I have been quite busy this week trying to capture all the rules of the English language.
As you might suspect, this is a non-trivial task.
Having benefited from being a native English speaker and having studied far more regular languages (Latin and Japanese), I always knew that English was a crazy mishmash of rules – but I find I am getting a whole knew appreciation for it’s complexity.
As it stands, my grammar – which has a tiny vocabulary and only rudimentary sentences – has nearly 500 rules. Every time I try to generalize, I find those nagging English exceptions which create a cascade of special case rules.
All this highlights how impressive the advances of Natural Language Processing are – correcting spelling and grammar is hardly easy, much less building an assistant such as Siri which can understand what you say.
It also seems to highlight the concerns of the natural language philosophers – when constructing a thought as an expressible sentences is so hard, how can we be confident our meanings are understood?
Of course, our meanings are very often not understood, which leads to no end of drama and miscommunication. But, putting basic miscommunications aside, what does it really mean to communicate or to understand another person?
Ludwig Wittgenstein poses this questions frequently throughout his work. In Philosophical Investigations he tests numerous thought experiments. If I say I am in pain and you have experienced pain, do I understand your pain?
For practical purposes, we generally have to act as if we understand each other, whether or not some deeper philosophical measure of True understanding has been met.
Wittgenstein also uses a lovely metaphor to describe the complex architecture of human language:
“Our language can be regarded as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, of houses with extensions from various periods, and all this surrounded by a multitude of new suburbs with straight and regular streets and uniform houses.”