Tuesday, March 07, 2006

language as a self-organizing system

I've been reading a little about self-organizing systems, because, as far as I can tell, language qualifies, though I'm surprised that as far as I can tell nobody has thought of it before.

According to wikipedia, the idea began with Descartes - that "the ordinary laws of nature tend to produce organization. My own interpretation would be that, given a large system of independent parts, it's mutually beneficial to both establish a system, and assume one even when there is none, so that organization tends to appear and be supported; and better forms of organization tend to win over worse ones, because of the nature of the creatures doing the assuming.

One thing that got me thinking about this was a class's project on Wal-Mart, which took a little foray into the wilds of free-market radicals. The system organizes itself & the consumer wins - the government should stay out of it, was kind of how their philosophy went. People find the best place to produce and go there, thus doing what is naturally best for the system.

A related idea is that of emergent structures. "There is nothing that commands the system to form a pattern, but instead the interactions of each part to its immediate surroundings causes a complex process which leads to order. One might conclude that emergent structures are more than the sum of their parts because the emergent order will not arise if the various parts are simply coexisting; the interaction of those parts are central" (p. 2). Ant colonies, games like chess and go, are considered examples. Why language is not, beats me.

My linguistics professors would always say that linguistics is a science. Yet I don't go far before I realize that I need a scientist to help me with this.

I keep thinking about the Jeep in the Outback...going back to the question of "universal constraints"...which I consider bogus. The idea was that it was a universal constraint that cars should drive on one side of the road or the other (hogwash, I said)...but a local constraint that determined which side. My stand was that a Jeep in the Outback didn't have to choose any side, and wouldn't. Get enough cars around, and it would become mutually beneficial, to, say, veer to the right (or left) upon seeing one. But only chance or previous experience of one or more drivers could determine whether right or left would win as an emergent social norm...or maybe I've got the idea wrong. To me, this is the heart of language formation and language change. We change because we're social beings. We do what's easier. We are not constrained by a universal genetic force that tells us that if prepositions come before their object, then verbs should go before their object also....on the contrary, we're not really constrained in that way at all. We set our own parameters because it's easier...

I began to tell another class about a movie I'd seen about population growth. The essence of the movie, which didn't sink in until I'd seen it a few times, was that in studying the early development of agriculture (and then the industrial revolution- two times of great population growth) - they had decided that we learned farming not because we were geniuses, or clever, or interested in experimenting with tools...but because we had to...because we could no longer do what we had been doing (wandering around)...in the industrial revolution, finding & extracting coal seemed like a lot of work...just to make a little steel...but we were running out of wood...as we are today. The engines of change are driven by the need for survival - but also by the need to make things simple so we can concentrate on other things. Like survival. More later...


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