What is Language?

Ben Goertzel

May 29, 2000




Language is above all a system for reflecting on itself.†† It is a system of distorting mirrors, each symbol, grammatical rule or meaning reflecting parts of the outside world and other parts of language in its own peculiar way.And as it reflects itself, it slowly changes itself, evolving not only new words and grammars but fundamentally new forms.


The archaic root of language was mental abstraction, which led the mind to create symbolssignifying abstract patterns that donít actually exist in the world, but only in its model of the world.Symbolism brought proto-language, as observed among apes and one-year-old humans.And language emerged as the reflection of symbolism on itself Ė the evolution of complex webs of symbols standing for symbols.Language creates an inner cosmos capable of competing with the outer, hence severing the mind from the world.


Then language was projected on the outside world, in the form of languages for manipulating physical objects: engineering, machinery, physics.And when the mind itself came to emulate the machine, becoming a factory for the systematic production of complex linguistic forms -- we had the birth of advanced reason, as we see in mathematics, science and philosophy.Then, computer programming, which synthesizes machinery and advanced reasoning in an intriguing way.


But the evolution isnít finished.Over the next two centuries, computer programming languages will interact with human languages in ever more complex ways, resulting, for example, in living texts -- documents that search for other related documents on the Net, rewrite themselves, battle and mate with each other.††


In fact, we canít fully envision where the self-reflection of language will lead it next, because our tools of thought are themselves limited by languageís current condition!We must merely watch, and feel, the expansion of language around us and within us.