Language is a living thing. It evolves with us, bending to our experience like a second skin. Yet the flexibility of language comes with a polar opposite — let’s call it precision. Flexibility and precision are analog and digital aspects of language. Its dance between these two poles is what makes language so powerful.
While the word “digital” has come to connote electronic in modern usage, its broader sense is best understood in contrast to “analog.” Whereas analog is continuous, digital is discontinuous. Analog is a spectrum — a blend, a bridge, between this and that. Digital is on or off, black or white, and zero or one.
It is in this broader sense that language connects us to both analog and digital realms.
The Digital-Analog Dance
Words can be ambiguous. Sometimes they have more than one meaning (“polysemy”), and sometimes they share their meaning with other words (“synonymy”). These ambiguities are the inevitable result of relying on abstract symbols to represent our messy, analog world. Yet clearly we do not live in the shadow of the Tower of Babel. We occupy a world of mightily shared context, a consensus reality that would be impossible without the digital precision that words give us.
Words provide a way of focusing attention. Words strive for separation, for distinction, between one idea and another. We use this word to mean “this” and that word for “that.” Words are thus a way to focus human attention, to package it up and share our meaning with others.
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Quantum physics tells us that our underlying reality is far messier than our eyes would have us believe. Our eyes and other sensory organs have been finely sculpted by evolution to filter out that which does not lead to sustaining our genetic line. To do this, animals must be able to focus attention and distinguish the objects of their attention from the background noise of their environment.
This ability to perceive objects as distinct from the backdrop of their surroundings marks an important perceptual step from the continuous to the discontinuous.
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Many animals take object perception a step further by communicating with others about the objects of their attention.
A monkey might make one type of call upon seeing a leopard and another type for an eagle. These communication systems aren’t true languages though. Think of them more as an instinctive firing of neurons informed by the monkey’s DNA instructions. When a monkey sees a blur of spotted yellow in the jungle below, it triggers a particular neural association, which in turn kicks off a particular behavioral response — like the urge to give voice to a call.
The monkey’s visual cortex transforms the messy, analog context of her surroundings into a binary response within the peri-aquaeductal grey (PAG) area of her brain. If a certain threshold of neural activity is reached, the call is triggered.
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Learning to Interpret Communication
Up to this point in the story our digital reality is perceptual and behavioral but not yet symbolic or intentional. There is still much we don’t know about the origins of semantic meaning and true language, but researchers are making some progress.
For example, while a monkey’s ability to generate calls is genetically determined (as noted above), its ability to interpret calls is both genetic and learned. It turns out that learning is particularly important when additional contextual information is required in order to correctly interpret a call. The same call might be a sign of aggression or a sign of a potential threat from a predator below. Young monkeys learn how to correctly interpret such signals by watching how other monkeys interpret them in various contexts.
So here, with monkeys, we see animals learning from one another how to correctly interpret the meaning of some forms of communication. But what exactly do we mean by “meaning”?
The Emergence of Meaning
There is one type of meaning that comes from words (such as those you are now reading) and another that comes from looking at traffic flows or the ring patterns in a tree. In the latter cases, or what H.P. Grice would call the “natural meaning” of these phenomenon, traffic stopped at this exit means I’ll be fifteen minutes late and thirty rings means this tree is thirty years old. But that is different from what Grice termed the “non-natural meaning” we find when someone intentionally embeds meaning into a signal. Snow on a mountain top naturally means it is cold up there, but when I ring a bell, I non-naturally mean it’s time for supper.
All animals interpret natural meaning through acts of perception — including perceiving one another’s calls. But are they interpreting non-natural meaning? Are they intentionally informing one another?
Chimpanzees and orangutans do exhibit signs that they intend to inform one another. Chimpanzees, for example, are more likely to initiate snake warning calls if they believe other chimps aren’t paying attention to the potential threat. Researchers haven’t found evidence of a similar intent-to-inform in lower primates, so it’s quite possible that chimpanzees represent a pivotal transition in the emergence of meaning.
One of the main reasons researchers study primate communications is the hope that it will shed light on the development of human language and meaning making. And as we’ve seen, there is evidence for a kind of “proto-meaning” in our closest relatives on the Tree of Life. What is still missing, however, is a clear agreement on the exact origins of symbolic meaning and language in humans.
We still don’t know how humans went from interacting with real, physical objects to a new, expanded cognition that included abstract mental objects. In short, we still don’t know how concepts emerged.
At some point, however, humanity did learn to generate distinct mental objects, and there’s an interesting analogy here to the way we earlier separated perceptual objects from the background noise of the environment. It is the nature of objects to possess boundaries. Boundaries separate what is object from what is not object — and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about perceptual or conceptual objects.
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Modularity of Concepts
Why is it important that concepts be discrete and digital? Because we, as a species, have moved into Design Space.
When nature designs an eye, it does so with the blind processes of evolutionary iteration. Nature doesn’t have some sort of teleological goal of creating an “eye”; the eye simply emerges over the course of eons of evolutionary shaping. In contrast, when human engineers build a telescope or microscope, they do so with a deliberate design process.
In Design Space, it is important to separate the various interacting components of a system. Designers use modularity to isolate subsystems and prevent problems in one part of the design from becoming hopelessly entangled with — and harmful to — the whole. Brian Arthur, in fact, sees modularity as essential to the endless creativity of technological innovation.
Might it be the digital precision of words and concepts — their boundaries — that enables us to achieve a similar modularity of design in language? And might it be this modularity of words that is what allows us to generate a near-infinite range of possible meanings through language?
The Dance of Language
The tension between the messy, analog experience of life and the discrete, digital meanings we assign to words is what gives language its unusual role as a bridge between conceptual and physical reality.
We are constantly experiencing this tension between the digital and analog aspects of language. I tell you it’s cold out, but you feel it surprisingly warm for April. We treat our conceptual notions of cold and hot as polar opposites, when the reality is an analog continuum of temperature that seamlessly bridges both concepts.
We hold both truths in tension: our shared definitions and our own experienced reality; our digital and analog experiences of truth.
It is this tension, this dance, that is what gives language its quality as a bridge between the eternal ideals of conceptual meaning and the living, evolving flexibility required for Earthly experience. This dance is one of the things that makes humanity most unique. For we humans are the bridge between analog and digital worlds, and we have been dancing this bridge for thousands of years.