Sunday, March 31, 2013

Philosophy of Language

Plato's Cratylus again Plato shows his uncanny aptitude for inovation by discussing a part of philosophy that is generally considered modern.  Once again, he's ahead of his time.  Here's the two primary lines of argument.  First, language is more or less arbitrary, words get their meaning based on arbitrary assignments or convention.  Second, language comes from a source like nature or god and our use of it is an imperfect reflection of true language.  In general, Plato, using Socrates' voice argues both sides of the issues and then ends up supporting neither.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, I pretty much side with Plato on this one.  I don't think either side of the coin answers reality.  I mentioned this before, this is a stereotypical giraffe:

What if I told you I have a beautiful giraffe that has short legs and a short neck and looks like this:

So, what say you?  Is that a giraffe?  What if lots of people all started calling this a giraffe?  What if EVERYONE started calling this a giraffe? People in Korea call it a 기린 (gilin--kīrīn), people in China say 長頸鹿 (chángjǐnglù), people in Japan say キリン (kirin--kīrīn, not surprising that it's nearly identical to Korean), people call it kameelperd in certain versions of Afrikaans.  If we're to subscribe to a source for our language why don't we all call it a kameelperd?  We probably should, if there's some ethereal language source out there by which all languages are derived.  If language is completely subjective and reliant to what people prefer then it makes sense that we now call that first picture a giraffe at least in English speaking places.  Obviously it makes sense that that we use just the word giraffe rather than always saying, wow look at that nice long-necked, long-legged, 16-20ft tall, approximately 3,500lb, mammal, etc. etc. just to describe a giraffe.  Obviously it's much easier to just use the word which apparently comes from Arabic, zarafa (زرافة).

I believe that God created human and taught Adam and Eve how to speak.  Perhaps not the way we think of teaching per se, but rather like the Matrix where information is just uploaded into the subject's mind.  I think (just an assumption, since the Bible includes Adam and God communicating) that God must have made Adam and thereby Eve with language.  Though Adam may have taught Eve how to communicate.  So, I believe the answer is both, God taught Adam language and that language has changed over the years since.  Also, the verses in Genesis about the Tower of Babel are telling.  Obviously God saw fit to use the power of language to enact change.  Then, over the six thousand some odd years since language has changed.  It's interesting that we seem to be following a cycle.  According to biblical history humans all started out with the same language then everything changed so that there are many different languages but we seem to be heading towards globalization of a single language again.  That idea happens to be prophesied in the Bible as well, though it seems quite a long ways in the future.

What say you?  Is there some magical source of language?  Is it merely convention?  Is it both?