Language: the 3D computer game

For all the sites for language games , constructed languages , artificial languages, Klingon, palindrome collectors, machine translation jokery, slang rangers and the like now active on the web, has anyone tried to apply decent digital design (DDD) to the task of showing how plain old natural language works?

By DDD, I mean deploying animation, graphics, and powerful multimedia interactivity. For the last couple of millennia, discourse about language (i.e. linguistics, translation theory and even language teaching) has made do with static 2D graphics, word lists, tree diagrams to show relationships between items, and various sets of icons to represent spoken pronunciation. We now have the computing power and associated design practices to represent codified knowledge about language so much more powerfully. Surely it’s time to pull language description as a discipline screaming and kicking into a visual culture of swarms, flows and 3D.

There are two obvious angles of approach for a radically dynamic visual representation of language. One would be to show how languages constantly change through time and space – the geography and history of all human tongues as interweaving kinetic patterns. This is the easy approach, since it is in a sense “external” to language as discourse. One simple attempt I have seen is this ‘animated’ site devoted to showing how various character sets, such as the Latin alphabet, evolved over time. But DDD I’m afraid it ain’t.

The other, far more complex line of attack would be to explore the internal structures and relationships of languages, again as visual displays of fields, waves and particles in constant evolution, not as lists of immutable rules. The problem here is that the analysis of language structure underlying such a presentation is theory-driven rather than an objective given. But you could surely generate a nice digital movie that includes all the different approaches to language analysis as they compete for explanatory supremacy.

The real issue about this DDD approach is that it would itself embody a ‘theory’ about language as flow, rather as our old bookish word culture of language led to a theory of structures that were somehow transformed over time. A dynamic, flowing view of language as endless coagulations of meanings emerging into symbolic form and then disappearing again, contrasts starkly with the mechanical plod of a history based on rules.

The linguist Andrew Wedel recently drew attention to this new linguistics agenda:

“I think there is a big shift from the explanation from a single level, advocated by Noam Chomsky, that one grammar algorithm is coded in our genes, to a more layered set of explanations where structure gradually emerges in layers, over time through many cycles of talking and learning,” he said.

“Languages are the ripples in the dunes and the grains of sand are our conversations, generations talking to each other and learning things and slowly creating these larger ripples in time.”

And Rob Freeman among other linguists is trying to develop computer models of language built out of rules that emerge from utterances, rather than utterances being pre-defined by rules. Now that we can stream our talk and text as bits and bytes that can instantly transform into any kind of multimedia pattern, we have a source of raw data whose own properties – not those imposed by a tradition of lists and rules – could inspire understanding. Or just entertain us.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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