Alien Languages

The recent movie Arrival treats an imagined arrival on earth by alien beings. The United States government, at a loss to understand the visitors’ intentions, conscripts the film’s hero–unusually for Hollywood, a linguist–to help understand the aliens’ language, and in turn, their purpose.


The aliens’ language’s “freedom from time” evokes the functional programming language Haskell.

The linguist, Louise Banks, soon makes headway. She discovers that the aliens’ language “has no forward or backward direction” and “is free of time”. Moreover, in a nod to the (unfortunately, all-but discredited) Sapir–Whorf hypothesis—according to which, as Banks suggests, “the language you speak determines how you think and… affects how you see everything”—Banks soon finds her own cognition shifting:

If you learn it, when you really learn it, you begin to perceive time the way that they do, so you can see what’s to come. But time, it isn’t the same for them. It’s non-linear.

Far from inducing an reaction of incredulity and awe, these descriptions of the visitors’ language provoked in me just one persistent response: “This is just like the programming language Haskell.” Continue reading


Swiss French, Swiss German

Ferdinand de Saussure was a profound linguistic thinker of the early 1900s. During a legendary series of lectures given at University of Geneva, de Saussure, a French-speaking Swiss, introduced to the world many ideas which have since become fundamental — even “self-evident” — within the discipline of linguistics. De Saussure suggested, for example, that the historical and etymological emphases of his day failed to recognize as the central object of linguistics the instantaneous internal structure of a language, to which prior evolutionary contingencies are irrelevant. A language’s internal structure, in fact, exists moreover independently of the writing system it uses, of the concrete sounds of its phonetic system, and even of its words. It consists entirely, de Saussure argued, of an abstract system of so-called signs — each linking an idea to a sound — which subsist only through the network of relationships among them and persist only through the coordinated ativity of a linguistic community. “It is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition,” de Saussure famously wrote, “and because it is founded upon tradition that it can be arbitrary.” [1, p. 74]

De Saussure’s facility with historical linguistics was, to his credit, uncanny. Discussing the unfortunate common tendency to confuse historical (diachronic) with instantaneous (synchronic) linguistics, for example, he writes:

In order to explain Greek phuktós, it might be supposed that it suffices to point out that in Greek g and kh become k before a voiceless consonant, and to state this fact in terms of synchronic correspondences such as phugeînphuktóslékhosléktron, etc. But then we come up against cases like tríkhesthriksí, where a complication occurs in the form of a ‘change’ from t to th… [1, p. 96]

De Saussure proceeds like this effortlessly, citing detailed examples variously from Sanskrit [1, p. 2], Latin [1, p. 95], Old High German [1, p. 83], Anglo-Saxon [1, p. 83], early Slavonic [1, p. 86], and, of course, French [1, pp. 31, 69, 85, 95, 104, 106, …].

De Saussure’s true genius, however, was evident perhaps most of all in his novel theory of signs, which emphasized the social, conventional, and ultimately arbitrary nature of linguistic systems — and which eventually produced the field of semiotics.

This theory was validated during my recent trip to Switzerland. Continue reading

I Have a Unique Coffee Mug

I’ll attempt to explore a few of the subtleties surrounding the word unique in English.


I’ve drunk too many of these, and this post is how you can tell.

I’ll begin with an exploration of words like the same and different. Sentences containing these words will prove a fertile initial testing ground.

First, an observation. Consider the sentences:

  1. Every coffee mug in my department is brittle.
  2. Every coffee mug in my department is the same.

Though these sentences appear structurally similar, their predicates are deceptively different. Continue reading

Relativistic Linguistics

A study in linguistic relativity.

English – as, it would seem, all human languages – assumes a Newtonian conception of space and time. These languages, and in particular their tense systems, postulate, in addition to three spatial dimensions, a single temporal dimension. These dimensions equip space-time with universally valid coordinates. The time dimension in particular assigns – or so we imagine – to every event a unique time value, valid for all observers. By comparing these time values, we introduce such notions as simultaneity and precedence; these emerge in language through grammatical tense, as well as through certain prepositions.

In the Newtonian model, all relations of simultaneity and precedence (which might hold between any two space-time events) hold independently of observer. The notion of duration is also well defined and consistent across observers. Finally, geometric notions such as length and angle are independent of observer. The Newtonian framework closely approximates physical reality when all observers travel at speeds well below the speed of light.

Questions such as the following could empirically test whether English presupposes Newtonian physics:

  1. Ben and Josh are twins, born on the same day in the same hospital. Ben knows that the supernova of the red supergiant KSN2011d became visible to Earth before his twenty-fourth birthday. Can Josh necessarily say the same? (No.)
  2. Was Ben really born first? (Yes – even under relativity – because our births were very close spatially. Sorry Josh.)
  3. Have you ever traveled near the speed of light – in this life, or throughout your evolutionary history? (No. Hence the Newtonian trappings of natural language.)

A Newtonian language ill befits communication between observers moving at speeds close to the speed of light. Continue reading

Buried Treasure

A week ago, I took the USMLE step 1, an 8-hour Goliath of a test. As daunting of a prospect as that is, the study process was much more extensive. I studied for twelve hours a day for six weeks.

I had intended to spend those six weeks memorizing a whole lot of facts. But I eventually, I found that I wasn’t just learning facts; I was learning structures. This took a lot of the drudgery away, since the latter are quite a bit more fun to study.

Now that boards are over, I find myself stepping away from medicine and looking towards other fields. Do other fields, like medicine, produce elaborate structures from the underlying facts and principles? Must they? Are some resultant structures better than others? In medicine, there often is a right answer (especially on boards). Is the same true of other fields? Where, if at all, does the rubber meet the road? Continue reading

Pragmatic Grammar

This article is part of a series entitled Language Games. See also:
1. Wild Grammar; 2. Combinatorial Grammar; 3. Pragmatic Grammar

In a famous 1966 paper, Keith S. Donnellan claimed to have identified a linguistic phenomenon unexplained by the traditional accounts of Russell, and, more contemporarily, Strawson.

Definite descriptions – phrases like the king of France, or John’s brother – were held, classically, to single out the one and only object, if it exists, which meets the criteria of the description. The truth-value of a sentence containing a definite description was assessed via the properties of this description’s unique referent. (Sentences for which no unique referent exists – like The present king of France is bald – were taken by Russell to be false and by Strawson to have no truth value.)

In a hypothetical situation suggested by Donnellan [1] and modified by Kripke, two patrons at a bar discuss a man in the corner with a champagne glass. “The man over there drinking champagne is happy tonight,” [2] one says. Though the man they point to is indeed happy, he happens to be drinking sparkling water, while another man “over there”, who is drinking champagne, and whom neither patron sees, “has been driven to drink precisely by his misery” [2]. Traditional analysis would take the sentence to be false in virtue of the properties of the sentence’s unique referent, whom neither party intended to talk about and neither party even knew about. This analysis falls short.

Donnellan’s phenomena weren’t picked up by Russell’s treatment for good reason – his analysis resides at the level of pragmatics. Continue reading

Combinatorial Grammar

This article is part of a series entitled Language Games. See also:
1. Wild Grammar; 2. Combinatorial Grammar; 3. Pragmatic Grammar

“All doors will not open.” — operator, Amtrak Northeast Regional train, Charlottesville

In language, scope ambiguities are one of the trickiest parts of semantic theory. Semantic meaning is famously said to be determined compositionally: the meaning of a larger sentence is determined by the meanings of its smaller parts, as well as by the way these smaller parts are assembled into a whole. Even so, there can be interactions between these parts, in the sense that certain words can exert control over other words. When one word influences how another is interpreted, it is said to hold that word in its scope.

For example:

Every king admires himself. [2]

In this situation, the reflexive pronoun himself is given meaning by the separate noun king, which holds himself in its scope.

Let’s consider another example:

Puck didn’t solve one problem. [2]

What does this mean? It actually depends on how scope is assigned. It’s ambiguous. Continue reading