Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Mission Impossible

Geoff Pullum reports that Stanley Fish, English professor at University of Illinois, assigns his freshman English students to create a language:
On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions — between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like — that English enables us to make.
Fish’s program has allegedly succeeded in teaching students good writing, because it forces them to think carefully about how language works. And it’s hard to argue with success. Still, I recoil. An analogy: Imagine if I assigned my business students to design an economic system over the course of a semester. What kind of results would I get? I predict that most groups would turn in blueprints for a centrally planned economy, including a list of all (types of) resources, a prioritization of all possible uses of those resources, a bureaucratic procedure for the assignment of people to various jobs, a specification of the basic needs shared by all citizens, and so on.

And what, ultimately, would they learn? They might, if I defined the constraints clearly enough, grasp the idea of trade-offs. If I specified the parameters of current production technologies, they might also discover the notion of diminishing returns. If I put them in competition with other students to maximize their economy’s aggregate production (somehow defined), they might discover the usefulness of division of labor and specialization according to comparative advantage.

Those are, of course, all topics I cover during the first week of class. True, the students might get a stronger intuitive grasp if they had to discover and apply the concepts themselves. But here’s the rub: Any plan for an entire economy designed by a committee of undergrads – or for that matter, professional economists – would deserve a big fat F. Not for lack of effort or talent, but because designing an economy is literally impossible.

For a real economic system to work, it must confront and absorb an uncountable number of facts – about preferences, talents, skills, technologies, and resources. These facts cannot conceivably be written down or even summarized effectively. They are local (possessed by individual minds, not one big one) and often tacit (incapable of being expressed in language). That means two things. First, I could not possibly describe a plausible economic reality for the students to deal with. And second, even if I could, I would seriously mislead them by doing so, because in the real world a planning committee would not and could not possess that information. As usual, Hayek said it best:
The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources – if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.
In other words, by giving my student planners all that information, I would blithely skip over the single most important problem any economic system must solve. For a functioning system to develop, its participants must be confronted with the real-world problems of ignorance and incentives. They would need to try new strategies, test new technologies, experiment with different schemes of reward and punishment. Some approaches would fail, others would succeed. Over the long haul, some semblance of order might emerge.

And I contend that a similar process of confrontation with the real world would be required for a language to emerge. The rules of English syntax, the meanings of English words, etc., all evolved to address the everyday needs of human beings trying to communicate. The optimal size of a vocabulary cannot be assessed by a committee; it flows from the expressive needs of speakers. The optimal complexity or simplicity in grammatical rules does not follow from a priori considerations; it arises from the types and variety of ideas people wish to convey to one another.

Fish’s assignment asks students to design what cannot, in principle, be designed competently: a spontaneous order. If the assignment succeeds in teaching that one lesson, it could be worthwhile after all.


Anonymous said...

I think as a technical point you are right, that it would be impossible for the students -- or anyone -- to design a language. At least, you are right if by "design" you intend that the result be usable, complete, and stable. Languages, like other social practices, evolved. Living languages continue to evolve. I think Hayek often pointed to Language along with Common Law and Markets as examples of spontaneous orders.

But just because Fish's assignment is impossible in principle, doesn't mean that it lacks pedagogic value in practice. ;) Fish may have come across a way to help students get an intuitive feel for how languages work.

In economics, "supply" and "demand" are pieces to the puzzle of understanding how markets works. While in principle it is impossible to identify actual supply and demand curves (the necessary information is unavailable to the econ professor just as it is unavailable to the planning committee), it is nonetheless possible in practice to draw supply and demand curves on the chalkboard and convey some glimpse of how markets work.

Anonymous said...

When I read that article, I found myself imagining the first day of freshman English, getting that assignment - OMG, what a pain in the ass. And a group assignment to boot, double ug. But it was an interesting concept.

Anonymous said...

Fish's class sounds great, and I think your analogy is unfair. There is no reason to believe that a language must be a "spontaneous order," and many languages (Modern Hebrew, Esperanto, Quenya, Klingon, HTML, C++) aren't. Furthermore, you can go a long way toward designing a language (and hit all the essential elements) without designing an entire language that could be useful in all aspects of life. The pedagogical value of having students come up with words for "asparagus" and "postmodernism" is negligible -- but the value of having them come up with ways to express the subjunctive, the plural, and the superlative is significant.

Anonymous said...

You haven't as yet convinced me of the impossibility of the mission. Although perhaps you've convinced me of the undesirability of or the unnecessariness of such a purely centralized undertaking. Yes, why waste the effort if things will align themselves in the "best" way all by themselves. Of course whether it is always best is why it's still an pressing social and political question. The belief that things will "magically" take care of themselves without any kind of wise human guiding hand or external input is a dangerous security belief to hold. If a rich man see a poor man starving, what spontaneous law of nature or economics will ensure that the rich man shares a morsel of food? If a company moves operations south of the border to take advantage of lax or unenforced enviromental or worker safety law's what force other than a moral force will prevent the company from doing so?
Sadly, the consumer isn't likely to object; she usually only cares about low prices.

Certainly, we are in an information explosion age that I doubt Hayek could have fully appreciated. The more information that is available, the more likely an informed and intelligent visible hand is likely to do some good. Even in biology, we see human intervention being able to cure genetic and other diseases, etc. Do these cure come about by magic or spontaneous processes? The spontaneous process of a virus often ends in the death of the (human) host. Who's in favor of such an outcome? Btw, I'm all in favor of spontaneity in the bedroom, but let's leave f*cking out of the present discussion.

Glen Whitman said...

Mike -- I agree that Fish's assignment could serve some pedagogical purposes. My worry is just that it could mislead students in other ways. Also, teaching someone a model for understanding a spontaneous order (like supply & demand) is quite different from teaching them how to run the system themselves.

Anon of 11:44 a.m. -- Your examples of Esperanto and Klingon nicely demonstrate my point. The only people who speak these language are, not to put too fine a point on it, ubergeeks. Not that I have a problem with geekiness, of course. The point is that you can design a language, but making it useful on an everyday basis to normal people is another thing entirely. My guess is that if Klingon and Esperanto ever caught on, they would rapidly cease to look like their descriptions in the original texts. Instead, new rules of syntax, new words, and new morphologies would take over, thereby enabling the language to respond to real people's needs. As for modern Hebrew, it did of course have a historical foundation, albeit an outdated one; the original Hebrew was grown, not made. And I'll bet that modern Hebrew has changed a hell of a lot since its reintroduction, just as I surmise that Klingon and Esperanto would change if used on a regular basis.

Anon of 1:35 p.m. -- I object to your use of the word "magical." Decades of economic theory have contributed to our understanding of how spontaneous orders like the market economy operate. "Amazing" yes, "magical" no. And no reasonable advocate of markets claims they *always* produce desirable results and solve all problems. I can't guarantee that every starving person will get fed. The point is twofold: (a) that a market system creates systematic incentives for the solution of problems, and (b) that markets can take advantage of diffuse knowledge in a way that no centralized system can. Compare starvation rates in capitalist economies to those of state-run economies and you'll see what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, probably the best modern example of an invented language helps prove your point. The entire mythology of Tolkien's Middle Earth grew out of his attempt at language building: for fun, he began designing a language that became Elven, but realized that a language can only be real and make sense if it grows out of a particular culture. So in order to make his languages make sense, he had to create the entire mythology of middle-earth so he could attempt to simulate the evolution of his language in keeping with a culture.

That said, I agree that there could be pedagogical value in the attempt insofar as it gives students an insight into how language fits together. I know that studying Latin did the same for me--seeing the theory of how linguistic structures fit together helps a lot in making them work properly in English.

MJ said...

Ironically, a group of children who speak no common language are actually far better suited at designing a language than a group of undergraduate students. The genesis of fully functional languages has been documented (though I think all of the examples I can think of were spoken of after the fact, not recorded while the development was in progress. Practically, I think it would indeed be nearly impossible to record the process, since language creators probably tend to be too young to talk about things like grammar and syntax).

The most famous example I can think of is that of the Nicarguan sign language. In the 70s the Sandanistas created a school for deaf children and, in short, the kids rejected the sign system their teachers tried to teach them and just started communicating among themselves instead. The language began as a pidgin and "within a few generations" (according to wikipedia - - but 25 years doesn't feel like 'a few' generations to me, and the language was mature some time ago) was complete with all the bells and whistles.
I believe another example can be found in a couple full languages that were formed from pidgins in a few places (Hawaii and the Philippines come to mind, but I'm not sure on that), and so far as I recall, it was always the children who reformed the pidgin into a full language.

Perhaps it's not so ironic after all though. I would guess that the best way to come up with a functional economy would be to begin with actors starting from a blank point as well, and then just watch the economy evolve.

Obviously I don't write this to disagree with Glen; I'm just flapping my gums (so to speak).