Language Zoo

Once upon a time, the biobots simply had stones and wood. They would communicate mostly by speech – in a variety of languages, if I may add, although we’re not really interested in these here – and passing along these objects with marks on them. Of course, as you might well know, they weren’t satisfied with these odd baubles and trinkets – if they were, this would be the end and not the beginning of the story. So they started making widgets, and soon enough, the biobots were infinitely charmed, and thought these newfangled thingamajigs to be irreplaceable.

These widgets were fast but not bright. By “not bright” I mean not intelligent, not lacking luminosity. While this is not a tale of romance, do permit me to use a cliché from the genre here and claim that the cause of this exuberant affection was the opposing nature of the users and the used.

Since the widgets were fast but not bright, the languages used by the biobots, full of implicit assumptions and highly sensitive to context, were quite unsuitable for issuing tasks to the widgets. So they made new languages, by thoughtful design, not by random alterations to existing ones. A distinguishing feature of these new languages was that they had relatively rigid syntax. Consequently, it didn’t matter if a biobot had speech (writing) impediments (or was a non-native speaker [or from another city {suburb}]); the need for correct pronunciation and spelling, apart from a handful of magic words, had been obviated.

You must be thinking, “This must’ve split the society into haves and have-nots, no? After all, not everyone must’ve liked the new languages, schooling, widgets et cetera.” And you would be absolutely right. Since there was a significant departure from the arbitrariness/flexibility of the so-called “natural” languages – the two being opposite sides of the same coin – there were a large number of have-nots. This isn’t a tale about communism, so it suffices to say that there were many other reasons why there were haves and have-nots. However, in due time, the portion of have-nots reduced. So we shall focus on the story of the haves here.

When the new languages were being created, a wise biobot suggested that all of them ought to be equal in some precise sense of the word equal. While that biobot died for quite unrelated but nonetheless tragic reasons, this suggestion was heartily taken up by the rest and they sought to make most, if not all, new languages equal in this sense.

In a short span of time, there emerged a zoo of languages, some wilder than others. The wild languages often induced a certain unintelligible madness (madnesses?) in the widgets if some thoughtless utterance was made by the user. The more civil languages came with matrons, whose sole task was to enforce orderliness, in an effort to prevent the aforementioned thoughtlessness from running rampant.

While the biobots’ writings at the time don’t seem to indicate that they were aware of this, it is quite clear to us scholars today that these matrons were made in the image of the biobots themselves, and that their relation to the synthetic language texts – which I henceforth will refer to as programs, for brevity and historical accuracy – and their authors was not unlike that of the biobots towards the biotots. Let me elaborate.

Some biobots were carefree and did not mind if their biotots ingested some earth or adhesives. Some were more vigilant; they would admonish the younglings if anything “wrong” happened, although oft without rationale. Then there were others, who would take the effort to suggest corrective measures. And of course, there were the ones with expectations of perfection and only perfection.

You can imagine what the corresponding matrons would look like. Some would hold your hand, speaking metaphorically of course, although there were most certainly widgets which would do that, and a lot more, if you infer what I mean, but getting back to the point, some would hold you hand whereas some would push you down a cliff with a gleeful smile. Tangentially, it is interesting to note an aphorism popular at the time: do not assume malice that which can be explained by ignorance.

If you permit me to wax lyrical for a bit: from nimble to glacial, from highly freeform to highly mathematical, from helpful to deadly, from hubristic to humble and from worthless to all-powerful, there was the entire spectrum. As is clear, this period had quite the diversity in languages.

While the have-nots condemned the haves for excessive indulgence, bewildered by the existence of so many flavours of equal, the haves spent nights and weeks and months and years and decades debating the same old debates, needlessly and ceaselessly reinventing the past. “To what end?”, you might ask. And again, you’d be right. To what end? As far as we can tell, a lot of programs, regardless of language, were being written simply to sell soap and the like, and to redirect biobots to buying soap and the like.

You might be feeling a little bit violated now, “Soap and the like? Surely you’re joking!” and you’d be right in feeling so. Alas! History doesn’t know, and hence follow, the wisdom of the future. A lot of bright biobots – again, I am talking about intelligence here, not luminosity – spent their entire lives writing programs that sold or directed biobots to other programs that sold soap and the like. About the terrible tastelessness of this business, I would like to speak no more.

What I would like to speak about is how the status quo changed. It is an interesting little substory, better discussed here rather in the footnotes. Over a period of several decades, there were multiple instances where major prestigious institutions were conned out of ridiculous sums of currency. Yes, I’m talking about the concurrency crisis. In this time of history, more than any other time since or prior, there were large migrations of the haves from the old languages to what were the primitive versions of the logical languages we all know, admire and respect today.

After the concurrency crisis, a lot of the haves realized the significance of befriending the matrons, and creating matrons that were friendly, and good enough to be worth befriending. After all, the friendliest matrons helped the haves to write much better programs compared to their adversarial counterparts.

As you well know, languages have a profound impact on the way in which we think. So do our friends. This shift in the design of languages and matrons slowly but steadily influenced the kinds of programs being written. There were fewer programs selling soap and the like, and more like the ones we have today, written for a true, beautiful and life-enriching purpose.

While we take the equality of today’s languages for granted, we don’t think about the equality of yesterday’s languages, even though they are the same. If there is one thing you take away from this discussion, let it be this: all languages are equal, but some languages are more equal than others.

Ah! The timekeeper had indicated that we have to adjourn now. I apologize for the abruptness, I didn’t plan appropriately. Since we do not have time for questions here, I’m happy to answer questions over some tea and biscuits in the atrium. Thank you.