Non Linguistic Communication

September 10, 2010 at 12:42 pm (Inventive Prototypes) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Alternatives to Language

Human beings are creatures of language. It is our primary way of communicating. There is an inherent satisfaction in being able to put your thoughts to words. And when we can’t put feelings to words, we idolize the people that can. The novelists, the singers, the greeting card companies.

Yet it is apparent that language breaks down when it comes to discussing some objects. While it works as narrative (fiction) or as information (non-fiction), its power to describe certain objects is quite limited. The raw emotive power of music provides a fine example. No combination of words will ever put you in the ecstatic state that music can. And for this reason we have ipods, car stereos, etc. Clearly us linguistic apes operate outside of language quite a bit.

But even as we operate outside of language, we still find ourselves bound by it. Our reaction to music, or other non linguistic forms such as smell and taste, is highly personal. While language is not immune to subjectivity, it’s the only form of communication that human beings can readily share. A short talk over the phone with the fire department is the quickest way to call for help, not music or perfume. Even in our increasingly pixelized society, the direct power of words still holds sway. Thus it is hard for us to imagine a communication system that is not language. But it can be done.

The first step is to define language. Language is so often invoked as a metaphor: programming language, machine language, the language of nature, etc. True language is much more limited than most people assume. However, language is described with precision in the scientific field known as linguistics. This is what I mean by true language.

Language is aural. Writing systems only encode the sounds of language. These sounds are produced by the manipulation of sound via the tongue, palette, vocal chords, and nasal passages. A speaker of any language will be able to distinguish a certain number of sounds (or phonemes) as meaningful. (The set of sounds is not universal.) into something that people who know the specific language can recognize. (Putting it down on still somewhat new and not universal.) The difference between sounds is slight. The difference between a “k” sound and “g” sound is whether or not the sound produced went through the vocal chords. Recognizing these differences between most sounds takes a finely tuned ear. The need for such specialization in the ear suggests that is a wide range of sounds (or for that matter any sensual perception) not incorporated into language proper.

Beyond the sounds of language (phonemes) there are morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest bits of meaning. Un-success-ful contains three morphemes. Success, which is the product of luck and work. Ful turns the noun into an adjective–possessing a degree of success. Un signals an opposite, a lack of success. We pile morphemes together to convey meaningful ideas.

All languages arrange morphemes according to some basic scheme. In English syntax (word order) is quite important. In other languages nouns, verbs and objects are marked with morphemes and their order in the sentence is not so important. What is important is that there are rules that speakers of a language follow.

So how did anyone come up with the rules and words to begin with? The answer is still elusive. What is for sure is that human beings are programmed for language. As all linguists know, young children we are especially wired for language learning.

So to sum up, language requires a great degree of specialization and aural sensitivity. The specificity of language means going beyond language for complex communication is possible. But what might it look like? I’ll skip all the details of artificial intelligence and just consider organic possibilities.

Non Linguistic Communication

The first question to ask is what medium non linguistic communication would take place in. While scent and chemical communication is effective and highly developed in many animals, it is mostly for conveying simple messages. Changing color occurs rarely and without the flexibility of sound. Touch is also quite limited. Sound is easy to produce and manipulate, so alternate communication is likely to be found there. Just how meaning might be conveyed in this system are suggested by bad language use in humans:

Non Hierarchical Construction: human readers can’t stand long sentences. Even when presented with an 800 pages, they want to keep the sentence from having more than 3 clauses. Human language is hierarchical: morphemes work words, words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs, etc. Non linguistic communication might not use such a pyramidal structure.
Dialogue: experienced fiction writers know that the combination of two voices often makes for more compelling reading than either of the speakers alone. Perhaps a species might always talk in dialogue, even alone?
Shifting Narrators: when a story shifts to a different narrator in human literature, it had better have been made explicit and happen for a reason. Shifting narrators indicate shadiness in humans. However, if a species never accepted anything as true when spoken by a single source, a communications system would be radically different from any language we know.

Unfortunately trying to create these communications are probably beyond the scope of mankind. Children that have not heard language after a certain time period have extraordinary difficulties in learning them. That window where the brain is hard wired to learn language can be closed. If it is such an investment to learn language, how much more difficult might it be to create an entirely new message system? Well, barring some Neo-Atlantis hidden in the depths by super-dolphins, any non-language system remains at the edge of imagination.

Note: the author recommends the Jorge Luis Borges story “Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbus Tertius.”

Also see my essay on the relationship between language and thought.


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