The Extinction of Language?

06/08/2015 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2016


Language is how we communicate.

Language can be spoken, signed and sung.

Language can be pictures -- fashion or food.

DNA is a language of sorts.

So is computer code.

And while we think it's uniquely human, it may not really be so...

Thinkers such as Rousseau have argued that language originated from emotions while others like Kant have held that it originated from rational and logical thought. 20th-century philosophers such as Wittgenstein argued that philosophy is really the study of language.

Language can be used to communicate abstract thoughts as much as it can be utilized to convey very specific meanings.

The Rosetta Stone was an early nod to the issues encountered by multiple languages -- written and oral, present in any one place -- and is actually a prime example of both the abstract nature and specificity of communicating anything, anywhere.

There are thousands of languages and dialects still at use in the world today - although many face extinction just like endangered species.

All of which serves as a preamble to a very thoughtful piece I read:

"Is Translation an Art or a Math Problem?" by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, June 4, 2015, New York Times Sunday Magazine

I will tell you up front that while my bias is toward art -- think about a book you love and the language it uses and the emotion it evokes and now imagine that its translation evokes no emotion and sparks no love -- there is an 80/20 rule at work here that suggests that Google can translate anything. Yay, algorithms.

As Lewis-Kraus points out, the very fact that so many different translations can be found for many famous writings is proof, in a way, that translation is problematic, even as an art, and as he points out:

Translation promises unity but entails betrayal. In his wonderful survey of the history and practice of translation, 'Is That a Fish in Your Ear?,' the translator David Bellos explains that the very idea of 'infidelity' has roots in the Ottoman Empire. The sultans and the members of their court refused to learn the languages of the infidels, so the task of expediting communication with Europe devolved upon a hereditary caste of translators, the Phanariots. They were Greeks with Venetian citizenship residing in Istanbul. European diplomats never liked working with them, because their loyalty was not to the intent of the foreign original but to the sultan's preference. (Ottoman Turkish apparently had no idiom about not killing the messenger, so their work was a matter of life or death.) We retain this lingering association of translation with treachery.

And "translation as treachery" is what we are faced with when translators don't have the skill or courage to communicate as the original author meant.

But here is the thing...

Do you believe that all language can be reduced to code?

Or should I say do you want to believe that all language can be reduced to code?

Is Shakespeare nothing more than a subject for a hackathon?

Was the world that built the Tower of Babel the ideal -- one language, one people -- or like Icarus, did they come too close to the sun and lose their own sense of uniqueness, identity?

Let's be clear: Google did not create the translation algorithm or even the hackathon. In fact, if we go back to the third century BCE -- OLD -- we find the story of the Septuagint, the 70 scholars who translated the five books of Moses from the original Hebrew to the vernacular Greek of ancient Alexandria.

Consider that the world's first translation hackathon!

Let's be clear: Being able to ask for a bathroom or get help in a disaster is a great use of Google or other translators when you just don't have time to sweat the nuances of language. Although my bet is on humankind to communicate through the universality of emotion, at least in those two and other similar situations -- that I've-got-to-go dance works wonders...

But Shakespeare? NEVER!!!!

Smiling is a universal language.

Dance is a universal language.

Music is a universal language.

Mickey Mouse is a universal language.

All tap into the emotional centers of our brains and freely translate for us in ways that no computer ever can or will...

The issue is not just understanding, as in "I get the gist of it" -- that's OK, it's better than nothing, but it's short on emotional appeal.

We need to work at communicating the importance, the emotional core, the passion of the words -- and therein lies the game-changer.

As the man who knew more about how to make language work hard across audiences that spoke not a word in common once said, listen:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. - Nelson Mandela

For those of us in my business, we know that it's way easier to get to the head than to the heart, but it's often a short-lived and commoditized victory.

Look at the world around us and you see the same.

So I will continue to use Google Translate when I have a need to -- but I thank the literary gods that digibabble has been proven wrong on so many fronts and my sense is that, while its uses will continue to multiply, the world will be buying its Warby Parkers in stores using language, and with great emotion.

Bottom line...

All good news for Shakespeare... digital might be everything but some things will never be digital.

What do you think?