September 2007
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Linguistics and SciFi

Ok, It’s been more than a week since I last wrote down any of my thoughts. I recently went on travel for work, and gave a presentation of the software that I’ve been working on. I was received well, and I now have a list of improvements to make. I also visited my grandparents in Texas, which was loads of fun. While I was vacationing I was able to read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

I very much enjoyed the book. It had wonderful mix of virtual reality, linguistics, and ancient religious history. It also centered around the idea that if a human encounters carefully crafted input, then their brain might crash, akin to crashing a computer. I know that this is a fairly recent idea (It couldn’t possible predate computers) but it’s really captivating from a linguistic perspective. Stephenson touches on religion by tying the story of Babble to a biological virus that infects the learned linguistic wiring of the brain, meaning that you can crash peoples biohardware if you can carefully craft the right message. A touching form of Neuro-Bio-Linguistic-Hacking.

I believe that linguistics and thought are intimately related. You cannot truly have a thought without verbalization, and yet, a particular phrasing will color the thought. Humans can develop new ideas without first having the language to express them, but this requires the creation of new words or terms in which to adequately express the new forms of thought. Naming really is akin to creation (at least in the Noosphere). The language we use to express ourselves also affects the types of thoughts that you can think, it is very difficult to consider things for which you have no words. Having no words, the most immediate feeling is one of frustration, which is unfortunately not conducive to the creation of new vocabulary.

Seeing that others recognize that the linguistics of thought, and the thought of linguistics are intimately locked into a feedback loop, has come as a welcome relief. I was beginning to suspect that my viewpoint on this was unique, but now I see that the observation of this connection is old enough to have entered into popular SciFi. It really excites me that Stepenson was able to translate this observation into a novel, and spread the idea out to so many.

His attack on religion as a viral meme was also really interesting. The book wouldn’t be nearly as good without the grafting of neuro-linguistics to the ancient Sumerians and the story of Babel was fascinating. Recognition of the very existence of viral memes together with their particular relation to the major religions has started to enter the global consciousness (thanks mostly to the crusading Richard Dawkins). There is so much that isn’t widely known about our religious and cultural mythologies (most of that knowledge is still considered heretical) that we are still largely sheep to a veneer of symbology and iconography that stirs the emotions rather than the intellect. Humanity still has alot of growing up to do.

Disclaimer: I haven’t researched the historical info that Snow Crash was based on, and so I assume that most of it is inspired fiction.

1 comment to Linguistics and SciFi

  • wow, emotions rather than intellect. sounds like someone was hurt in his youth by the church or something… there are plenty of intellectuals in religions. who said that viral memes aren’t derived from some higher form of Truth?

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