|Title:||Six Laws of Language and Linguistics in Draft Form|
|Description:||I was deeply encouraged by the positive reception that greeted my Six Laws
of Language and Linguistics in Draft Form during the recent LACUS
conference at Dartmouth. At that time they formed a part of my invited
presentation ''Is Evidence Based Linguistics the Solution? Is Voodoo
Linguistics the Problem?'' which was supplemented a few days later by a
two-hour workshop on Evidence Based Linguistics. I would like to present
them here as well, even though reactions are likely to be less positive,
since it seems to me important that basic concepts concerning linguistics
should be aired as fully as possible. I have made a few changes based on
comments from those at the conference, and I would also value your comments
as part of a process leading to a more definitive statement of these laws.
If they seem a bit disjointed the first time you read them, they are
likely to make better sense in the context of my two LACUS presentations,
which you can find on my website at:
They can also both be accessed from the Linguistics menu of my main website at:
However unusual some of these ideas may appear at first reading, I promise
that I have done my best to fit them within the framework of current
linguistics theories. I look forward to your comments. The text of the
''Six Laws'' follows:
Six Laws of Language and Linguistics In Draft Form
1. All communication takes place in shared contextual space, subject to a
fairly complex process of disambiguation, depending on the conditions
inherent in the other five Laws. That space can be more or less roughly
measured according to a specialized system of cartography.
2. The Law of Variable Context
If two people share sufficient context, almost any words, including sheer
nonsense--or no words at all--will suffice for them to communicate with
each other. If two people do not share sufficient context, then not all the
words in the world may be enough for them to grasp each other's meaning.
Where intermediate degrees of partial, fragmented, or otherwise limited or
''noise-distorted'' context are shared, communication will be
proportionately difficult and/or unsuccessful.
3. The Law of Communication
Communication never takes place generically between languages and
languages, or between dictionaries and dictionaries. All successful
communication takes place under specific circumstances between a speaker
and a listener, or a writer and a reader, or between a non-verbal
communicator and his or her audience. When the communicator changes, and/or
the nature of the audience and/or the circumstances change, often the
content of the message must also change to some extent, if fully successful
communication is to take place. This law holds true both for communication
in a single language and for translating and interpreting, since there is
essentially no difference between translating a message into another tongue
and paraphrasing it within a single tongue. This law also holds true for
automatic or electronic communication where the final recipient of
information is a human being, and any act of communication appearing to
originate from a computer, or to occur between two or more computers, only
takes place because a human being has originally programmed it to occur.
All the conditions of the first two laws still apply.
4. The Law of Linguistic Entropy
A form of entropy, related to Shannon's concept of information entropy or
Prigogine's theory of dissipative structures-or of chaos as found in
meteorology and other complex systems-also exists for language, and any
sentence, concept, or act of communication may fall into such entropy or
chaos even after it has been accurately repeated a number of times. Where
Shannon's concept applies to letters of the alphabet, this one applies to
words, phrases, and/or entire sentences. The number of times the message
must be repeated to fall into such entropy or chaos depends on the nature
of the message, the number of people attempting to repeat it, and whatever
ambient or incidental noise of whatever type may be present either in the
system they are using or among those attempting to repeat it.
5. The Law of Recapitulation
Just as Haeckel and Von Baer observed and debated the nature of a form of
recapitulation in the development of the embryo, so there also exists a
process of recapitulation regarding language. During their development from
children into adults, all human beings will necessarily pass through a
recapitulation of as many of the forms and structures of their language as
they possibly can within the limits of utility and the peaceful development
of their society.
6. The brain understands the language it hears or reads through a combined
comparison of sound, meaning, context, and expected collocations, seeking
out a match with other sounds, meanings, contexts, and collocations it has
already encountered. Once it has made this match, which may be more or
less precise, it assumes it has understood correctly. Grammar plays a
relatively small role in this process, sometimes none at all. Said
otherwise, the way almost all communication works is by means of a
relatively error-prone, quick and dirty matching operation, in some ways
comparable to matching operations by computers. We know the brain proceeds
in this manner, because it sometimes makes mistakes, permitting us to draw
inferences about the way it functions. This process has for its source the
humble origins of language through evolution from the chemical signals of
early life forms to the scent markings of animals to the sound markings of
humans, which we interpret as language, thus providing further proof that
Darwin's theory of evolution must be true.
What follows is the full combined bibliography for the two academic papers
presented during the August LACUS Conference at Dartmouth. Please feel
free to post your comments here or to send them to my to my
email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks in advance,
NOTE: This bibliography covers both the Wednesday paper and the Saturday
workshop session, which explains why some of the references do not apply to
the latter text.
Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: (reprinted in great part in
1984, University of Chicago).
Chomsky, A. N. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.
-1988a. Interview. In: The Chomsky Reader. Edited by J. Peck. London:
Serpent’s Tail, pp. 1-55.
Craciunescu, Olivia; Gerding-Salas, Constanza; Stringer-O'Keeffe, Susan:
Machine Translation and Computer Translation: a New Way of Translating?
In Translation Journal, Volume 8, No. 3 July 2004, accessible at:
de Beaugrande, Robert. 2002. Linguistic Theory: Louis Hjelmslev, part of
The Discourse of Fundamental Works, accessible at:
Dreifus, Claudia. June 26, 2001. A Conversation with Frans de Waal:
Observing the Behavior of Apes, From Up Close. In The New York Times.
Epictetus. 1916. Encheiridion. Edited by Heinrich Schenkl. Leipzig:
Gould, Stephen Jay. 1977. Ontogeny and phylogeny. Cambridge, Mass. :
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Gross, Alexander. 1993a. MT and Language: Conflicting
Technologies?—Ariadne's Endless Thread. In Sci-Tech Translation Journal.
Poughkeepsie, NY: American Translators Association. Accessible from
—1993b. Selected Elements from a Theory of Fractal Linguistics. In
Scientific and Technical Translation, ATA Scholarly Monograph Series, Volume
VI. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
—1994. Translators and Interpreters: The Binding Force Of World
Civilization. Proposal for a museum exhibit. Sponsored by the American
Translators Association. Viewable in part at:
-1995. Perfect MT: Logical Certainty or Recurrent Self-Delusion? In: ATA
Proceedings, 1995. Downloadable from
—1995/6. Spray It Again, Sam: The Real Story of Language And Translation,
A Semi-Humorous Account Part III of Truth About Translation. Washington,
DC: American Translators Association. Program downloadable without charge
—2000a. Hermes—God of Translators and Interpreters: The Origins of
Language and the Prehistory of Interpreting, invited paper at NYU
Translation2000 Conference. New York: NYU Translation Studies Program.
Presented later that year at Jornadas Jeronimianas conference, Mexico City.
Downloadable from http://language.home.sprynet.com/trandex/hermes.htm
—2000b. HermesGod of Translators and Interpreters, The Antiquity of
Interpreting: Distinguishing Fact from Speculation. Paper commissioned by
NYU Translation Studies Department as part of a departmental book project
later abandoned. Soon on-line at:
—2003. Teaching translation as a form of writing. In Beyond the Ivory
Tower: Rethinking translation pedagogy, Vol. XII, ATA Scholarly Volume
Series, edited by Brian James Baer and Geoffrey S. Koby.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Soon on-line at:
Hjelmslev, Louis. 1961. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, Translated by
Francis Whitfield. University of Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
(Danish title: Omkring sprogteoriens grundlaeggelse, Copenhagen, 1943)
Knight, Chris. 2003. Noam Chomsky:Politics or Science? In What Next: Marxist
Discussion Journal. At: http://mysite.freeserve.com/whatnext
Lamb, Sydney. 1999. Pathways of the brain : the neurocognitive basis of
language. Amsterdam; Philadelphia, PA : J. Benjamins.
— Language and reality. 2004. London, New York: Continuum.
Language Technology. 1987-90. Periodical, later renamed Electric Word.
Amsterdam: INK Taalservice.
Lao Tze. ca. 600 B.C.E. Dao de Jing. Hundreds of translations available,
including the one cited, see footnote 19 for clarification.
Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent. 1789. Traité Elémentaire de Chimie. Third
paragraph. Paris: Chez Cuchet, libraire. Online in French at:
Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph. 1908. The Reflections of Lichtenberg. Selected
and translated by Norman Alliston. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Lim.
Mandelbrot, Benoit. 1967. How long is the coast of Britain? Statistical
self-similarity and fractional dimension. In Science: 156, 636-638.
Montgomery, Scott. 2000. Science in Translation: Movements of Knowledge
through Cultures and Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Mounin, Georges. 1963. Les problèmes théoriques de la traduction. Préface de
Dominique Aury. Paris: Gallimard.
—1967. Histoire de la linguistique, des origines au XXe siècle. Paris,
Presses universitaires de France.
—1990. Teoria e storia della traduzione. Milano: Einaudi.
Pellegrini, Angelo M. Giordano Bruno on Translations. In: English Literary
History, 10: 193-207.
Pullum, Geoffrey K. 1991. The Stranger in the Bar. In: The Great Eskimo
Vocabulary Hoax and other irreverent essays on the study of language.
Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
Roget, Peter Mark. 1852. Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, classified
and arranged so as to facilitate the Expression of Ideas and assist in
Literary Composition. London: Longman.
Saussure, Fernand de. 1913. Cours de Linguistique Génerale, Paris
(translated by Wade Baskin as Course in General Linguistics, 1959, New York:
The Edge Foundation. 2005. What Do You Believe To Be True Even Though You
Cannot Prove It? The Edge Annual Question. Online at:
Whitfield, Francis. 1969 Glossematics, Chapter 23 of Linguistics, edited by
Archibald A. Hill. Washington, DC: Voice of America Forum Lectures,
(reissued in the same year by Basic Books).
Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. Language, Thought and Reality, (collected papers)
Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.
Yates, Frances A.. 1934. John Florio: The Life of an Italian Shakespeare's
England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Discipline of Linguistics