examples, we cannot sense x-rays because they are outside our range of sensation and we cannot discriminate between two distances a nanometer apart. Second, our bodies are non-uniform, imperfect perception devices—we are more sensitive in certain areas than others, so our incoming data is falsely skewed.

Our communications are subject to these same limitations. Although this state of affairs may seem helplessly destructive, it actually enhances communication. If all humans perceptually skew data the same way, the common “lexicon” of perceptual results to perceptual input makes communication vastly more efficient. This is a more generalized form of using a sociocultural language template to help derive the word “university” to solve the titular puzzle. As an example of the efficiency generated by physiological similarity, imagine seeing a person react non-verbally to a situation. Most of us could write quite a complicated essay on our impression of what the person was feeling and maybe even thinking: even a simple communication of a frown speaks a thousand words to those of us who can frown. As humans, we rely on an information-rich, common foundation for all human communication. This foundation is not only utilized—it is assumed. This assumption both limits and greatly simplifies communication.

Language, in part a product of our sensory mechanism, is an even more specific category of communication. Our language, therefore, is a reflection of our biology as well as our cognition and current culture. When we share language with someone we share these very things. Poetry moves us partially because we share a similar body, mind and culture with the poet. If any of these factors were incompatible, the communication would be severely impacted. When we use language, we certainly do share more than just words!

Language both affects us and is affected by us. In a deep sense, it is created by us and we are created by it. Language in this sense is a system with which we co-create our experience of humanity. As such, we find language formed as the boundary between an expressive element, which is identity, and a predictable element, which is mutual usability.

Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.

– Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State

The expressive, free-creation aspect of language is its art: that which has as its foundation the subjective, infinitely personal essence we call “free will.” The structured objective aspect of language is its science: that which creates consistency and can be generated by computers to simulate human speech. The long-hypothesized “Turing test” examines and illustrates this precise difference. The Turing test is executed as follows: a person is tasked to discriminate between two completely hidden subjects. The only data available to the person is an unlimited, generally text-based language exchange with both subjects. One of the subjects is a computer, the other is a human. If, given a sufficient duration, the person cannot differentiate between the human and the computer, the computer is said to have passed the Turing test and is said to have intelligence. Many believe the Turing test is impassable. It may well be a computer will never even simulate having the foundation of a physical body. Such a template, assumed by any human during communication, would require an immense quantity of highly-organized data to affect in real-time.

However, what if one day a machine were to demonstrate it has intelligence? Would it be able to fake these subtleties of body, mind and culture necessary to consistently pass this test? The machine would not only need to simulate the human template; it would have to respond to the ever changing culture of humanity as a human would. In a very general sense, the machine’s template would need to be recursive; it would also need to both express and be impressed as a human; it would need to sense itself and the environment as a human would. This would be the only way it could avoid a type of inflexible, ultimately revealing “archaicness” uncommon to humans.

If this did occur, our sacred human intellect would be decreed mechanical. The final frontier left in the search for the answer to human experience would be a test for the existence of the human soul or, in the least, free will. If we link human intelligence to language as the Turing test most certainly does, and free will to human intelligence as experienced through such a test, then our experience of free will is both facilitated by and created by our use of language.

Both the structured and expressive aspects of language are co-modifying and constantly evolving. As participants in this evolution, we create language structure to facilitate our expression and are limited by this structural enforcement of how we experience the world. More than filling a blank with a cultural-linguistically appropriate answer, “university,” we fill the blank of pre-perceptual existence with the human experiential template—and this template is a manifestation of what Noam Chomsky refers to as the “deep structure” of language.

Noam Chomsky, through his linguistic approach, defined both a “surface structure” and a “deep structure” of language. The surface structure of language is the specific, objectively-defined words and grammars used in expression. It is, within human fallibility, scientific and objective. The deep structure of language is the meaning, and internal experience, of the surface structure language. Even the simplest word like “mother” has the same objective surface structure for all speakers of our language, yet the deep structure—what “mother” means to each of us along with the memories, images, feelings, tastes, smells and sounds relating to “mother”—is completely personal and subjective; with no two people sharing it identically. So, at the deepest footings of this objective surface structure lies our subjective, personal experience of the world—in this case the word “mother.”

Each time we use a word like “mother,” the context of its use becomes part of the memory of the word—its deep structure—and modifies the word’s deepest meaning to us and our deepest experience of “mother.” Even reading this article has changed your meaning of “mother.” In this way, our language creates us or, in the least, our deep experience of the world. By specifically understanding the complete, efficient use of surface and deep structures of language (both its art and its science), each person can capture his or her full human potential in the world. Whether a person has relationship issues, thought process issues, ethical issues, family issues or simply less joy than he or she wants, unifying the person’s deep structure through language will, by definition, lead to a more fully-expressive, joyful individual.

Within the field of human potential, understanding and utilizing a systems approach to language, apart from spiritual pursuits, is the newest—yet possibly the oldest rooted—most potent force in human transformation. Imagine a person, free from internal contradictions of deep structure, without false fear and insecurity, able to express morally, ethically as a joyous human. This is the possibility of language; language used as an entryway to the human soul.

 From Odin and the Sphinx, First Edition.

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