Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

“Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it”

I’d mentioned High Precision Language in a previous post, and I think it’s time to give it a little more consideration.

Human language is quite often ambiguous, especially outside of context. Take, for instance, the following wonderful examples of ambiguity at its best:

“Police help dog bite victim”

“Have you seen the Queen of England’s hat?”

This ambiguity is seldom a problem, especially in a conversational situation where the participants can either infer (“Oh, Jane was talking about getting bitten by a dog the other day”) or ask for a clarification. Worst comes to worst, there is a misunderstanding and some communicative catastrophe occurs.

Trouble on the Path to Precision

There are some areas where ambiguity becomes far more problematic.

One such area is that of computers. As my computational linguistics professor said, “Computers are stupid. They’ll do exactly what you tell them to.” Computers lack the ability to infer, or to ask for clarification, so if you hand a computer an ambiguous command, it will likely hand you an error in return. To conquer this, we have created a great variety of computer languages (like C, Python, Perl, etc.), all designed to prevent as much ambiguity as possible and offer the computer a command that can only be read in one way.

However, I believe that there are some human realms that are more susceptible to troubles from the ambiguity.

Whether or not language is the basis for human thought (a highly contentious idea, see the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), we do a great deal of subvocalization (talking to ourselves, silently) when thinking or working through difficult problems. Language is a good means of communication with ourselves, as well as with others, and when spelling out one’s thoughts, precision is very helpful.

In the legal world, hours upon hours are spent on each document, finding and removing (or exploiting) ambiguity in laws, contracts, evidence, and other such documents. Precise language could quickly eliminate loopholes, shorten text, and ideally make “legalese” obsolete.

In the realm of religion and spirituality, there are many examples of ritualized speech, where precision can be very important. In religious texts (and their translations), ambiguity can cause massive difficulties. As any lawyer can tell you, a single changed word can change the meaning of a text immensely. So, when a person is using a book to develop his or her spirituality, ambiguity can put them in a very difficult position. To avoid this, some religions (such as Islam) have decreed an official language to avoid such troubles in translation. In Islam, the Koran (or Qu’ran) cannot be “translated” from its native Arabic, but rather it is “interpreted” into other languages. These interpretations are not considered valid for any serious religious discussion, and most scholars of Islam are able to read, recite, and explain the Koran in Arabic. (Referencing the Wikipedia Article on the Qu’ran). However, a potent, easy-to-use, and ambiguity free language would be very handy for translation, and for the creation of any texts which may become important to future generations.

However, even in one’s personal worship or rituals, ambiguity in language can be seen to raise difficulties. In Paganism, Wicca, and other spiritual systems involving spellcraft or invocations, words are frequently used in Spells or Rituals as a method of establishing or guiding intent. In these situations, it’s vital to “be careful what you wish for”, because, if the spell is successful, practitioners believe that you just might get it. So, if your language is ambiguous, there’s a chance that your intent might be as well, and that could quickly lead to great difficulties. I suspect that with a High Precision Language, crafting the language for rituals would become a meditation and ritual in-and-of itself, and might well lead to better creation of intent in the long run.

Similarly, in some cultures involving planned ceremonies, the use, delivery, and intent of each word is vital, and some cultures believe that if a single word is misplaced or mis-spoken, the entire ceremony may fail. In these cultures, precision in speech and language is necessary, and ambiguity might be seen as a way to break a perfectly good ceremony. (This example stems from knowledge gained from a class on Native American Culture, but I’m unable to remember the specific tribe or ritual to cite. Assistance or corrections are appreciated.)

So what is High Precision Language?

Well, truthfully, I’m not sure yet. Whether it be an expansion to existing language, a language all its own, or a fool’s pipe-dream, High Precision Language is language easy enough for human use, but precise enough for computers, rituals and lawyers. Although it would undoubtedly be difficult to create, find, or discover, I think that the benefits in situations like those above would be a boon to humanity in a variety of contexts.

The potential of these benefits are what keep me searching for such an obscure concept, and hoping to make progress on what some might consider a fool’s journey.


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