Human, and more

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Musings

I am human. I am spiritual software running on the most advanced processors that my ecosphere has ever produced.

I am made of matter and energy, of tissues and bioelectric pulses. I am a robot built of a network integrated systems of mind-numbing complexity, given form through the elegant technologies of flesh and bone and nerve in dynamic protean harmony. From the molecules that form my chemical components, to the DNA that guides the growth and transformation of my cells, to the schemas and and heuristics on which my psychology is built, I am feedback loops made real. On all levels of my existence, I am self-modifying code.

I am a mechanism that builds upon layer after layer of complexity and abstraction, until something wholly new, something which is greater than the sum of its parts, appears. I create that and I embody that. I am an engine of synergy. I am emergent behavior incarnate.

I connect with others and in doing so create systems of relationships and relative frames of reference that interface with one another, that affect each other and thus influence the biocybernetic systems that are our lives. As I live, think, and communicate, I tie myself into larger and larger feedback loops, participate in systems larger than myself. I log into an abstraction layer of context that creates reality that is more than mere fact.

I co-exist in shared experiences that occur without the permission of space. I inhabit webs of causality that correspond to no actual thing in the universe, and yet exert motive force on us and the universe through us. We create places out of nothing; we create places that are nothing. We are avatars of our essential selves, living in dynamically bootstrapped multi-user virtual environments. We are virtual beings by our very nature.

I am a thing, if a smart thing. But I am also a creator of paradoxes, of things that do not exist. I create things which are beyond reality, simply by nature of the very real thing that I am.

I am human. And, I am so much more.

What Conlangs Taught Me – Part II

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging

This is a continuation of my previous post: While that post focused mostly on what I had learned about the nature of language, this one will be a little more scattershot. If there is one theme to this post, however, it would be that few people actually understand how language works.

So let’s start off with that: Everyone uses language, but few people understand language. Language is basic fact about being human, right? But our personal understanding of language works on a cognitive level very different from our intellect. It’s more like an autonomic system that runs despite our conscious minds, not because of it. People have very little understanding about what they are doing when they use language – they simply do (which is very Zen, now that I say it that way….)

As a corollary, native speakers are the definitive experts on how to produce a particular language, but are horrible sources for understanding how their language works. If you want to know what is right, or if something would sound ‘off’ to a native speaker, you ask a native speaker. (In fact, that seems to be a lot of what linguists do – they spend their time asking native speakers how  they would say something.) If you want to know the mechanics of what they say and how they are saying it, most native speakers really have no clue.

People think they know much more about language than they actually do. People have lots of opinions about language, but most of those opinions are based off of cultural baggage or just random ideas they have. Authors are, surprisingly, some of the worst offenders. They think that because they are adept at manipulating language that they are experts at how language works. Really, their skills aren’t about language – they are about storytelling.

Even science fiction authors, who generally pride themselves on at least knowing where they are departing from established science fact, make wildly inaccurate assumptions about language. Because we as a reading community don’t understand language itself, we don’t notice. As Suzette Haden Elgin once pointed out, authors who would get raked over the coals for inaccuracies about physics or engineering can be completely off the mark about language and get no response.

Written language is very different from spoken language. When a lot of people talk about language and words, they are often talking about written language. But the real source of language is the spoken word – it’s about what we say. Written language is really an afterthought.

We conflate what we are saying with what we are writing: the sounds of the language are not the letters of the language, words are not things separated by spaces. Some of our language arguments involve spelling or punctuation (such as the never-ending parade of condescension about using apostrophes or the oddly fetishistic adoration of the Oxford comma). Spoken language really doesn’t care  – what those signify are either handled completely differently in spoken language or completely ignored.

One could argue that a spoken language and its written counterpart are not the same language, but rather different dialects. Heck, you could probably make an argument that they are different languages entirely. Think about it, a fluent speaker still needs to learn to read, and often has to learn separate rules for how the written language works (punctuation doesn’t exist in spoken language, the style of how you write is very different from the style of how you speak, etc). And people can learn to read a language, but actually not understand it if it is spoken (especially in the Internet age, where we learn a lot of information purely through text). In that way, written English and spoken English are not mutually intelligible – knowing one doesn’t mean you can understand the other. I’m overstating the idea a bit, but I think there is a kernel of truth there.

There are not 40 word for snow in Eskimo. Really, there aren’t. The story, which people seem to love, is a great example where people latch onto something because it sounds interesting. There are just lot of bad assumptions in there:

  • ‘Eskimo’ doesn’t really mean anything specific – rather it is a term born out of misunderstanding the languages and culture involved. There are a lot of different languages that you could paint with the overly-wide brush of ‘Eskimo’. Many of these languages are not all that related, if at all.
  • The concept of a word is misleading. Many of the languages people are trying to refer to with this myth have different definitions of what a word is and how words work. In the so-called polysynthetic languages, words are built up with a large number of affixes where, in English, we’d use phrases with a number of separate words. And there is still the argument to be had about what constitutes a word.
  • It implies that having lots of words for snow is uncommon. English has lots of words for snow depending on the context: snow, powder, sleet, slush, flurry, blizzard, snow drift, snowflakes, graupel, etc. And what if you count related words: snow, snowing, snowy…

Really, a lot of our clever commentary about language is not born from an understanding of language, but from creative misunderstandings of it.


Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Musings

It is the task of the mindful person to tend a garden of truth.

For our gardens, we gather seeds from life around us. In each thing is a kernel of truth, a seed from which truth may spring. They are weathered by time, ideology, passion, and apathy – but they are there. You can find them if you look.

A seed is a small thing. Your seeds will be small things: pictures, symbols, sentences, songs, stories, movements. But it is from a seed that fields and orchards are born.

Your seeds… they are your reminders of truth. They are mnemonics, ways you remind yourself of the way that you have lost. When your garden is overgrown from neglect, or destroyed by calamity – return to your seeds. Clear your garden, and grow anew.

Gather your seeds.