Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Layers of Language

The other day I found myself talking to a friend of mine about computer languages. One of the interesting things about computer languages is how they have increased in complexity and layered over one another. The interfaces that we see on our computer screens look simple and easy because there are lots of intervening layers of meaning between what is simple and easy for us, and what is understandable by a computer chip. In the conversation with my friend, I ended up describing binary machine code - how zeroes and ones correspond to the presence or absence of an electrical signal. To get from that to a pretty window with icons to click on requires an elaborate process of translation which progresses through multiple layers of linguistic re-interpretation.

Zeros and ones are obviously not the only option as a fundamental basis for language - they are just associated with the structure of computer chips. I recently read an interesting article about something called "memristors," which don't have the same either-or structure and have the potential to change this fundamental basis. Here's a description of them at Wired magazine.

This layering reminds me in some sense of human language, except that the layering of human language occurs over time (here's a post I wrote on language change, for the curious). Language speakers will take ideas and put them together, combining words to express that complexity. Then, when such a combination gets used a lot of times, the sounds will simplify and the word will become unique and singular. For a while the underlying meanings will outlive the alteration of their sounds, but eventually the word will become opaque, and those who learn to utter it will have to be taught, explicitly, what the word's origins once were. Here are two examples:

God's wounds => 'zwounds =>zounds
All Hallows Even => Hallow e'en => Halloween

I bet you can guess what put me on to this idea... Mike Flynn has a fascinating post on the history of Halloween as a holiday (and about saints), which everyone should read. It's here.

etymology and the history of language. words/expressions that start out meaningful and then become opaque, like Halloween.