How not to put philosophy into a language

This is a follow up to my last post, “Conlangs for expressing a philosophy“.

I suppose one can use any vessel for expressing a philosophy you’d like, a prose book, fortune cookies, songs, or even a refrigerator manual or a dictionary. In the case of the refrigerator manual, the fridge stuff is just a distraction to your main message. (And hey, there is a real book, zen & the art of motorcycle maintenance)

Editorializing Definitions
“A banker is someone one who offers an umbrella only when it isn’t raining”

“fun: fun is going to church, does not apply to drunkenness, dancing or gossiping”

“There is no word for traitor”

These aren’t definitions that a real lexicographer would accept. Words are as words are used. In a conlang with users, the words are as the fans use them, the definitions in the foundational documents are just a starting point. As soon as the language is born, there will be lexical gaps– and those lexical gaps will be filled by a variety of strategies, expanding the definitions of existing words, wordy circumlocutions, and so on.

Words don’t work this way. Language is very declarative, it says what is, not what it should be. Language describes the inner reality of real people and you can’t dictate their inner reality. You can just provide some words and recommended initial usage that spans the gap between your inner reality and someone else’s. As you pair any lexicon with a given inner reality, you will see different usage patterns. For example, in modern Russia, people routinely call business men bandits and criminals, having grown up hearing that sort of thing in school and just everywhere. In the west, where the rule of law works well enough, the local baker would be a businessman, not a bandit and a westerner would make the same distinction if he were speaking Russian or English. And the Russian may fail to make the distinction if he were speaking English or Russian or a fake language with pro- (or anti-) capitalist editorializing in the official definitions.

Salvaging a bad idea
Let’s imagine a communication system really did have the above 3 rules regarding bankers, fun and traitor. To keep fans from just ignoring them, you’d need to provide words (or suitable lexicalized phrases) for “banker, as in a person to lends money or holds money for safe keeping”, “fun, as in dancing, drunkeness and gossiping”, and the compound word or phrase that means the same thing as “traitor”. The lack of a short word for traitor will be likely temporary– useful phrases get lexicalized, shortened and turned into words through time and use. The attempt to redefine banker and fun failed– instead we created two jargon words.

Anyhow, an entire language is an awfully big and cumbersome vehicle for expounding on a philosophy– if one is making a language to express a philosophy and all you have are jargon and editorializing definitions, then one might as well extract that to a discussion of philosophy and “how-things-should-be”.

(And if you haven’t read my other post, please do, it that one I’m more optimistic about getting some philosophy into a language via grammaticalizations, pronoun systems, etc)

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One Response to How not to put philosophy into a language

  1. Neicen says:

    I’ve started a blog, and I have a new entry dealing with this post, and why I advocate fusionality in conlangs.

    http://learntrix.blogspot.com/2013/02/fusion-in-conlanguages.html