Tuesday, July 19, 2011

John Wilkins vs George Orwell

I saw the following quote today on, of all places, Failbook.com, where it was used as a criticism of Facebook. It’s been many years since I read 1984, but this passage immediately took me back to a high school classroom:

"'Don't you see the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expresses in exactly ONE word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten."

Imagine trying to speak English without using euphemism, slang, idiom, puns, similes, dialect, or any other of the other workaday rhetorical lubricating techniques that keep things interesting. Even synonyms can help keep things interesting. If you take all of that away—or even just the everyday mutations, spindlings, and convolutions that go in through our eyes and ears without being recognized as such—it’s no longer English, and would in fact be a recognizably distinct language (possibly legalese).

English is a miraculous language, in many respects; from its origins as, in the words of Howard Tayler, “a bad habit shared by Norman soldiers and Saxon barmaids who discovered that if they shared that habit they could share other things,” it has evolved to produced Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wodehouse, Kipling, Dickens, Churchill, Stephen Fry, and countless others, (yes, even George Orwell) all of whom have bent and misused words to capture shades of meaning that no dictionary in the writer’s day (if there were any) would likely have approved of.

English also produced Black’s Law Dictionary, than which no book ever written is more fanatically devoted to specific meanings for words. Persons aggrieved at the outcome of the Casey Anthony murder trial should remember that there is a tremendous difference between being acquitted (“not guilty”) and being innocent. This rigidity in the use of words has its place, usually when large quantities of money or prison sentences are at issue. Virtually every modern legal or technical document—from laws down to plumbing codes—includes a section defining certain terms used in the rest of the text.

Think about dictionaries for a second. We have books that do nothing more or less than to tell us what words mean. The idea becomes stranger the more one thinks about it. No wonder many of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s contemporaries were at first amazed that England’s foremost man of letters he would spend so much of his life working on the first proper English dictionary. They probably didn’t think one was necessary. Modern English, on the other hand, likely couldn’t function without dictionaries.

With a vocabulary with six times as many words as French, English clearly needs dictionaries, and more help besides; it is the only language with so many synonyms that it needs a thesaurus to keep track of them all. Not only that, but many words have multiple meanings, some of them very different from each other. As Bill Bryson noted in English and How It Got That Way, “any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel is clearly asking to be mangled.”

For that matter, English also has such a blurred line between literal and figurative uses of terms in everyday communication that it has a batch of words and phrases used to clarify which sense of the word is intended, e.g. ‘literally’ or ‘in the strict sense.’ Perhaps inevitably, the word ‘literally’ has itself come to be abused as a mere indicator of emphasis—“I was so drunk last night that I literally barfed from here to Hartford.” If the reader took ‘literally’ in its own literal sense, doctors would be shocked, engineers would be skeptical, and Pentagon weapons designers would be grinning at the thought of Jagermeister-fueled long-range vomit projectors for the Marine Corps.

Although Orwell presented Newspeak as the tool of an authoritarian regime, rigidly-defined languages with specific meanings for specific words have their place. Any attorney, doctor, or engineer relies on these particular meanings in order to give clarity to their communications—for example, an engineer stating, “this structure is not a habitable building as defined by the state building code.” ‘Structure,’ habitable, and ‘building’ all have specific meanings that another engineer would understand, even though people not conversant in the specific meanings intended would be unlikely to grasp the same meaning.

As one of the great champions of words with specific meanings, although as a force for good, I offer John Wilkins, an English cleric, natural philosopher, courtier, and writer from the 17th Century. As a testimony to Wilkins’ openmindedness and willingness to adapt to changing circumstances, he married Oliver Cromwell’s sister Robina during the Commonwealth years, and though this should have tarred him indelibly with Cromwell’s sins, Wilkins bounced back after the Restoration in 1660 and served the Stuart establishment from 1662 until his death a dozen years later, being appointed Bishop of Chester in 1668. Wilkins owed much of his success in this transition to his desire for ‘comprehension’ in religious circles; while not quite religious tolerance, Wilkins’ hopes aligned with the policy goals of King Charles II in wanting to bring Independents, Presbyterians, and the Church of England together on points of commonality as part of the post-Restoration religious settlement, in the hope of maintaining domestic tranquility.

In his copious free time, Wilkins was instrumental in the founding of The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in November 1660; originally an club for inquisitive gentlemen to meet and talk about interesting experiments without being divided by religion or politics, during its heyday the Royal Society claimed as members not only Wilkins but Robert Hooke, Henry Oldenburg, Robert Boyle, John Locke, Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, Isaac Newton, and William Petty, the least-known of the crew, but who virtually invented land surveying.

In his An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668), Wilkins propounded a standard language for what might now be termed technical purposes, scientific research and philosophical discourse, in order that all the participants in a discourse understood what all the words mean.

In the 17th Century, writers enjoyed considerable latitude in language, even considering that most works were written in Latin for most of the period, and most of the scientific texts of the day are by necessity awkwardly studded with definitions of terms. One of the most awkward is Rene Descartes’ Le Monde of 1633, in which he defines matter as 'I conceive its extension, or the property it has of occupying space, not at all as an accident, but as its true form and essence,' though in doing so he in turn leans on two terms out of classical philosophy (true form and essence) that would have been recognizable to anyone with a contemporary Latin and Greek education, but opaque to anyone else, and which themselves embodied specific assumptions and preconceptions.

The problem was that Latin, French, and Greek, the lingua francae of the educated at the time, lacked the vocabulary or syntax to manage many of the topics that came floating to the top of the late 17th Century’s intellectual fermentation. Names of things proved a further problem; Carl Linnaeus wasn’t born until over thirty years after Wilkins’ death, and there was simply no standard system for naming and classifying plant or animal species, let alone rocks, stars, chemicals, mathematical concepts, or any of the other things that interested Wilkins’ intended audience. Old things proved enough of a challenge; in Beck's Bible of 1549, the lamentation in Jeremiah 8:22 was translated “Is there no treacle [molasses in American English] in Gilead?” rather than the correct rendering of ‘treacle’ as ‘balm’ or ‘solace.’

One outstanding example of the problem of terminology is that Sir Isaac Newton’s original narrative of the methods of calculus in the Principia, for example, are largely opaque to the modern reader (even if one comprehends the equations and diagrams) simply because he’s using different words for familiar concepts. In fact, Newton called calculus “the Method of Fluxions,” with the term “fluxion” referring to differential calculus and “fluents” referring to integral calculus.

Wilkins’ Philosophical Language was intended to provide a common set of terms for all of the contemporary natural philosophers to use, so that time wouldn’t be wasted and rivalries spawned by differences of opinion over what Leibniz’ term ‘monad’ meant. Along with this ‘language,’ Wilkins created a new, sui generis ‘alphabet’ (the Real Character), in which each character presented a specific defined concept, and an elaborate system of classifying things and concepts, rather like Linnaeus later did with plant and animal life, and a system of measurement that would have enabled correspondents in different countries to avoid the confusions caused by each using his own local system of measurement.

The attempt towards self-evidence eventually went recursive for poor Wilkins, though, and when describing his proposed unit of length, he had to include the entire method for calculating it. Unsurprisingly, he did so in using terms that are essentially a digestion of Euclid, which anyone hoping to call himself a natural philosopher in Wilkins’ day would have at least tried to comprehend:

...which being done, there are given these two Lengths, viz. of the String, and of the Radius of the Ball, to which a third Proportional must be found out; which must be as the length of the String from the point of Suspension to the Centre of the Ball is to the Radius of the Ball, so must the said Radius be to this third which being so found, let two fifths of this third Proportional be set off from the Centre downwards, and that will give the Measure desired. [A translation for mathematicians and engineers: d is the distance from the point of suspension to the center of the bob, r is the radius of the bob, and x is such that d/r = r/x. The unit of measure is the result of d+(0.4)x]

The result is, incidentally, 39.25-inches, or almost exactly one meter.

As quixotic, artificial, and overly-complicated as it might seem in hindsight, Wikins’ work could have had real value if it had been adopted widely. In the event, however, it was simply too much to ask for his contemporaries all to make the switch. Given how rapidly some of the sciences advanced after Wilkins’ death, however, it is possible that even if it had been more widely used it would have sooner or later become obsolete itself through the same lack of vocabulary and syntax to describe new things that plagued Latin writers of Wilkins’ day.

The purpose of Newspeak is control over expression, and therefore over thought. The role of the Philosophical Language was to be a common vocabulary to improve the state of scientific and philosophical discourse.

Although the means are similar, the contrast between the two ends could not be sharper.

Of course, when I say “sharper,” what do I really mean by that?

I mean that you should watch this Fry & Laurie clip.

As a footnote to the topic, one of Wilkins’ other significant works was intended to be used to conceal information rather than to reveal it. Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger (published in 1641), was the first English-language book on cryptography, or the use of codes and ciphers. If nothing else, the difference between his 1641 and 1668 publications exemplifies the worlds of distance between the tense, conspiratorial, and militant England of 1641, on the cusp of the First Civil War, and the more relaxed and urbane climate of Restoration England in 1668 (at least, once the Dutch War, plague, and Great Fire of London had passed). Cryptography was a necessary skill in 1641, when a gentleman really did not want people from the other side of the incipient war reading his mail. In the halcyon days of the Royal Society, though, cryptography was less important than the ability to broadcast one’s discoveries to the rest of Europe, largely to ensure a prior claim on the discovery (c.f. the decades-long feuds between Newton and Hooke, or Newton and Leibniz).

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