Chapter Nine: Language And Other Cultural Markers

II. Language

The probable future of language was discussed in Chapter Two. At the present stage of brain research, it's not possible to be sure whether language is simply an interface, or whether it is involved in the storage of absolute meaning. If the former, children will learn to communicate via implanted bio-electronic devices, and language, perhaps some form of highly stylized English, will be used only as a store of historical information. Even that may not be necessary: if machines come to imitate the workings of the human brain (something that is explored in Chapter Twelve) then they could presumably imitate the non-linguistic storage of concepts and syntax as easily as they will shortly be able to imitate language itself.

Most people, however, probably think that at least some types of meaning are stored in linguistic form. There may be a distinction between words which can be (and are) represented by non-linguistic cognitive contents, and words which cannot, corresponding to the distinction between concepts which predated symbolic language (eg the concept of a hill) which are adequately represented in images, and symbolic linguistic concepts such as names, the description of time etc, which are understood badly if at all other than through words. It is interesting that writers on consciousness have tended to see names, time words and other culturally advanced linguistic representations as having arrived very late on, as recently perhaps as the dawn of recorded history, for which indeed they are a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition.

A compound word such as the Acropolis carries within itself both the concept of a hill, presumed to be stored as an image, and the name 'Acropolis', which is stored in a lexicon. What we don't yet know is whether that name storage is in some way photographic, or whether via reference to phonemes, or by some other as yet undescribed storage method. Quite possibly it would be by a mixture of all of these.

The brain is rather amazing at storing linguistic concepts, whatever the method employed; but it has limitations, particularly for older people. There will be no need in future, however, to be limited by the brain's current lexical capacity; a complete set of currently used linguistic concepts and symbols can be contained in a bio-electronic or purely electronic lexicon which would be available to all individuals (either external or implanted). This would represent an extension of consciousness: not just Tower Hill and the Acropolis, but lots of other hills as well would be available in the lexicon. Hills already assimilated into a person's psyche would be tagged as such; other hills would have contextual/keyword tags and would be available as needed.

The types of word for which separate storage is needed in the brain are probably those which might as well be the same in all languages. 'Hour' or 'mercy' don't seem to carry a lot of separate national or other cultural significance. Interestingly, though, it is quite hard to think of a name-word which doesn't have extraneous resonances for particular cultures; think of 'Thatcher', 'Orinoco', 'Sahara', 'Rome' or 'Sirius'.

If linguistic forms are necessary to the creation and expression of at least some types of conceptual ideas, then language will remain in use. Different languages will not have a purpose in most adult communication because of the ease of machine translation between different languages; but it would still be necessary for children to learn a language, simply to develop their 'acquis humanitaire'. It's a presumably unpopular conclusion that different languages might not remain in use. Without adult need for language, what would be the purpose of having more than one language?

But then there is poetry, and literature and song. Despite all the difficulties of interpretation after four thousand years we still go to Greek plays. On the other hand we don't dance around the may-pole or sacrifice goats.

Perhaps what is to be expected is a prolonged period in which language-based cultures are preserved for speakers of individual languages, while every-day social and business affairs are conducted via translation devices, and new forms are developed to contain, communicate and propagate artistic and philosophical content in which linguistic forms play a lesser role. Such forms are described in Chapter Twelve. Eventually, however, spoken language as we know it will probably disappear, and there will of course be no need for written language once direct 'brain to computer' communication is established, even if some types of word remain in use in the human cognitive space. The time-scale is perhaps 1/200 years; maybe less.

Turning back to culture, it is to be expected that the 'langue maternelle' sort of culture – nursery rhymes and so on – would persist in its variegated hues for some time to come, but that grown-up culture, in so far as it is delivered via language, will become subject to globalization tendencies, at least in the mainstream of human affairs.

Technology which enables at least partially non-linguistic cognitive communication between groups of individuals – described in Chapter 12 onwards – is likely to play an increasing role in human affairs from the middle of the 21st century onwards, and while it will enormously increase the depth and variety of inter-personal communication it will usher in a further lessening of the role of language in our society.