Man’s natural language is the most comprehensive as well as the most differentiated means of expression. This special gift has been given to human beings only, allowing us to express all our feelings and our deepest beliefs, as well as to describe the interrelationships prevailing in nature, in life, and in the field of technology. Language is the calculus required for formulating all kinds of thoughts; it is also essential for conveying information. We will now investigate this uniquely human phenomenon. First of all, some definitions of language are given, and it should be clear that a brief definition is not possible as is the case for information [L3, p. 13–17]:
Definition L1: Language is an exclusively human method for communicating thoughts, feelings, and wishes; it is not rooted in instinct, and it employs a system of freely structured symbols (Spair).
Definition L2: A language is a system of arbitrary sound symbols by means of which a social group interacts (Bloch and Trager).
Definition L3: Language is the institution used by human beings for communication and interaction by means of conventional and voluntary oral-auditory symbols (Hall).
Definition L4: Henceforth, I will understand language to comprise a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each of which is finite in length and consists of a finite set of elements (Chomsky).
Language is the ability to express information. Apart from various secondary means of expression like mime and gesture-language, natural spoken language is the most important and most extensive vehicle for communicating information. An unlimited range of subject matter can be expressed by means of human language, achieved by a brilliantly conceived structural system, for all languages comprise a hierarchical system of lingual units. The smallest units are the sounds, and it is noteworthy that only about 600 sounds which could in principle be produced by the human speech organs, are used in the known 5,100 languages. When a child learns a language, those sounds heard most frequently are repeated, and other sounds are thus not learned. The child diminishes the range of sounds until, eventually, the frequency distribution typical of his mother tongue is obtained.
Among languages, the number of sounds employed, varies between 15 and 85. The Rotokas language spoken on Bougainville Island, New Guinea, has the shortest alphabet, namely only 11 letters—six consonants and five vowels: a, b, e, g, i, k, o, p, r, t, and u. Having said this, we still do not know how many different sounds can be produced with these letters. On the other hand, the Nepalese language employs more than 60 letters, while 72 letters including obsolete ones, are used in Kampuchean. The largest number of vowels, 55, is found in Sedang, a language used in central Vietnam; this includes the various pitches at which “similar” vowels are voiced. At the other extreme, the Caucasian language Abkhazian, has only two vowels. Another Caucasian language, Ubyxian, employs the greatest number of consonants, between 80 and 85, while the above-mentioned Rotokas uses only six, the smallest known number.
The sounds which serve as acoustic elements of a language are known in linguistics as phonemes. In German, most phonemes are represented by single letters, but often two or three letters are required (e.g., ei, eu, and sch). With only a few exceptions, phonemes are meaningless sounds—they carry no meaning. The most concise meaningful units are the morphemes, which are the simplest structures at the lowest linguistic level. At the top of the lingual hierarchy is the most complex level, namely the entire text. Being the smallest functional language unit, a morpheme is comprised of one or more phonemes, e.g., simple words without prefixes and suffixes. A morpheme is itself part of a lexeme or word, or identical to one. Lexemes are the basic units of the vocabulary of a language in conventional form (e.g., singular nouns or the infinitive form of a verb). Many words appearing in a text are usually inflected forms of the lexical unit. There are very many possible ways of word formation, but all languages employ only a fraction of this total. The greatest number of different sound combinations would be attained when all sounds or phonemes could be combined with all others in every possible sequence. Sequences like ktx, nxr, or bfg appear to be possible, but do not occur in English or German. The allocation of the meanings of sound combinations (words) are arbitrary and must be learned through experience, but the combination of words to form sentences is a different matter.
It is very remarkable that, although we do not know the meaning of a word which we have not yet heard, we can understand sentences that have never before been voiced, and we can produce an infinite number of new sentences which can immediately be understood by the members of our language group.
The words of a language are linked together in sentences according to fixed rules. These rules (grammar) prevent the construction of chaotic word jumbles, and provide languages with practically unlimited ways of expression. Every sentence is a sequence of morphemes, but not every sequence of morphemes makes up a sentence. The rules of grammar determine the way in which morphemes and words should be combined to express a certain meaning, and syntactical rules (syntax = construction of sentences) determine which word combinations form acceptable sentences and which combinations are unacceptable for the language involved. Language expressions have a definite meaning in the sense that the members of a given language community have allocated their meaning by common agreement (convention).
Semantics describe all possible conceptual meanings or structures which can be expressed in the form of sentences. It does not only involve general meanings and concepts of words, groups of words, and sentences, but also the relationships between these meanings and reality, the so-called referential relationships.
In spite of the large number and variety of languages, there are many remarkable common properties:
1. Wherever there are people, the gift of language is evident.
2. Linguistically seen, there are no “primitive” languages. Every language has its own complexities and its own strengths and weaknesses according to the relevant semantics.
3. Although the relationships between sounds and the meanings of language elements are arbitrary, they nevertheless are fixed by the conventions of the language.
4. The human vocal organs are able to produce about 600 different sounds, but any one language uses only a specific selection of these sounds. The number of different sounds lies somewhere between 15 and 85 for a given language, and these sounds are combined to form words (elements which convey meanings). In their turn, the words can be used to form an unlimited number of possible sentences.
5. Every language possesses its own unique grammatical structure which describes the rules for forming words and sentences within that language.
6. Every spoken language comprises a limited number of sound elements which can be classified in various ways. A universal distinction, valid for all languages, is that between consonants and vowels.
7. All languages have comparable grammatical categories, like nouns, verbs, and numerals.
8. Some semantic units like feminine, masculine, and human being are common to all languages.
9. It is in all languages possible to refer to the past, to refute assertions, to set questions, and to formulate commands.
10. The vocabulary of any language can be extended. New words are given a meaning through convention, and are subject to the relevant morphological rules, the acceptable sounds, and the prescribed symbols.
11. Any normal child can learn any selected language, independent of place of birth, geographical region, or racial or social group. It follows that the ability of articulating any arbitrary language by means of the vocal organs is inherent and, thanks to the gift of reason, any lingual systems can be learned to such an extent that arbitrary sentences in that language can be constructed and understood.
12. It is in principle possible to formulate any arbitrary idea in any language. Human languages are able to convey an unlimited number of meanings and contents, in contrast to the communication systems of animals.
The German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803) asserted, “Every language is, as it were, the storehouse of the most unique concepts of a nation.” Language characterizes a nation and it is strongly influenced by the environment. We shall now discuss some examples which illustrate the statement that “the vocabulary of a language indicates what a nation thinks; the syntax indicates how the people think.”
The Beduins have various names for a camel, each of which expresses some specific aspect of its place in their life. Some hunting tribes in East Africa use a range of words for expressing various shades of brown, but they have only one term for all other colors lumped together. In some Slavic languages the auxiliary verb “to be” plays a minor role compared to its position in the Germanic and the Latin languages. This indicates a quite different realization of the problem of “being” for the respective nations. The Eskimo languages have many different words for snow. For example, they distinguish between falling snow, snow lying on the ground, and solid snow cut into blocks. A certain language of the Philippines employs 92 different words for 92 different ways of traveling. The Tabassarian language spoken in Daquestan (in the former Soviet Union) acknowledges 35 kinds of nouns, and in a certain Eskimo language there are 63 present tense forms and up to 252 inflections for simple nouns. The North American Indian language, Chippewa (Minnesota), holds the record for the largest number of verb forms, about 6,000, and another Amerindian language, Haida, employs the greatest number of prefixes, namely 70.
In the Nepalese Kulung language there are three different words for “come,” indicating whether one comes from above (yuo), from below (tongo), or from the same level (bano). In a mountainous country, these distinctions are very meaningful, but they would not be required in the Netherlands. The Nepalese have five different words for “mountain” which indicate various altitudes. This language also has an extensive vocabulary for describing family relationships; not only do they distinguish between paternal and maternal lines, but they also encompass various age groups. There are four different words for “we,” indicating, for example, whether the addressed person is included or not, and they also differentiate between many persons and two only.
In Sunba sentences, a single sound is included which has no inherent meaning, but indicates how the person who is talking acquired the information. This caused problems until the Wycliffe missionary involved discovered that it meant that the person either experienced it personally, or was relating something which he had heard. This usage is important for Bible translation, since the Bible writers usually report personal experiences.
Approximately one-third of all languages on earth are tonal. This means that the same word expressed with a change of pitch (or pitch contour) carries a different meaning. With some tonal languages, when written down, the pitch contour is indicated. To do this it would conceivably be possible to employ musical notation, but this would be too cumbersome for daily use. In any case, in tonal languages it is not the absolute pitch which is important, but the correct change in pitch (pitch contour) when one pronounces individual syllables. Most tonal languages use from two to six pitch contours, which may be indicated by a superscript behind each syllable (see block 7 in Table 2), or by using accent marks as in French. Tonal languages are found in and around China, and also in Africa and America. We often find tonal and non-tonal languages in close proximity, but often there is no indication of a “family tree of languages.”
Metaphysical ideas can be expressed exceptionally well in the Amerindian language Hopi, while an ephemeral state cannot be formulated abstractly in the Indo-Germanic languages. For example, the word “run” usually elicits the questions: where? whence? or whither? But to describe the essence of running, we require combinations like “running as such,” or “simply running.” In the Hopi language, a single suffix is appended for such a purpose.
We should not regard the Amerindian languages as primitive in the light of the following important statements about them [O4]:
As counted in 1940, there are about 150 Indian languages which have nothing in common with the European linguistic heritage. Their vocabularies are enormous and their grammar indicates that the grunting noises made by Indians in western movies are far removed from their actual lingual proficiencies. They are characterized by pleasant melodious sounds, an imaginative art of expression, fine nuances and descriptions, and methodical constructions . . . although they lack words for abstract concepts like truth, love, soul, or spirit. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania (= Penn’s rural forestland), who lived in a neighborly accord with the Delawares, described their way of reasoning in the following words: “I know no European language which contains more words depicting friendliness and generosity in the colorfulness of their sounds and intonation than their language.”
In many languages, the nouns are classified according to grammatical gender. In the Latin languages the nouns are either masculine or feminine, and in German, Greek, and the Slavic languages there is a third gender, the neuter. There is no satisfactory explanation for this arbitrary classification of objects and concepts in different genders. It is, for example, difficult to understand why the German words ”Mädchen” (girl) and “Weib” (wife or woman) are regarded as belonging to the neuter gender. Mark Twain (1835–1910) commented as follows: “In German, a young lady has no gender, while parsnips are feminine.” In Hebrew, gender plays an even more important part than in most European languages. Not only nouns, pronouns, and adjectives are distinguished according to gender, but verbs also. The simple sentence “I love you” can be expressed in six different ways. It is different when it is said by a man or by a woman, or directed at a man or a woman, or directed at a group of men or a group of women. The best known “genderless” language is Chinese, which has only one word for the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “it.”
Most noteworthy is the peculiarities of languages as far as semantic categories like parts of speech and idiomatic expressions are concerned. In many cases, special structures are required to express gradual differences. In the Igbira language of Nigeria, the sentence “He has said that he would come tomorrow,” for example, is regarded as an uncertainty rather than a promise. The Wycliffe Bible translators battled with this problem when they had to translate biblical promises into this language [H3]. The assertion in Mark 14:49, “But the Scriptures must be fulfilled,” describes a completely open event in this form. To make a statement definite, the Igbira language employs a double negative. The above-mentioned sentence thus had to be translated as follows: “It is not possible that God’s Book would not become true.”
Peter Dommel, one of the Wycliffe missionaries, reported that the Kaureh tribe in Irian Jaya uses only three different numerals, namely one, two, and many. To express “three,” they say “one and two,” and in the same way “four” is “two and two.” Only in recent years have numerals, borrowed from Indonesian, been introduced to indicate “large” numbers.
It should be clear from these examples that no two languages correspond fully in respect to word meanings, and they do not at all correspond where grammatical and semantic structures are concerned. Every language has its own unique wealth, its own special complexity, and also its own weaknesses.
There is a practically limitless number of speculations and theories about the origin of human languages [C1]. According to the natural sounds and imitation theory, humans mimicked the sounds made by animals. Although human languages contain many imitation words, such mimicry of animal sounds cannot be employed for a systematic analysis, because imitations vary quite arbitrarily from nation to nation. When a German cock crows, it cries “kikeriki,” for example, an English cock crows “cock-a-doodle-doo,” while Russians reproduce this sound as “kukuriki.” An Eskimo can convincingly imitate the call of a whale, but it does not occur to him to name a whale by this sound.
Other theories maintain that human languages were derived from emotional exclamations, or that the first words were sounds used to accompany or emphasize certain gesticulations. The evolutionary idea of an upward development of grunts and snorts to cultural languages through the primitive languages of aboriginal nations has been thoroughly refuted by comparative linguistics. Even the different and separated Amerindian tribes in California possessed an extremely complex and subtle language. It was practically impossible to unlock this language grammatically and translate it adequately. The most complex Amerindian language of all is Comanche [C1]. Some sounds are whispered and others have to be formed by using only the larynx. During the First World War this language was used as a secret code [U1]. Two Comanche Indians were employed for telephone messages, one at each end. At the transmitting end, one of them translated the English message into Comanche, and these messages could not be deciphered, because the grammar was too far removed from European languages, and it would have taken several years of intensive study for the opposing side to have learned the language.
Such “code talkers” were employed during the Second World War as well, having been selected from different tribes (e.g., Comanche, Chippewa, Hopi, and Navajo), and the American Marine Corps employed 375 Navajos [U1]. The first four verses of the Gospel of John might serve to convey the complexity of this language:
1 Hodeeyáadi Saad jílí, Saad éí Diyin God bil hojíló, índa Saad éí Diyin God jílí. 2 T’ áá éí hodeeyáadi Diyin God bil hojíló; 3 éí t’áá’altsoní ájiilaa, índa dahólonígíí t’áálá’í ndi t’áá hádingo t’áadoo la’ályaa da. 4 Iiná hwii’ hóló, áko éí iinánígíí nihokáá’dine’é bá bee adindíín.
Conclusion: All languages are unique and all perform their functions well. They comprise morphological, grammatical, and semantic complexities and structures which were not devised by any person. The members of aboriginal tribes do not even realize that they use finely shaded categories. They also do not know the structure of their grammar, so that their language could not have been devised by their forebears.
Johann Peter Sübmilch established in 1756 that man could not have invented language without having the necessary intelligence, and also that intelligent thought in its turn depends on the previous existence of speech. The only solution to this paradox is that God must have given human beings language as a gift.
V. Fromkin and R. Rodman [F8] concluded that there was no proof for or against the divine origin of language, just as nobody can scientifically prove the existence or the non-existence of God.
In actual fact: One cannot prove the existence of God, but He has revealed himself in creation in such a way that we can deduce His greatness and His wisdom (Psalm 19; Romans 1:19–20). The same holds for the origin of languages. An evolutionary development can be precluded immediately, and it is clear from the complexity of all languages that behind and above the brilliant concepts figuring in all of them, there must be an originator of the ideas. We thus accept the biblical report that God gifted man with this special ability when he was created. The gift of speech is apparent from the following particulars:
—creation of the necessary special speech apparatus for articulation
—the ability to create words (Genesis 2:19)
—the ability to learn a language
—creative use of the language phenomenon
Originally, there was only one language (Genesis 11:1), but at the Babel judgment (Genesis 11:7 ) God caused many languages to arise, preserving the ability to express all thoughts in words. Using several examples, we have illustrated the complexity and the special strengths and weaknesses of some languages.
At the moment, some 5,100 languages and dialects are spoken on earth. Many have become extinct, up to 3,000 during the past thousand years, and only about 100 languages are spoken by more than one million people each. Two-thirds of the entire world population employ only five languages: Mandarin Chinese, Hindustani, English, Russian, and Spanish.
The invention of writing is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of man. (Perhaps Adam could have received the gift of writing together with the gift of speech. If so, writing was not “invented” by man.) Human memory does not last long and the storage capacity of the brain is limited, but this problem is overcome over distance as well as over time. Writing is essential for a people to develop literature, recorded history, and technology. Groups without writing therefore do not go beyond a certain stage in culture (e.g., aboriginal peoples). Only a written language allows the possibility of information storage, so that inventions and discoveries (e.g., in medicine and technology) will not be lost, but can be added to and developed further. Writing can thus be defined as follows:
Definition D6: Writing is a human communication system set up by convention, which represents language as a sequence of symbols. These symbols should be able to be transmitted and received, must be mutually understood, and must represent spoken words. Writing reproduces spoken language in the form of symbols.
We can only speak of real writing when pictograms represent the spoken words of a given language through their shapes and sequences. The spoken word acquires a temporal dimension by means of writing; historical traditions usually require permanent records to be kept, and the same holds for science in most communities. Various nations invented their own writing technique—the Sumerians used pictograms about 3500 B.C., Egyptian hieroglyphics originated 3000 B.C., in the Middle East cuneiform writing was in use around 2500 B.C., and Chinese ideograms date from 1500 B.C. The latest and most important stage was however the invention of an alphabet. An alphabet consists of a predetermined number of written symbols, each of which represents one spoken sound only—at least in the ideal theoretical case. All these symbols can be used in arbitrary combinations to reproduce the different words of a language. When an alphabet is used, it means that the number of symbols is reduced to a rational minimum; its flexibility and the direct correspondence to the sounds of the spoken language has the effect that such writing makes it very much easier for anyone to learn and to use that particular language. Alphabetical writing originated around 2500 B.C. in the region of present-day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Today, only the following alphabets are in use: Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Georgian, Arabic, Persian, and Indian.
There are three kinds of writing systems:
1. Word based: Every symbol represents a word or a morpheme (e.g., Chinese).
2. Syllabic: Every symbol represents a syllable (e.g., Korean).
3. Alphabetic: Every symbol generally represents a phoneme (e.g., English, Spanish).
If it is not necessary to represent a certain number of sounds, then the set of symbols can be reduced even more. In the case of the genetic code, the number of different symbols is a minimum because of the certainty of transmission; the same holds for binary codes and for Morse code.
A language can be regarded as a system whereby certain sounds or gestures convey certain meanings. In this sense, many animals like birds, bees, crabs, wolves, and dolphins communicate with one another, but as far as fundamental characteristics are concerned, human language is vastly different from the communication systems employed by animals:
1. Creativity: Only human language can be creative. When speaking, one can arbitrarily link together many lingual units to form well-constructed new sentences. Man is able to produce sentences which he has never before uttered, and he also can understand sentences which he has never beforehand heard. Any arbitrary matter can be verbalized. The communication systems used by animals are fixed and limited. The history of experiments with animals, purporting to teach them some complex language, is characterized by failure.
2. Voluntary conventions: The vocabularies of all human languages all over the world consist predominantly of arbitrary vocal structures which correspond to the relevant concept or object purely by convention. In contrast, the sounds and gestures used in “animal languages” are inherently fixed, and can thus not be arbitrarily assigned some other meaning.
3. Comprehensiveness: The number of thoughts that can be expressed in a human language is unlimited, but it is fixed and bounded in the animal world. The dance performed by bees is in principle such an effective communication system that numerous different messages could be conveyed, but in practice, the system, being restricted to a few concepts only, is inflexible.
4. Reason for transmission: The messages sent by animals depend on certain stimuli (e g., fear, warning, desire to mate, and quest for food), but man is not limited to such strictures.
Although there are fundamental differences in quality between human languages and the communication systems of animals, the messages conveyed by the latter do qualify as “information.” All five aspects of information as discussed above, are found here, as will now be illustrated by bee dancing.
Bee dances: Bee dances, although simple, afford an illustrative example of the five aspects of information on the biological plane. The well-known Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch (1886–1982) [F7] investigated and described this phenomenon to some depth. The general situation between sender and recipient is illustrated in Figure 39, as well as the syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, and apobetic levels. The transmitting bee, which has discovered a new and plentiful source of food on its latest flight, now passes this essential information (intentional communication) on to the other bees in the hive (the recipients). The employed signals are body movements. Although only a few bees are involved simultaneously, the code convention did not originate with the sender bee, nor with the recipients. This is a typical example of the situation depicted in Figure 24.
The syntax of the message is defined by various characteristics of the dance: namely the sequence of the motions, and the number of gyrations per time unit, as well as the direction of the straight line part of the movement. The attendant bees understand the meaning (semantics) of the specifically encoded information:
Distance of the food source: If the distance is, say, 350 feet, the gyrations follow one another rapidly and the motions are fast. For greater distances, the movements become less rapid, but the straight-line part is emphasized and protracted. There is a nearly mathematical relationship between the distance of the food source in feet and the number of gyrations per minute.
The direction of the food source: The direction of the straight part communicates the position of the food source in two ways, depending on whether the dancing is performed on a vertical wall of the hive, or on a horizontal plane such as the apron at the entrance. The sun is used as a compass.
The kind of flower: Nectar-gathering bees communicate the kind of blossom by means of the odor clinging to the bee’s body and to the honey container. Another indispensable source of nourishment is pollen. When pollen is gathered, no nectar having an identifiable odor is carried, but some part of the blossom is brought back.
The gestural language of wolves: A wolf is able to communicate fine shades of meaning by means of its eyes, lips, and tail. It can express 11 emotional states, including confidence, threat, uncertainty, depression, a defensive attitude, and subjugation, by different tail positions [F8]. This seems to be a complex system by means of which thousands of states could be encoded, but it lacks the decisive elements of a language, namely the ability to creatively combine single language elements to construct a sentence.
“Speaking birds”: Parrots and budgies have the ability to faithfully imitate words and even sentences of human language. They simply reproduce what they hear. When a parrot says, “Polly wants a glass of water,” this does not reflect an actual desire. Even when it says, “Good morning,” it still is not a real greeting. There is no real meaning behind this “speech” of the bird; it does not speak English or German or even its own language when it makes these sounds. In contrast to the previous examples, this mimicry does not represent a communication system.
The concept “artificial intelligence”—abbreviation AI—increasingly appears in catch phrases in many scientific journals as well as in popular literature [N1, S6, W1, and W7]. This falsely used catchword creates the impression that there will be no distinction between human intelligence and that of a computer in the future. The first computers were optimistically called electronic brains. Fortunately, this idea has been discarded, since there is no comparison between the human brain and a computer [G10]. Unfortunately, the American expression “artificial intelligence” was adopted uncritically, and caused more confusion than enlightenment. The question actually involves the following aspects:
—The objective is not (we hope!) to create systems which would artificially improve the intelligence of somebody with insufficient intellect, like one can employ an artificial kidney in the case of poor kidney performance.
—The word “intelligence” does not only refer to the intellect, but also includes the gathering, transmission, and evaluation of messages. An office specializing in intelligence does not deal with intellectual matters, but is concerned with information.
There is no fixed definition of AI, but the envisaged objective could be briefly described as follows: It involves a certain software technology and not, for example, the hardware of a new computer generation or some new kind of computer architecture. It does involve the development of programming systems for dealing with issues like the following:
1. Expert systems: This involves information systems where questions and answers in some area of specialization can be stored in the form of if-then-else rules; new cases are incorporated as they occur. In medical diagnosis, in the search for mineral resources, and even in income tax consultations, the branching nature of the questions and the material requires special programming. An expert system essentially comprises a database containing single facts as well as the relevant rules and an inference mechanism consisting of a rule interpreter and an applicable strategy. Such systems can only be used in cases where knowledge can be formalized in rules, because programs cannot recognize semantic relationships and cannot link semantic elements.
2. Robotics: Robots are the next stage of development of partly automated machines and they play an increasingly important role in manufacturing processes. They can gather data from their surroundings by means of sensors for pressure, heat, and light, for example, and evaluate these in terms of stored program values. Then the programmed movements are carried out by manipulative mechanisms. Such systems can achieve impressive effects, as illustrated by the organ-playing robot in Figure 5 (chapter 1). It should, however, be emphasized that robots can do nothing more than that for which they have been programmed; the ingenuity and foresight of the programmer when he models the relevant knowledge is of crucial importance.
3. Image processing: This involves the construction or reconstruction of images from data. Highly suitable areas of application are tomography (Greek tome = cut, graphein = write; in conjunction with x-rays) and the preparation of satellite images. The main concern is to recognize objects by contrasting shades of grey and by applying certain algorithms to pictures. Such images can then be erased, changed, or inserted elsewhere.
Image processing includes methods for the recognition, description, and comparison of sample objects.
4. Speech processing: This includes:
—the conversion of spoken words into symbols independent of the person who speaks (the development of a “speech typewriter”)
—translation from one language to another
—the ability to converse in natural language
In this area, the limitations of AI are particularly obvious, because it is in principle impossible to prepare software that can really understand and process meanings, as would be necessary for exercises requiring lingual discernment (e.g., translating, summarizing texts, and answering questions). Speech recognition and comprehension as well as the creative use of language are essential cognitive faculties of man, and is the prerogative of human intelligence.
Since the 1950s, the use of computers for natural language has been considered a challenge. The first efforts were directed to the automation of translation. For this purpose, a complete dictionary was stored, as well as the equivalents in the target language. Employing simple rules for word positioning and for the construction of sentences, the program then looked for associated concepts. However, all these efforts came to a dead end. The frequently quoted sentence, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” was translated into Russian and then translated back. The result was “The vodka is strong, but the steak is bad.”
Joseph Weizenbaum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston) wrote a program called ELIZA in which he ignored linguistic analyses, but employed a fixed answering schema thought to be sufficiently refined. The only result obtained was an understanding of language that was totally unrealistic. This program looked for certain words or word samples in the expressions of the input text, and selected suitable answers from a set of stored sentences or sample sentences. If, for example, a sentence containing the word “mother” is entered, then the system looks for a standard sentence in which this word occurs and responds with: “Tell me more about your mother.” Most of the entered words are ignored by the program, but in spite of this, a very extensive background library is required for dealing with the large number of possible sentences that can be formulated by a person to give the impression of conversing with him.
Conclusion: The problem of enabling a computer to deal with natural language is still unsolved and will never be resolved. It is not possible to model a comprehension of semantic categories (e.g., metaphors, idioms, humor, and exaggerations), unmentioned intentions and convictions of the speaker, or emotions and motivations, for a computer. Human abilities like common sense, intelligence, and creativity cannot be simulated mechanically, because the intelligent use of language includes observation, thought, and actions. Even the best programs used for speech processing do not know what they are talking about, in the truest sense of this expression.
Computer programs which would really be able to imitate language comprehension and perform correct translations fail, as far as the following are concerned:
—Comprehension of meaning: A program cannot “understand” semantic relationships, neither can it link them with one another.
—Grammatical analysis: When translating text, a grammatical analysis is required initially. A program which analyzes some text without considering its meaning will not be able to analyze numerous sentences correctly.
—Language usage depends on its context: The meaning of a sentence cannot be found by adding the meanings of single words. What is more, the meaning of single words depends on the context in which they appear.
—Language employs background knowledge: Each and every sentence is rooted in a specific frame of reference and it can often only be understood in terms of a knowledge of this background.
—The richness of a language resides in poetic turns of speech and in its metaphors. These occur much more frequently in everyday speech than we might realize. There are countless sentences for which the meaning cannot be derived from the meanings of the component words.
—Languages are multivocal: In all languages, some words have more than one meaning (e.g., board as a noun can mean a wooden slab, or daily meals, and it also has more than one meaning as a verb), but this phenomenon is not restricted to words only. At all higher information levels (structural, semantic, pragmatic, and apobetic) there are uniquely personal components which cannot be accessed mechanically.
As we have seen, “artificial intelligence” is a misnomer, and, in addition to gradational differences, there are fundamental differences between human intelligence and AI:
—We should distinguish between data and knowledge, between algorithmically conditioned branching of a program and a deliberate decision, between sorting by comparison and associations, between an averaging of values and comprehension of meaning, between a formal decision tree and individual choice, between a sequence of computer operations and creative thought processes, and between the accumulation of data and a learning process. A computer can only do the former; herein lie its strengths, its areas of application, but also its limitations.
—AI could be regarded as a higher level of data processing, but definitely not as the beginning of independent thought on the part of computers. We err greatly when we believe that it would be possible to develop a system which will purportedly be something other than just a computing system. A chess-playing computer cannot think independently; it is no better or no worse than the strategy programmed into it by human intelligence.
—A machine cannot think independently; it can only algorithmically process information formulated and entered beforehand by one or more persons.
The AI question is discussed more fully in [G8]. Systems developed by “AI programmers” will become more meaningful in many areas, but in the light of our knowledge of the information concept, we should always keep in mind that no machine, however well programmed, will ever be able to generate creative information (see chapter 8), because this is fundamentally an intellectual process. We can now define [G8, p 41]:
Definition D7: The distinctive characteristic of creative information is its novelty, i.e., “to think what nobody else has thought.” This aspect can be described with concepts like inventiveness, creativity, originality, unconventionality, innovativeness, advancement, and abundance of ideas. Every piece of creative information represents an intellectual effort and is directly linked to an originator who is a person endowed with a free will and with cognitive abilities.
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Between the covers of this excellent book may well be the most devastating scientific argument against the idea that life could form by natural processes.