Clemens Lode
January 22, 2022
A signpost pointing into different directions with languages written on it (source: Shutterstock).

Properties of Language

This is an excerpt from the book series Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge.

Our perception of the world began with the perception of entities and the consciousness of our own existence. From these first perceptions, we have formed an entity-based language. In contrast to this, process-based language is centered on representations of changes in entities over time (e.g., “it is raining,” or “evolution”). Our language is a mixture of both entity-based as well as process-based language. Here, we discuss the simpler case of the description and communication of entities and their properties. This depicts the essence of our language: “What entities are there and what are their properties?”

Did you know? Eastern philosophies focus much less on perceiving the world in terms of entities than Western philosophies do. Instead, they see the world and its parts as processes, with the entities (including humans) being just their temporary representatives. Read more in Philosophy for Heroes: Continuum.

The first form of language is a type of inner dialog. We all learned a certain connection while being fed as babies, namely that the consumption of food quells our (negative) feeling of hunger. This chain of thought occurs implicitly, without the aid of conventional spoken language; it simply takes place within us. The physical realization of this “language” is located only in our neuronal structures. It merely places certain sense perceptions in relation to one another and reinforces the connection between different experiences through repetition. We can also consciously refer back to this concept by remembering the respective concrete situation, thus placing into memory an image of our sense data of the moment, and contemplating it with our “mind’s eye.”

The concept of language—like any other concept—becomes clear only when we have become familiar with several different languages. We have to get to know the limits of a concept in order to be able to define it clearly. Our use of the term language is far broader than merely referring to specific languages such as German, English, or Spanish. There are many different languages whose elements arose coincidentally or out of convenience, while other elements represent essential components. These languages differ in complexity, expressive power, degree of completeness, degree of precision, and translatability. We can communicate with sounds, music, hand signals, writing, or merely with our eyes.

Language is ultimately the physical realization, i.e., the application of concepts: each instance of the creation and use of concepts involves a form of language. The degree of complexity with which this language can be constructed can be limited by our physical capabilities. But as soon as we can contemplate a certain number of concepts, whether simultaneously or in sequence, all the possibilities are open to us and we can—step by step—construct an indefinitely large concept hierarchy tree.

In addition, in most cases, language consists of units which are sharply delimited from one another. A word should not relate to a different concept because of small changes in the pronunciation. This plainly stems from the “noise” in everyday speech: communication would be difficult if, for example, the word “mouse” spoken more loudly corresponded to “elephant.” Likewise, there would be problems in written correspondence due to different fonts or handwriting: just because you write a word in bold, its concept does not change. There are, in fact, such cases in our own language, namely homonyms, whose pronunciation determines their meaning (homographs, “bear” as in “animal” vs. “bear” as in “to support or carry”), or whose meaning is different but whose pronunciation is the same (homophones, “rose” as in “plant” vs. “rose” as in “past tense of rise”). The advantage of a language with sharply delimited units also becomes apparent with whistled languages which you can encounter mostly in mountainous regions, in dense forests, in regions with spread-out settlements, or in connection with hermetic professions like shepherding. The volume differences that are required to transport a message over longer distances do not have any effect on the conceptual contents of the message. A similar concept can be found in our telephone system: analog transmission of sound (the sound waves you speak into the telephone) was replaced by digital transmission of sound: first, your sound waves are encoded into 0s and 1s, transmitted to the receiver, and then again decoded into sound waves.

We can also use gestures complementary to spoken language. “[T]hey provide information that cannot be derived from the spoken utterance alone […] information about the speed and direction of movement, about the relative position of people and objects, and about relative size of people and objects.” At the same time, our bodies outwardly express an uninterrupted, passive communication. Each movement can be interpreted and thus gives some indication of our frame of mind. To conclude, gestures refer to measurements. Given the medium at hand, we will focus on written language in the further course of this chapter, and only occasionally refer to gestures like pointing at things. Let us first take a look at the concepts:

SITUATION ·  A situation consists of a certain number of entities, their changes in properties, their mutual interactions, and their relationships to one another, at certain times and in certain places.
IMAGE ·  An image is an entity that is linked to another entity by a mental connection.
LANGUAGE ·  A language is a system by means of which we can translate knowledge of a situation (and concepts) into a series of images and supporting linguistic constructs, and conversely, translate a series of images and linguistic auxiliary constructs into knowledge of a situation (and concepts). Language is the application of concepts and the hierarchy of these concepts.

The aforementioned images take shape in written language as follows:

LETTER ·  A letter is a small symbol or image (“a,” “b,” “c,” etc.).
WORD ·  A word consists of a number of ordered letters.
SENTENCE ·  A sentence consists of a number of ordered words.
NOUN ·  A noun is a word that stands as a representative of an entity (proper noun, e.g., “Peter”) or a concept (common noun, e.g., “dog”).
VERB ·  A verb is a word that refers to the changes in properties of a noun (e.g., an action: “Peter runs”).
ADJECTIVE ·  An adjective is a word that describes a corresponding noun in more detail. It adds a measurement to a property of the corresponding concept (e.g., “a tall tree”).
ADVERB ·  An adverb is a word that refers to a verb and compares the mode or degree of change in properties with another change in properties (e.g., “She treaded down the hallway quietly”); alternatively, an adverb can relate to an adjective or another adverb and describe it more accurately (e.g., “He had very big eyes”).
SUBJECT ·  A subject is the noun to which the verb refers as an origin (e.g., “Peter runs”).
OBJECT ·  An object is a noun to which the verb refers as a target (e.g., “Peter throws the ball.”).

We will now consider the question of the origin of writing, in order to have a framework in which to classify our modern language.

The Origin of Writing

In contrast to spoken language, we can trace the origin and development of writing through pieces of text recovered from antiquity. The central point of the development of language was the Ice Age, which ended approximately 12,000 years ago, when the temperature worldwide was as low as 10 °C below the present average. As there was no knowledge of building or construction, humans sought refuge in caves, which, together with fire, offered protection from the elements, particularly wind. There arose the precursor of writing, in the form of cave paintings, through which a tribe was able to relate its history and preserve its culture (and hence its social cohesion, which proved important to survival). Tribe members could pass on important knowledge to the next generation, such as which parts of the body of an animal are vulnerable to attack, animal herd formations, or hunting strategies. Thus, whoever could interpret the drawings of their ancestors was a valuable member of the tribe. In addition, shamans who experienced hallucinations through trance, drug consumption, or oxygen deprivation in cave systems deep in the Earth were able to make those “visions” visible to others. During cave explorations, scientists have found the now-silent remains of these experiences. Deeply hidden in the underground, they have encountered symbols and pictures, including spirals, lines, and dots, dating back 100,000 years. [cf. for the study of Human Knowledge, 2012]

Before reaching its present form, writing passed through a number of stages of development. A notable precursor took the form of transportable, inscribable objects which were used as a kind of signature or document for the exchange of goods. A 60,000-year-old example was unearthed in modern South Africa, showing repeating symbols inscribed on eggshells, which was at the time the oldest discovered artifact resembling writing. [cf. Bower, 2010] According to theory, they served social interactions among the group. [cf. Texier et al., 2010] These interactions became more and more important as increasing numbers of people assembled in one place. Whether as a protection against theft, due to a hierarchical societal structure, or simply for reasons of efficiency, food was stored centrally in temples or granaries and exchanged for inscribed clay tablets as an indication of ownership, similar to a currency.

Rooted in these cave paintings and tablet inscriptions, forms of writing gradually developed which depicted living conditions—at first concretely and then, over time, ever more abstractly, favoring simpler, more compact, and more meaningful linguistic representation. For a monolingual society, this proved to be the natural development, as all speakers shared the knowledge of how to correctly express chosen words upon recognizing them in writing. But this symbolic script turned out to be counterproductive, since people not only had to learn the spoken language itself, but also its independent, symbolic representation.

The Egyptian hieroglyphs developed in a society which saw itself as the center of the world—albeit understandably, in view of the technological, medical, and societal-organizational preeminence at the zenith of the Egyptian empire. They had little interest in maintaining relations with other peoples, and the strictly hierarchically organized society contributed little to widespread literacy. Writing was mostly reserved for specialists working in the service of the state. For them, the effort required to learn 1,000 to 5,000 different hieroglyphs was acceptable. [Holst, 2011, pp. 227–30]

How did ancient sea-trading affect the development of our current alphabet?

A very different scene unfolded with the ascent of the ancient Phoenician civilization in about 1050 BC. Its means of existence consisted of widespread trading activity in the entire Mediterranean region. The Phoenicians undertook long trading journeys which brought them into contact with many different societies. In view of this, they required two things in terms of writing: widespread literacy in their own population, enabling them to secure investments and payment contracts, and a writing system that would be easy for their foreign trading partners to learn and translate. At the same time, this writing system would also be used to write down the foreign languages of those trading partners. Their solution was the use of a phonetic alphabet.

It was presumably this economic motivation that superseded the intuitive attempt to use pictures for terms in writing (such as the Egyptian hieroglyphs), in favor of the invention of the Phoenician alphabet. Thus, at the heart of written language, images of culturally pre-existing central motifs of daily life were replaced by a system based on abstraction, which built upon the great commonality of all people: the spoken language.

PHONEME · A phoneme is a sound syllable that represents a single unit of sound that a person can make. In the English language, there are about 44 phonemes.

If each phoneme is assigned a symbol, any given spoken language can be written down and read aloud, and the pronunciation can be learned along with the script. Over time, the Egyptians themselves moved progressively further from a picture-based representation toward the use of hieroglyphs as symbols for spoken syllables; but the societal and economic pressure on the development of writing was quite different than in the case of the Phoenicians.

Example A similar example to Egypt and Phoenicia would be China and Japan. In Japan, the Kana system, an alphabet with one symbol for each sound syllable, was invented in the 9th century while Chinese itself largely remained ideographic. Only recently (20th century), China adopted the Pinyin (“spelled sounds”) system, allowing standardized transcription of Chinese based on sounds.
Our present-day writing system descends from the Phoenician alphabet. It was a writing system that emerged in the ancient Mediterranean sea-trading environment and that depicted sounds used in speech (phonemes) instead of pictorial representations of concepts.

Due to its great economic significance, the Phoenician alphabet spread throughout the Mediterranean region. Without the alphabet (and the papyrus invented by the Egyptians and traded by the Phoenicians), there likely never would have been an Iliad or Odyssey in Greece by Homer, nor would the Roman Empire have taken over the Italian peninsula. It eventually developed, through a number of intermediate forms (Aramaic, Greek, Punic, ancient Hebrew, Etruscan, etc.), into the various present-day alphabets (Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic, etc.). This close relationship becomes clear when comparing the development of the alphabets:

BiographyHomer Even in antiquity, Homer was a legend. He was so famous that it is not clear where, when, and if he lived at all or if he is used to represent a number of authors. He is assumed to be the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and to have lived around 800 BC in ancient Greece. Both works count as some of the oldest extant works of Western literature. The stories are about the Trojan War (probably 1200 BC at the west coast of today’s Turkey) and its aftermath. They tell us about protagonists and their individual struggles. They transcend the mere portrayal of inherently good or bad persons. Characters from gods to goatherd all show different right or erroneous thinking independent of their status. Still, Homer’s world remains a supernatural one where events are explained with the personal will of the gods and not with causality. It was a world where gods are worshiped because they were powerful, not because they were moral.
Did you know? The word “Bible,” which literally means “the book,” is derived from the name of the former Phoenician city of Byblos (Lebanon). It is the oldest continously inhabitated city of the world and was a central trading place for papyrus, the predecessor of paper. Likewise, the word “phonetic” (phonetic alphabet) is derived from “Phoenician.”

Now that we have classified our language historically, we will consider what types of language there are in terms of their expressibility.

Completeness and Consistency

Poor creatures. Why must we destroy you? I’ll tell you why. Order is the tide of creation, but yours is a species that worships the one over the many. You glorify your intelligence because it allows you to believe… anything. That you have a destiny. That you have a right. That you have a cause. That you are special. That you are great. But in truth, you are born insane. And such misery, cannot be allowed to spread. — Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation [cf. Neumeier and Tippett, 2004]

What is an example of a consistent language? What is an example of a complete one?

The movie Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation is about an alien insectoid race which criticizes the thought pattern of humankind that allows humans to think and act independently of reality. It takes this unpredictability as a reason to wage war against humanity. This criticism is somewhat justified as many of our conflicts ultimately can be traced back either to fear of the unknown or to an inconsistent use of language. While we can express everything with our language (“complete”), it can be applied inconsistently because of logical errors in our statements. The problem is that many ignore this fact and assume that anything that can be said or asked using language is worth examining. In the further progress of this book series, we will learn to identify invalid questions and to communicate with others objectively.

Language constitutes a formal system which determines how we have to combine words to form a statement. This system, however, only provides formal rules, like a sentence must contain a subject and verb. But just because a sentence is formally correct concerning its spelling and grammar, this does not mean that the underlying statement of the sentence is connected to reality. You could ask “Why is it raining today?” when there was no rain that day at all. The question is grammatically correct yet makes no sense.

Specifically regarding the expressive ability of such formal systems like languages, we consider Gödel’s First Incompleteness Theorem, proven by logician Kurt Gödel, to which we will frequently refer in the following discussion. The theorem states: Each sufficiently powerful formal system is either inconsistent or incomplete. It means that, if we use a language with which we can make statements (“sufficiently powerful”), it is either complete but inconsistent or incomplete but consistent.

Each (sufficiently powerful) formal system is either inconsistent or incomplete (Gödel’s First Incompleteness Theorem).

Incomplete Languages

We know that we can use our language inconsistently because its grammar allows us to make statements like, “This statement is wrong.” What would a consistent (but incomplete) language look like? Such a language assigns each situation a unique phoneme and contains no self-referential statements or combinable component parts (like subject, verb, object, etc.). Due to the finite number of phonemes, such a language is usable only on a very limited basis. We can imagine a basket of apples. For every new apple we put into the basket and for each other basket we encounter, we would have to invent a new phoneme.

Somewhat more complex languages at least permit the compounding of phonemes into words. A word is thus a specified unit in a vocabulary. But as with the phonemes, we would have to remember a unique word for each situation and for each combination of details. [cf. Zimmer, 2008, p. 22] The resulting virtually infinite number of expressions required to describe all situations makes this limited form of a language impractical. Consider that the description of all possible chess game positions would already require approximately 1050 (i.e., a 1 with 50 zeroes) different terms.

However, despite its impracticality, this form of language remains, to a certain degree, an essential component of our linguistic culture. To illustrate, we could show a video from a vacation trip. In the absence of tampering, the video in itself would be free of contradictions since it simply reflects the light captured at certain time periods. But if we allow for editing, we would be once again in the realm of a complete but possibly inconsistent language. We could mix up the sequence of events, first showing ourselves on the mountaintop and only then during the climb up instead of the other way around. Even closer to reality than a video would be simply pointing to situations in our surroundings—the proto-language we always readily refer back to when we, or our counterpart, cannot speak the language of the country.

This leads us to the Pirahã, a small tribe of hunters and gatherers in the Amazon region whose language is clearly different from others in significant ways, as it is missing self-reference. Instead, each situation is described in separate sentences. [cf. Everett, 2009, pp. 224–43] Their language comes relatively close to an “ideal” consistent language. For cultural reasons the Pirahã only express what is directly obvious; in their language, the ability to make self-referential statements is thereby limited, and thus we could even label them model empiricists. For instance, “My brother’s house” would have to be expressed in separate sentences as “I have a brother. The brother has a house.”

What makes us human, that’s what this debate is all about. Where does our language come from? Is our language some mysterious gene that somehow crept in our evolution? If so, that’s worth knowing, that’s very interesting. What I’m claiming is that culture can affect not just the words of a language but the entire grammar of a language. And I’m saying that the Pirahã are one clear example of this happening. —Daniel Everett, The Grammar of Happiness [cf. Michael et al., 2012]

This contradicts theories of an innate universal grammar proposed by linguists such as Noam Chomsky who considered self-reference as essential to all human grammar. Language structures are thus a product of our upbringing and culture—and language itself thereby represents a cultural artifact, a sort of technology, which has developed from generation to generation in our minds, but not in our genes.

BiographyDaniel Everett Daniel Everett was born in 1951 in the United States and studied linguistics as part of the preparation for his work as a missionary in the Amazonian jungle. His main focus is the language of the Pirahã and how it related to Noam Chomsky’s idea of universal grammar. During his expedition in the Amazonian jungle in the 1980s, he was confronted with the views of the Pirahã, which are very much rooted in reality. His failed attempts to convert them to Christianity ultimately lead to him becoming an atheist and positioning himself against one of the figureheads of linguistics, Chomsky. This courage to question what he thought was wrong is one of the traits of a hero. His book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes renewed the academic discussion about whether recursivity is part of an inborn language ability of humans or not.

We can take a further example of a language related to reality from the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr. This language employs no self-referential terms when dealing with relations between objects in terms of their geographical location, and so there are no words for “left,” “right,” “in front,” and “behind.” Instead, the cardinal directions are used for this purpose. Thus, we would not ask whether someone could please move a little bit to the right, but whether he could move a little bit to the north. [cf. Deutscher, 2010]

At first glance, this does not quite fit with the distinction between complete and consistent languages, i.e., it would violate Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. With the knowledge of the cardinal directions, every statement would be true and consistent—and exact and impossible to misunderstand at that. Under closer investigation, however, the question arises of how the system could function outside its natural frame of reference (the Australian desert). In many locations, such as underground, at the north or south poles, in Earth’s orbit, on the moon, etc., we would have to establish a new frame of reference—here again a case of a consistent but incomplete language. Perfect for the desert where there are no significant landmarks, unusable for the application within a city.

Inconsistent Languages

The most widely spoken languages (such as Chinese, English, Spanish, and German) are instead mixtures of elements of both types of language and allow for syntax. Whenever we can choose from a limited number of alternatives in order to provide an exact representation of a situation, we prefer the consistent, rather than the complete, form of language.

SYNTAX ·  In languages with syntax, words can be combined into sentences that each correspond to a meaning.

It should be emphasized, though, that the inconsistency of our complete language does not mean that we cannot practice philosophy, or that no statements at all can be true. Simply because we can form inconsistent statements, does not mean that all statements are affected. We should simply be aware of the limitations of language and realize that statements in themselves also can be contradictory, and that not every question must have an answer. If we refer to the statement within the very statement itself, we must exercise particular caution; we can think of a statement such as, “This statement is false.”

Example Think of a coffee vending machine. It is assumed by the producer that only certain types of coffee will be desired. For the customer, it often suffices to choose between those pre-defined programs like coffee or espresso. The machine presumably could brew many other variations of our desired beverage, with different brewing times or different concentrations of coffee. But we do without this multitude of possibilities, in favor of a defined program which is relatively foolproof and can be served simply and quickly. So in this case we prefer a consistent language over a complete one. When a machine offers too many options, it shows that the manufacturer did not know what the customer would expect from the machine, and the likelihood of maloperation increases.

Last but not least, the argument from “Ontology” takes hold again. If through our language we could not describe a philosophy related to reality, by means of which we can make statements about reality, then we could especially make no statements about the language and its supposedly false depiction of reality. Every argument against the possibility of using language as an objective means of expression of philosophical statements would thus be an argument containing a stolen concept and thus would be contradictory.

We should always maintain a connection to reality, keep our definitions in mind and, through logic, try to attribute statements to reality, i.e., actual perceptions. This is at its root nothing else than the attempt to translate a statement of an inconsistent and complete language into a consistent but incomplete language—one connected to reality. Usually, this can be achieved by replacing terms with their definitions and by applying logic until the terms fit or conflict with perceptions of reality. “This is a tree” becomes “This is a plant with a trunk and branches with leaves.” If we point (a consistent but incomplete language!) to a shrub, there is a contradiction and the statement would be wrong.

Obviously, this approach is of little practical use in daily life. If we applied it to every sentence, this would put a halt to most of our communication. On the other hand, in our daily use, we rely on someone else having done this kind of work for us—the wise men and women of our human history. With language, we learn not only vocabulary, but also the knowledge that underlies concepts and definitions. This kind of truth-seeking or linguistic examination becomes relevant when there are two different opinions about an issue. To solve this conflict, both sides have to climb down the concept hierarchy together. We have to ask for the definitions of the concepts we are using, and then continue until we find common ground. For example, we might differ in our definition of “democracy,” but through this process, we might find that we agree on concepts like epistemology. Then we could discuss our actual fundamental differences and have a productive conversation.

Language Optimization

Languages differ not so much as to what can be said in them, but rather as to what it is relatively easy to say. —Charles F. Hockett, Chinese versus English: An exploration of the Whorfian theses [Hockett, 1954, p. 122]

Aside from concept hierarchy, what makes languages complex?

Besides the distinction between completeness and consistency, in languages, there are a number of enhancements of words and sentence constructions. While in principle, languages can function without these enhancements, they help to reduce the necessary concentration effort on the part of the listener and immensely increase reading speed on the part of the reader. Here are some examples:

  • Writing Direction. The writing convention of left-to-right direction (as in English) in comparison with right-to-left (as in Arabic) or top-to-bottom (as in Chinese) are not the only variations. In the earliest times, the Greeks even used to alternate the writing direction for successive lines (better readability), but later settled down to writing left to right (more standardized).
  • Omission. Sentences can also be optimized, whether through more abstract expression, the omission of vowels (as with old Semitic languages) or the omission of blank spaces, periods, or commas.
  • Plural Form. The plurals in Egyptian Arabic are formed by integrating the number and type of the thing being counted. The plural form specifies whether there are one, two, or many objects. There is also a distinction between masculine and feminine plurals, as well as separate constructions for genus collective nouns. The plural forms for “two apples” and “apples” (genus) are constructed differently.
  • Tenses. Modifications of verbs which normally incorporate tense (“When does the change appear, or when did it appear?”) and an indication of active or passive voice (“Is the subject the cause of the change?”) represent only optimizations and are not an essential part of a complete language. In Chinese, for instance, this kind of verb modification (known as inflection) does not exist. Without tenses, we have to translate a statement such as “Yesterday I wanted to eat porridge, but there was no more milk” as “Yesterday I want eat porridge but yesterday I eat no porridge because yesterday there be no more milk.”
  • Gender-specific pronouns. With pronouns, we can refer to a subject or object mentioned earlier. In the sentence “Today, I have seen a dog; it had scraggly fur,” the pronoun “it” replaces the word “dog.” Of course, this optimization can lead to problems if we have to deal with multiple entities. In the sentence “The sun shines on the garden and it looks wonderful today,” we do not know to what exactly the word “it” refers. Is it the garden or is it the sun that looks wonderful? We have to guess from the context. In the German language, this can sometimes be resolved because of gender-specific pronouns. In German, the sun is “female” (“die Sonne”) but the garden is “male” (“der Garten”). So, we can refer to the garden as “he” and to the sun as “she,” and either say “he looks wonderful,” or “she looks wonderful,” resolving the potential misunderstanding.
  • Gender-specific articles. Interestingly, German articles carry a part of their culture in themselves. The propensity to personalize entities goes far back to ancient times where for example the Earth (female pronoun in German) was seen as the “mother” and the sky (male pronoun in German) was seen as having the role of the “father.” People saw how the earth was “fertilized” by the sky—the rain—just as we were conceived ourselves. Thus, parts of our concept hierarchy find their way even into the grammar of our language. The influence of these seemingly small peculiarities of our language became apparent in a study. The participating German and Spanish native speakers (who were also fluent in English, a language with no grammatical gender system) were asked to describe different (English) words with a list of adjectives. “For example, the word ‘key’ is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny. The word ‘bridge,’ on the other hand, is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, peaceful, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big,dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.” [Boroditsky et al., 2003, p. 70]
  • Adjectives and adverbs: As for adjectives and adverbs, it should be noted that these likewise are used mostly in shortened form. Thus, by “a tall man” we actually mean “a taller-than-average man,” i.e., we orient ourselves according to cultural norms, to the current average case, or to other entities in the current situation. Obviously, these forms of description are inexact since they depend on the context.

True complexity comes into play only when we place several entities in relation to one another in terms of their properties or, particularly, the time-related changes of individual properties. It is understandable that the ever-growing complexity of human civilization over time led to the development of linguistic optimizations. While at their foundation, even complex situations can be depicted without optimizations—because language, as its core, ultimately only depicts concepts, their properties, changes in these properties, and the relation between entities. But as a statement such as “Before I returned home from work yesterday, the burglar had already disappeared” demonstrates, with our modern language we can describe a situation which would be laborious to depict without optimization:

  • The property “time” of the action “disappear” of the entity “burglar” was smaller than the property “time” of the action “return home from work” of the entity “I.”
  • The property “time” of the action “disappear” of the entity “burglar” and the property “time” of the action “return home from work” of the entity “I” correspond roughly to “yesterday.”

A last example can be found in our typeset itself. Our modern alphabet builds upon the Latin alphabet, which consists primarily of phonemes. In our language, however, the usefulness of special images was preserved for us in the form of ideograms such as numbers, the percent symbol (%), currency symbols, etc. In this respect, we have the best of both worlds: a universally intelligible alphabet on one hand, and as an optimization, ideograms standing for often-used concepts on the other.

Concept hierarchy aside, languages are basically trivial. Only including optimizations like time-related changes and pronouns makes them complex.

Learning of Languages

How do children learn the concepts “past” and “future”?

The more frequently we experience a certain familiar situation, the more clearly we can identify the essential and inessential parts of the connection. If we want to teach a dog to sit on command, we must repeat the command until the dog sits on its own, after which we give it a reward. At that point, it does not yet understand the connection between the reward, the act of sitting, and the command. But through repetition in different situations and circumstances, after a few dozen times, it will have understood. It has then connected the reward, the act of sitting, and the command, and learned the concept “Sit!”

One important thing to note here, though, is that in order to use concepts, we actually need no language that is communicable to others. Simple relations can automatically (implicitly) be understood, e.g., one’s orientation in space, how to peel a banana, how to swim in water, or how to satisfy our hunger. If we see a table, we need not think of the word “table” in order to recognize it. This has been tested by giving speech-impaired children the task of selecting three pictures out of seven that belong together. Obviously, this task can only be solved if you create underlying concepts and select the one that fits exactly to three of the pictures. For the pictures scale, pencil, stopwatch, refrigerator, wine glass, ruler, and skyscraper, you can find categories in which seven (“entity”), six (“appliances”), two (“office appliances”), or—the best answer—three (“measurement devices”) pictures fit. A comparison with healthy children showed that while the speech-impaired were significantly weaker at age eight, they performed comparably by age 14. Thus, the lack of speech does not prevent the creation of concepts. [cf. Zimmer, 2008, p. 172] For our actions, for this reason, an implicit notion of underlying concepts will often suffice. We can understand (many) concepts without the ability to put them into spoken words. But actually, we do develop a kind of internal language that is difficult to communicate to others because it is very subjective: we achieve this with the very learning of a communicable language.

The understanding comes before the production of language. With understanding, we need only to recognize phonemes. It is at the beginning not yet important to have an exact definition. On the other hand, we have difficulties beginning with an exact thought and applying incompletely understood, ambiguous concepts. For instance, if a child uses words like car, ball, and house, it is by no means certain that she means the same thing as would an adult using these words. The child must first gradually learn where the boundaries of the meaning of a term lie. So, the onomatopoetic “doggy” could be “overstretched” and be used not only for dogs but also for all animals with fur. Conversely, an “understretching” of the word would consist of its being used only for a certain dog or for dogs in a particular situation.

For children learning language, in order to understand the concepts “past,” “present,” and “future,” two steps are necessary (see Figure 2.1). The concept “present” is relatively easy to understand—the referenced incident temporally correlates directly with the statement; all other time references will be interpreted as “not present.” It only becomes clear in the second step that there is a deeper difference between “past” and “future.” [cf. Zimmer, 2008, pp. 49–51]

Figure 2.1: Two steps are required to understand the concepts “past” and “future.”

Another point is that language (with the exception of accents) is not passed on through simple imitation; otherwise, we would hear children at least trying to speak in complex sentences. Rather, the speech of parents serves as a collection of aural “fingerprints” which the child learns and remembers. In addition, by taking note of the reactions to her use of the language, she learns to differentiate between right and wrong fingerprints. When she then formulates new sentences, the words are matched with and evaluated against these imprints in memory. Over time, the sentences that are formed by the child fit better and better with the memorized fingerprints: she learns the underlying grammar, i.e., that which connects all those fingerprints together. The significant difference between a child and an adult learning a language is that the children are usually missing the fear of making mistakes. This is the key to quickly learning a language. If you do not use it actively and instead strive for perfection from the beginning, then you are making it more difficult for yourself. [cf. Zimmer, 2008, pp. 49–51]

Did you know? In nature, different plant and animal species compete for the same living environment. Their success depends how well-adapted a species is to its surroundings. In the human brain, there are similar structures. There, different thoughts compete within an environment consisting of sense data and memories (like the aural “fingerprints” of language) to form a part of the consciousness. Read more in Philosophy for Heroes: Act.

Children who grow up in a multilingual environment are in a special position. They can acquire multiple languages as their mother tongue, although possibly with a limitation. If the languages are learned independent of the usual cultural environment, then this can lead to an erroneous use of the second language. For someone who has learned the language in its usual cultural context, these terms can mean something different and refer to different concepts. For example, just knowing that “democracy” literally translates into the German word “Demokratie” is only of little help because the underlying meaning of the word in Germany might be very different compared to the meaning in North America. That is why when we learn a second language, usually we not only learn new rules and new words, but we also learn new meanings in the context of a native speaker. The meaning of a word is related to the context in which it was learned. That is the reason someone who learns two languages in the same context does not acquire the finer differences in meaning. On the other hand, if both languages are learned in different environments, the chances to obtain a balanced form of bilingualism are the highest. From the usage of the language, it becomes apparent for the child to which context it refers. [cf. Zimmer, 2008, pp. 69–72]


Our present-day writing system descends from the Phoenician alphabet. It was a writing system that emerged in the ancient Mediterranean sea-trading environment and that depicted sounds used in speech (phonemes) instead of pictorial representations of concepts.
Each (sufficiently powerful) formal system is either inconsistent or incomplete (Gödel’s First Incompleteness Theorem).
Concept hierarchy aside, languages are basically trivial. Only including optimizations like time-related changes and pronouns makes them complex.

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About the Author

Clemens Lode

Hello! My name is Clemens and I am based in Düsseldorf, Germany. I’m an author of books on philosophy, science, and project management, and coach people to publish their books and improve their approach to leadership.

I like visiting the gym, learning to sing, observing animals, and creating videos on science and philosophy. I enjoy learning from nature and love the idea of optimizing systems.

In my youth, I was an active chess player reaching the national championship in Germany, and an active pen&paper player leading groups of adventurers on mental journeys. These activities align with my calm approach to moderating meetings, leading meetups, and focusing on details. My personality type in socionics is IEE/ENFp.

Clemens Lode

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Philosophy is the study of existence, knowledge, values, language, and related topics that have challenged both ordinary and great thinkers throughout human history.


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