Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science / William Dwight Whitney -- NY: D. Appleton and Co., 1896

In 1786, Sir William Jones published The Sanskrit Language in which he remarked on similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek and suggested that all three developed from a common extinct language now called "Proto-Indo-European." Jones's observations were an important landmark in the study of language. One century later, the field of philology was in its golden age. William Dwight Whitney was among the leading philologist of the era. He was professor of Sanskrit and editor of The Century Dictionary, an English language dictionary surpassed only by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Whitney published a general treatment of language and the principles of comparative philology in 1875 entitled The Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science, which covered much of the same ground that appeared in his 1867 work, Language and the Study of Language. Life and the Growth of Language is an excellent exposition of the state of the art in philology during its heyday. It combines a clear explanation of basic linguistic concepts with hypotheses about how languages change over time. This is illustrated with analyses of specific word forms as they are transformed by the tendencies among speakers that alter language.

The great bulk of his book examines various Indo-European languages which he claims belong to the most well-developed language family. His examples show the genetic links between modern languages by examining three basic linguistic forms: inflective, agglutinative, and word order languages. All languages make use of each of these forms, though normally one is dominant. In Latin which is mainly inflective, case endings express the role that the word plays in the sentence; suffixes tell us, for example, whether the noun is the subject of the sentence or the object. In English, this information normally is revealed by the order of the words in the sentence. Agglutinative languages employ specific words to express cases and link them together in complex, compound words. Whitney's prime examples of agglutinative languages are Scythian and Chinese, in which words tend to be single syllables. These syllables are brought together to express numerous semantic relations, e.g., cases common in English, as well as passive, reflexive, causative, negative, and impossible action.

These linguistic properties are explained in the course of showing how language changes, sometimes to the extent of altering the dominant structure the language. For example, Modern English, a word order language, developed out of Old English, a inflected language; however, contrary to this trend, some Modern English inflections were formed from older agglutinative or word order features. Whitney's example of this is the past tense suffix "-ed." According to Whitney, it is the worn away expression of "did." "Did" is still used to indicate the past tense as in expressions like "he did love." The origin of the -ed ending came from a slightly different word order, "he love did." The existence of both "he did love" and "he loved" in Modern English indicates that early English was probably agglutinative where "did" served to indicate the past tense.

The Life and Growth of Language drives home the plasticity of language. Suffixes and prefixes are formed out of words worn away by lazy speakers. Conversely, word orders are standardize or specific words are employed to express what was expressed previously by now neglected inflections. Whitney describes other changes to the language related to the invention of new words and word borrowings. Both often take place as a result of significant cultural changes due to new technologies or modes of life or due to exposure to foreign cultures through trade, migration, or conquest. According to Whitney, many words originated in onomatopoeias.

In the later chapters, Whitney describes features of other language families, highlighting the amazing diversity of linguistic forms. For example, outside Indo-European languages, the distinction between verb and other parts of speech is not so stark. Single words are made to do the work of numerous parts of speech and are distinguished only by their inflections. Whitney observes that intonation is critical to distinguishing Chinese words, Native American languages make an important distinction between animate and inanimate objects rather like some languages distinguish genders, and Scythian employs fifteen to twenty separated cases.

Philologists of Whitney's time believed that the relationship between languages could be recognized by the similarity between certain core words, e.g., mother, father, brother, and others that were not likely to be replaced by new or borrowed words. Famously, Jones recognized the similarity of the Latin and Greek "pater" and "mater" and the Sanskrit "piter" and "matar," along with other similar words. Similarities between the grammatical structure of two languages provided an even stronger argument for their common ancestry. Such arguments, however, are not always convincing since accidental commonalities clearly appear between languages.

The difficulty of establishing strong connections between languages raises an important question about the "science" of philology. Whitney examines this in his last chapter. His sensitivity to the difficulties of drawing sound conclusions is, however, limited by the progress of the philosophy of science of the 19th century. While not yet widely and clearly articulated, verificationism and induction was the state of the art in the philosophy of science in Whitney's day. Falsificationism and the hypothetico-deductive method was still 50 to 75 years away from its seminal articulation in Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Since philology was concerned chiefly with reconstructing dead language that had no written record, there was little to no possibility of testing an hypothesis. All that could be done was to formulate elegant, but untestable theories that linked existing languages. This short-coming may well have been the main reason that philology did not last far into the 20th century as a science. However, with recent advances in archaeology and genetics, a larger body of evidence has become available to support philological claims. Furthermore, more recent philosophers of science and epistemologists, e.g., W.V.O. Quine and Nelson Goodman have enhanced the significance of theory construction in the progress of science, potentially establishing greater respect for future philological activity.

Whitney's work is surprisingly advanced when compared to 20th century linguistics. It is evidence that the advances in 20th century linguistics were not radical departures from the ideas of the 19th century, but merely clearer expressions of nascent older ideas. Similarly, Whitney views Indo-European languages as somehow more developed than those of other families. This reflects his time, but he also exhibits a budding awareness that all human languages are essentially equally sophisticated and are a product of a common natural human capacity. There are many passages that make Whitney sound like a typical 19th century ethnocentric imperialist and other that seem to recognize that non-Indo-European languages, even "primitive" languages, are no less sophisticated than Indo-European languages. In these passages, the difference for Whitney is mostly in the size of the languages' vocabularies, and he recognizes that this is merely a reflection of a more complex industrial society.

All in all, Whitney's The Life and Growth of Language is a fascinating romp through Indo-European philology. Happily, it requires no special knowledge to enjoy the excursion.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the OED / Simon Winchester -- NY: Harper Collins, 1998

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the truly monumental literary achievements of all time. Not only did it purport to define every English word (past and present), but it provided quotes from a wide variety of sources, exemplifying the meanings of those words and tracing the changes in their meanings over time. Furthermore, we are given the etymology of each word. The final publication of the first edition was completed forty-nine years after its primary editor, James Murray, took responsibility for the effort, but those years were preceded by approximately two decades that saw preliminary work on the dictionary by others.

The first edition was completed in ten volumes in 1928, but reprinted in twelve volumes plus a supplementary volume in 1933. In the 1970s and 1980s, four more supplements were added to the work until in 1989, the second edition was published in twenty volumes. The work was the unique product of a rather post-modern project. The first editors put out a call to the English-reading public, asking for volunteers to send in quotations that included any word that was interesting or used in an unusual way. From these contributions, sub-editors would compile promising quotations for the editors to chose from to compile the final entries. The work was, in essence, a Victorian wiki, finally composed of 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations.

Among the most important volunteers was William Minor, an American doctor living in England. Along with Murray, Minor is the subject of Simon Winchester's book, The Professor and the Madman. Minor, the madman, was incarcerated for a murder he committed in a delusional fit. His detention began in 1872 when he was 37 years old and continued until months before the end of his life in 1920. During this time, Minor indexed the words of a huge number of books, particularly eighteenth century books, and sent quotation to Murray and his team as they compiled the dictionary. Although he did not submit the most quotations for consideration by editors, Minor's quotations were especially well chosen and timely in the publication process. As particular words were being prepared for inclusion, Murray would contact Minor for his assistance and Minor would respond by examining his index and sending off the necessary quotations. Consequently, his efforts were perhaps the most important of any single volunteer.

Winchester's account of Minor's life and contribution to the dictionary is sympathetic and touching without excusing Minor's murder. Along with an informative account of the composition of the dictionary, Winchester vividly describes Minor's mental illness. As such, The Professor and the Madman is as much a case study of paranoid schizophrenia as it is an account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The descriptions of Minor's delusions stand in fascinating contrast to the systematic work of the dictionary's editors and Minor's own meticulous research.

If there is a weakness to Winchester's account, it is that it focuses too narrowly on its two protagonists and gives short shrift to the wider community of philologists, lexicographers, and volunteer readers. Granted, Winchester clearly set out to present the extraordinary story of William Minor, with James Murray in a supporting role, but Minor's contribution to the dictionary cannot be fairly assessed or even understood without placing it in its proper context.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What Technology Wants / Kevin Kelly -- NY: Viking, 2010

Computer technology, particularly the Web, is having profound impacts on the world and our lives, but that is entirely uncontroversial. It is the significance of those impacts that is worthy of discussion. Which changes wrought by technology are important and which are trivial? Which are beneficial? Which are detrimental? How will they shape our future? I had hoped that Kevin Kelly, a former editor of Whole Earth Catalog and the founding editor of Wired Magazine, would provide some illuminating answers to these kinds of questions in his new book What Technology Wants. Sadly, he has not.

What Technology Wants places the rise of technology in an evolutionary -- indeed, cosmic -- context. According to Kelly, technology (or "the technium" as he calls its collective existence) is an inevitable product of the self-organizing forces of nature, set in motion with the big bang. The technium is one of Earth's seven kingdoms of life, an ever developing outgrowth of the human mind that has already taken on such characteristics as autonomy and sentience. These are startling claims outside the circles of science fiction and require much stronger defense than Kelly provides.

Nonetheless, much of What Technology Wants is interesting and informative. In his acknowledgements, Kelly tells us that the book was based on interviews and conversations with the 48 smartest people he knows, and much of that knowledge-base is manifest in the rich detail of his book. Unfortunately, when Kelly goes beyond the details and asserts broader philosophical claims, he is out of his depth.

The book's central idea is disclosed in its title. The technium is (or at very is now becoming) capable of intentional action on the order of highly evolved living species, including humans, but with all due respect to Kelly, I can want to close a window in my house to keep from getting cold, but my thermostat does not similarly want to regulate the temperature in my house. It is simply a changeable physical link between the electric power grid and my radiator system. Kelly blithely disregards the distinction. He willfully attributes human traits to technology based on the slenderest similarities. Furthermore, crucial concepts, like intelligence, sentience, choice, and freedom, are so ill-defined that he can assert nearly anything he likes about their relationship to technology. His treatment of these psychological and philosophical ideas are surprisingly naive.

More worthwhile aspects of his book include his discussion of evolutionary forces. Here, he goes beyond a simple outline of natural selection and notes the significance of structural and historical influences on the modification of species. His extension of these observations to the development of technologies is interesting, though not aways clear. The basic outlines describe a sequence of technologies, where each new technology is predicated on its predecessors. Technologies are transformed by (1) human intention, (2) the laws of nature i.e., the structure of technologies, and (3) historical accident. Together, these forces make certain technological developments inevitable. So much so that any particular discovery commonly is made multiple times, independently, and just at the time they are ripe for discovery. Kelly suggests that this inevitable development is the trajectory that technology "wants." It is unfortunate that he employs this description, since it distracts from a serious examination of the likely future of discovery.

Among the most egregious omissions from What Technology Wants are analyses of economic forces. Today, the inevitable progress of technology likely has to do less with the nature of the technology and more with the imperatives of capital. This, of course, fits with human intentionality that Kelly identifies as driving technological development, but his fixation on the structure of technology underplays this as the most significant driving force. At most, the structure of technology establishes certain limits to what can be or is likely to be developed. By overlooking the significance of economic forces, Kelly overstates the inevitability of certain technologies. Government regulation can significantly influence the path of technological development, if the political will can be mustered.

The second greatest omission is an analysis of the consequences of the end of easily acquired oil as an energy source. This historical accident might profoundly delay or reverse the growth of technology. Kelly suggests that the accumulation of technological advances has led to an constant doubling of the power of the technium. This is known as "Moore's Law" when applied to the development of computer chips. Allegedly, this exponential growth has generated the astounding explosion of technology in recent years, but was is missing here is the discovery and use of easily available oil as a fuel for growth. Kelly might, of course, identify the harnessing of oil as a technology that fits within his growth curve, but he does not recognize that far from being an interim step toward greater growth, oil-powered technologies are only as sustainable as the reserves that fuel them. Kelly's unlimited technological development is more likely to slow and even reverse when our oil-based economy slows to a crawl.

Finally, at least for the purposes of this review, Kelly's notion of progress is based on expanding "freedom" understood as nothing more than a greater range choices. For Kelly, the evolving technium is a choice-creating force and choice-creation appears to be his highest value. Kelly explicitly rejects the alternative value of human happiness as a direct measure of the value of individual technologies or the technium in general. While it is certainly true that technologies often have promoted human happiness, they have also promoted human suffering. Kelly believes the the former slightly out weighs the latter. It is a judgement that is hard, if not impossible, to quantify, but Kelly's infatuation with technology ensures his own answer. It is likely to be persuasive only to those previously convinced of its truth.

In the final chapters, Kelly confides his infatuation with technology. He probably expects the readers who have stuck with him for so long agree with him. He writes, "I find myself indebted to the net for its provisions. It is a steadfast benefactor, always there. I caress it with my fidgety fingers; it yields to my desires, like a lover. Secret knowledge? Here. Predictions of what is to come? Here. Maps to hidden places? Here." He continues this sort of lurid prose for several paragraphs. In the final chapter, Kelly discusses the technium's relationship to God. He writes, "If there is a God, the arc of the technium is aimed right at him....The ongoing self-organized mutability of life, evolution, mind, and the technium is a reflexion of God's becoming," and "we can see more God in a cell phone than a tree frog."

What Technology Wants is a lively, interesting, entertaining, infuriating, absurd book, filled with over-generalizations, willfull surrender to conceptual errors, inappropriate analogies, and dubious metaphysics. Hopefully, better books on its important topic will evolve soon.