Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What language am I speaking?

Suppose I have speech impediment where whenever I try to say a sentence s of English, what comes out of my vocal apparatus is something that sounds just like a semantically unrelated sentence h(s) of Hittite. Suppose that h is a one-to-one map between sentences of English and what sound like Hittite sentences. Thus, when I try to say "Snow is white", it sounds just like Hittite for "I would like to sell you a square circle." I also have an associated hearing defect. If the sound of h(s) occurs in my environment, what I hear is the sound of s. Thus, if you speak Hittite around me and say "I would like to sell you a square circle" in Hittite, it sounds to me as if you said in English "Snow is white". As a result of the hearing defect, it sounds to me as if I were just speaking English normally—my hearing defect cancels out my speech defect.

Suppose, now, that you have the same pair of defects. Then we can communicate with one another just fine. Question: What language are we speaking with one another? Are we speaking Hittite or English or something else?

Surely, we are speaking English, but mispronouncing. But this means that we had better not understand languages in terms of the sounds made, but at most in terms of the sounds intended to be made.

We may further suppose that as it happens, the sentence h(s) of Hittite has the property that it is appropriate to assert whenever s is appropriate to assert, but has a different meaning. If that hypothesis is correct, then one cannot read off what people are saying from their behavior.

9 comments:

Enigman said...

Weird. But if I was listening to those two I would say they were speaking hittite (if I knew what hittite sounded like), and so I do think they would actually be unintensionally speaking hittite. It would seem to them that they were speaking english, and maybe that is good enough for them. But then why is it not good enough for me that it sounds like they are speaking hittite? There is this language hittite, used normally by hittites, and they are speaking it, no? It's like, if a load of monkeys randomly typed out an exact copy of the text of The Tempest, that would be a copy of The Tempest. So they would have been typing english.

Nick Fortescue said...

I agree with enigman on this one. If you had 100 independent observers, the observers would say they are speaking hittite. If either of the two did not have the hearing disability they would agree they are speaking hittite. The fact that two people are mistaken in the same way so they agree, does not make it true.

Nick Fortescue said...

I've changed my mind. A clearer example would be morse code, or a machine communication protocol like ASCII. If I send an english message in Morse code, is it English, or Morse? The answer has to be both, depending on the layer (to use a term from communciation theory) you look at it in. In this particular case, English is the higher layer, and "English encoded as Hittite" is the lower layer. It may look like hittite, but that is coincidence.

Enigman said...

Yeah, I've changed my mind too. Still, there is some ambiguity in "What language I am speaking." Children and terrorists may use one word in place of another, and they are in a sense then speaking their own language, but in another sense what they are speaking is still (say) English, but they are speaking it wrongly.

What if we take away one of the speakers of h (e.g. she is imaginary)? That is like my having a weird idea of the meanings of the language I am speaking.

Enigman said...

...or rather, of the bits (the words) of that language. And we do not look for the meaning of a word in isolation, but rather in the context of meaningful sentences.

What if we teleport such a person to the world of the Hittites. There she is simply speaking Hittite. By hypothesis she hears and intends English, but any of us might have arbitrarily weird subjective experiences as we speak English normally, so it is a pretty obscure thing, what that would mean.

Unteleported, she is unable to communicate with ordinary English-speakers. She can only communicate with either (i) someone like herself (as in your scenario) or (ii) ordinary Hittites when teleported (as in mine). So I've changed my mind again: I think she's speaking Hittite, but thinks she's speaking English.

Alrenous said...

No, you are definitely speaking Hittite.

I have this exact defect. When I attempt to say 'Snow is White' instead I produce a stream of meaningless vibrations.

But it appears you similarly have such a hearing defect; it takes these otherwise useless vibrations and turn them into 'Snow is White.'

Similarly, I intended to type out a bunch of meanings, but instead I just produced this arbitrary string of bits...

These people simply have a second layer which does not mesh well with English defects or Hittite defects. The only real difference is that instead of being unintelligible to Hittites in the usual way, it's unintelligible because of contradictions.

So I guess it's not even really Hittite, it just sounds unusually similar.


Having now read the other comments, I almost changed my mind, but didn't.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I like the two-layer suggestion a lot. But here is one difficulty for it. Suppose that we find a perfect algorithm for translating back and forth between English and Spanish with no change of meaning. And suppose that I learn how to implement this algorithm myself. I go to Mexico. Then, whenever I wish to utter a sentence of English, I mentally make use of the algorithm, and utter the corresponding sentence of Spanish. It seems that then I am actually speaking Spanish, not English.

On the other hand, if I take my English sentence, and reverse the order of syllables in each word before saying it, then it seems I am still speaking English, albeit re-encoded in a new way. After all, written and spoken English are the same language (except for some minor differences--e.g., "eschew" is hardly ever used in speech but common in writing, and many people have no idea how to pronounce it), and the difference between visual and auditory encoding is greater than the difference in reversing the order of syllables.

It would be odd if the question depended on the complexity of the encoding scheme.

Nick Fortescue said...

@Alexander
Your example depends on a false assumption. It is impossible to find an algorithm for translating perfectly between Spanish and English (at least for every case), because words have different cultural associations. This is a big problem bible translators have, and one reason why we have so many English translations.

If there was a one-to-one correspondence, hence such an algorithm, I think there would almost be a case for arguing Spanish and English were the same thing, with different encodings.

Nick

Nick Fortescue said...

At the weekend I thought of a classic British comedy sketch that (sort of) illustrates this area. So the question for you - which question is the contestant answering?

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=Xq8ZnQ95cKk