Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

Do you find possible to apply the scientific method in building a new language? If yes, in which ways would you apply it?

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Interesting question, but probably not, and here’s why.

The scientific method is designed to investigate something that already exists, to establish its makeup, and how it works. To do so, one postulates hypotheses (informed guesses), tests them in a controlled and reproducible manner, and draw conclusions from the results. It is a deductive process, and analogous to a blind man working out what an elephant looks like through touch alone.

Creating a new language is a creative exercise, i.e., bringing something into existence—so by definition, the process is different. When you don’t already have an elephant, but need an animal of some sort, you are free to decide whether you want something that size, or smaller, or with a trunk, or not, etc. To do so, you first work out the specifications—i.e., what is it that you need it to do. If you need something you can ride and can crash through the forest, pick up whole trees and pull them out of the ground, you might well design an elephant. But if you’re looking for speed, ease of locomotion by one person, you design a bicycle. Good design is therefore an inductive process (the opposite of deductive): you fulfill detailed requirements, and the form emerges as you go along, and can be quite different from what you might have predicted or planned at the start.

When languages form naturally, they do so inductively: a word is needed for a given thing or situation, and is created. The guiding principle is utility (usefulness) and ease of pronunciation, so rules are bent to suit. Thus, in English we say I am not, but not I amn’t—even though that would be the “logical” rule—simply because it sounds odd. Which is something that inventors of artificial languages often forget: in the name of “logic” (although logic has nothing to do with it), it formulates hard-and-fast rules that are always supposed to be followed. Human nature isn’t like that.

Many people confuse “scientific” with “logical”, and think that only deductive processes are logical, when in fact, inductive processes are just as logical: each step is a natural consequence of its predecessor, when one takes into account all the factors. They simply follow more complex formulas.

Addendum: Check out the Ithkuil language, invented by John Quijada.

(Originally written in reply to a question at Quora.com)

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Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

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