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Chapter 3

Information and Language and their Interrelationship

In the last chapter we made a distinction between biotic information like that contained in DNA and human symbolic information which is instantiated in language. In this chapter we examine the relationship of symbolic information with language, the human mind, and thought.

The connection of information to the mind can be traced back to the original definition of the word inform which meant to give a form to the mind.

Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan

In addition to this connection it is almost impossible to think of thought and information that is not connected to one form of language or another. Language is the medium through which symbolic information is formulated and communicated with the exception of the visual arts and music (to be treated in Chapter 10) and as such deserves our special attention. As we will discover language is both a medium of communication and an informatics tool, which I have formulated in terms of the equation: language = communications plus informatics (Logan 1995 & 2004b). We will therefore describe the origin of language in this chapter and its connection to thought and information (Logan 2007). We will also describe the evolution of language from its very first form as speech into writing, mathematics, science, computing and the Internet (Logan 2004b). We examine the different forms of the notation of language and information and show how they impact the way in which we think, organize our institutions, develop our tools and interact with each other. In particular we will study the way in which the phonetic alphabet and the place number system have led to the digital information explosion of the past 50 years (Logan 2004a & McLuhan and Logan 1977). For readers not familiar with my earlier work (Logan 2004a &b and 2007) I have summarized them in this chapter. In fact the headings of the following sections are the titles of those books.

The Extended Mind Model of the Emergence of Language and the Human Mind

All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms. The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way.

—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

The extended mind model for the emergence of language is based on the premise that language emerged as a response to the chaos of the complexity of the existence of hominids, our earliest human-like ancestors. It is assumed that before the advent of speech hominid thought processes were percept-based. Donald (1991, 226) makes a similar assumption about the perceptual basis of mimetic culture, the culture of hominids that existed just before the emergence of verbal language. “The principle of similarity that links mimetic actions and their referents is perceptual, and the basic communicative device is best described as implementable action metaphor (Donald 1998, 61).”

Hominids that emerged in the savannas of Africa were an easy target for various predators. To defend themselves from this threat and to increase their food supply they acquired the new skills of tool making, the control of fire, and coordinated group foraging and hunting as has been described by Merlin Donald (1991) in his book The Making of the Modern Mind. To pursue these activities a more complex form of social organization emerged among hominids including non-verbal mimetic communication, further increasing the complexity of their existence. This complexity could be handled at first through more sophisticated percept-based responses that characterized mimetic culture (ibid.). At some point, however, the complexity of hominid existence became too great. Percept-based thought alone did not provide sufficient abstraction to deal with this increased complexity. The hominid brain could no longer cope with the richness of its life based solely on its perceptual sensorium. In the information overload and chaos that ensued, I believe, a new abstract level of order emerged in the form of verbal language and conceptual thinking.

In fact our first words were our first concepts and they allowed for a more abstract form of thought. Words did not give rise to concepts nor did concepts give rise to words, rather human language and conceptualization emerged at exactly the same point in time creating the conditions for their mutual emergence. This transition or bifurcation from the concrete percept-based thinking of pre-lingual hominids to conceptual-based spoken language and thinking is an example of punctuated equilibrium. I believe this transition was the defining moment for the emergence of the fully human species Homo sapiens. This discontinuous transition illustrates Prigogine’s theory of far from equilibrium processes and the notion that a new level of order can suddenly emerge as a bifurcation from a chaotic non-linear dynamic system (Prigogine and Stengers 1984 & Prigogine 1997).

Words represent concepts and concepts are represented by words. Each word serves as a metaphor and a strange attractor uniting all of the pre-existing percepts associated with that word in terms of a single word and, hence, a single concept. All of one’s experiences and perceptions of water, the water we drink, bathe with, cook with, swim in, that falls as rain, that melts from snow, were all captured with a single word, water, which also represents the simple concept of water. Not all the words of our language emerged as generalizations of percepts but once language emerged it allowed an abstract level of thought that led to the creation of new function words that served grammatical purposes and gave syntactic structure to language. Syntactical structures are also concepts. They are concepts that encompass relationships between words just as words are concepts that encompass relationships between percepts.

Percepts are the direct impressions of the external world that we apprehend with our senses. Concepts, on the other hand, are abstract ideas that result from the generalization of particular examples. Concepts allow one to deal with things that are remote in both the space and time dimensions and they make it possible to model the external world and plan. Humans are the only animals capable of language and planning. These ideas parallel the work of Lev Vygotsky (1962) in his seminal work Language and Thought.

We attributed the emergence of language due to the complexity of hominid life due to the control of fire, tool making, complex social structures, coordinated large scale hunting and gathering and pre-lingual mimetic communication consisting of hand signals, gestures, body language and non-verbal vocalizations. These activities actually served as a cognitive laboratory for the development of verbal language. According to Christiansen (1994) toolmaking entailed sequential learning and processing, which could have also served as a pre-adaptation for speech.

Complex social structures led to social intelligence and the need to cooperate and share information and hence also served as another pre-adaptation for speech. The information overload of interacting with many people and carrying out more sophisticated activities led to the need for better communications to better co-ordinate social transactions and co-operative activities such as the sharing of fire, the maintenance of the hearth, food sharing, and large scale co-ordinated hunting and foraging. From the chaos of this complexity emerged the preverbal protolanguage of mimetic communication, which according to Donald (1998, 61) “establishes the fundamentals of intentional expression in hominids, without which language would not have had an opportunity to evolve such a sophisticated, high-speed communication system as modern language unless there was already a simpler slower one in place.” It was in the context of this early form of hominid communication that the skills of generativity, representation and communication developed.

Toolmaking, social interaction and mimetic communication gave rise to more than just spoken language and conceptual thinking. Transformed by the verbal language and conceptual thinking they gave rise to, they also served as the prototypes for three fundamental activities that form the core of modern human society, namely technology which emerged from tool making; commerce which emerged from social organization and intelligence; and the art forms which emerged from mimetic communication. “There is a vestigial mimetic culture embedded within our modern culture and a mimetic mind embedded within the overall architecture of the modern human mind (Donald, 1991, 162).”

The Extended Mind

Not only did language transform toolmaking, social interaction and mimetic communication respectively into technology, commerce and the fine arts but it also transformed or extended the brain into the human mind. For many psychologists the brain and the mind are synonymous, just two different words to describe the same phenomena, one derived from biology, the other from philosophy. Others define the mind as the seat of consciousness, thought, feeling and will while those processes of which we are not conscious are not activities of our mind but functions of our brain. There is no objective way to resolve these two different points of view but I believe that a useful distinction can be made between the mind and the brain based on our dynamic systems model of language as the bifurcation from concrete percept-based thought to abstract concept-based thought. I, therefore, assume that the mind came into being with the advent of verbal language and, hence, conceptual thought.

Verbal language extended the effectiveness of the human brain and created the mind. Language is a tool and as all tools are extensions of the body according to McLuhan (1964) it follows that language extended the brain into the mind or what I have termed the extended mind. I have expressed this idea in terms of the equation: mind = brain + language.

This hypothesis is itself an literal extension of the ideas of McLuhan’s (1964):

It is the extension of man in speech that enables the intellect to detach itself from the vastly wider reality. Without language, Bergson suggests, human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention. Language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with the greatest ease and speed and ever less involvement. Language extends and amplifies man.

The human mind is the verbal extension of the brain, a bifurcation of the brain, which vestigially retains the perceptual features of the hominid brain while at the same time becoming capable of abstract conceptual thought. Andy Clark has also independently developed the notion of “the extended mind” (Clark 1997; Clark and Chalmers 2003).

The emergence of syntactilized language also represents, for me, the final bifurcation of hominids from the archaic form of Homo sapiens into the full-fledged human species, Homo sapiens. Crow (2002, 93) reaches a similar conclusion, “The parsimonious conclusion … is that the origin of language coincided with the transition to modern Homo sapiens dated to somewhere between 100,00 and 150,000 years ago.”

Humans are the only species to have developed verbal language and also to have experienced mind. Our ancestors, the earlier forms of hominids, experienced thought but their thought patterns were percept-based and their brains functioned as percept processing engines operating without the benefit of the abstract concepts, which only words can create and language can process. It follows that animals have brains but no minds and that the gap between humans and animals is that only humans possess verbal language and a mind.

In summary, the emergence of verbal language represents three separate bifurcations:

  1. the bifurcation from percepts to concepts,
  2. the bifurcation from brain to mind, and
  3. the bifurcation from archaic Homo sapiens to modern human beings, Homo sapiens.

These three bifurcations are not necessarily simultaneous. Bickerton claims (1990, 1995) that protolanguage in which the first words were used symbolically emerged with Homo erectus which means the first bifurcation can be dated to approximately 2 million years ago. The second and third transitions, on the other hand, can be dated to the emergence of fully syntactilized language, which occurred only 100+50 thousand years ago and seems to be correlated with the explosion of human culture and technological progress of that time period (Bickerton 1995, 65).

Language as a Living Organism

The approach we have developed to understanding the origin of language is based on the notion that the skills acquired from toolmaking, social interaction and mimetic communication were the pre-adaptations for the emergence of human language. This differs markedly from the explanation provided by Noam Chomsky who pioneered the concept that all the world’s languages share a Universal Grammar (UG). Chomsky’s explanation for this is that because of a genetic mutation we are all hard wired with UG. In addition to this he postulated that we are also hard wired with a language acquisition device (LAD), which explains why young children are able to learn their parent’s language effortlessly and automatically despite the poverty of stimulus in their language learning. They do not need to be explicitly taught the rules of UG but they seem to be able to use them without instruction. In the Extended Mind model it is assumed that it is by mimesis that youngsters pickup their parent’s language and that the universality of the world’s languages is due to the universality of human cognitive abilities and the fact that toolmaking, social interaction and mimetic communication served as the pre-adaptations for the emergence of human language.

Morten Christiansen’s (1994) proposed another alternative to Chomsky’s hard wired hypothesis consistent with the Extended Mind model when he suggested that language could be considered as an organism that evolved to be easily learned especially by children despite the poverty of stimulus problem. In a later paper with his colleagues he wrote:

Language exists only because humans can learn, produce, and process them. Without humans there would be no language. It therefore makes sense to construe languages as organisms that have had to adapt themselves through natural selection to fit a particular ecological niche: the human brain. In order for languages to ‘survive’, they must adapt to the properties of the human learning and processing mechanisms. This is not to say that having a language does not confer selective advantages onto humans. It seems clear that humans with superior language abilities are likely to have a selective advantage over other humans (and other organisms) with lesser communicative powers. This is an uncontroversial point, forming the basic premise of many of the adaptationist theories of language evolution. However, what is often not appreciated is that the selection forces working on language to fit humans are significantly stronger than the selection pressures on humans to be able to use language. In the case of the former, a language can only survive if it is learnable and processable by humans. On the other hand, adaptation toward language use is merely one out of many selective pressures working on humans (such as, for example, being able to avoid predators and find food). Whereas humans can survive without language, the opposite is not the case. Thus, language is more likely to have adapted itself to its human hosts than the other way around. Languages that are hard for humans to learn simply die out, or more likely, do not come into existence at all. (Christiansen, Dale, Ellefson and Conway 2001, 144–45)

This hypothesis at once explains why grammars are universal and are easily learned by children with out the need of a hard-wired LAD.

Stuart Kauffman’s (1995, 49) notion of the reproduction of living organisms by autocatalysis can be applied to language operating as an organism. “A living organism is a system of chemicals that has the capacity to catalyze its own reproduction.” Let us use Kauffman’s definition and apply it in a generalized form to language operating as an organism. We are justified to regard language as a living organism because it is a system of words and grammatical structures that has the capacity to catalyze its own reproduction. If we consider each person’s individual use of language as an organism then we may regard language reproducing itself each time a child acquires his or her parents’ language. With this definition we not only meet Kauffman’s criteria of that an organism catalyzes its own reproduction but we are able to consider the evolution of this organism using Darwin’s simple one line definition of evolution, namely, “descent with modification.” For Darwin descent meant reproduction. By considering the language of each individual in the society as an organism we can speak of a language reproducing itself. In this case the inheritance or descent is not by diploidy but the polyploidy of parents, siblings, peers, teachers, relatives and society in general. One can now apply the concept of natural selection to the language organism of each individual in a society.

The language of the society as a whole is not an organism because it cannot reproduce itself but we can think of it as a species of organisms consisting of the languages of all the individuals of the society. De Saussure called the language of society “langue,” and the language practiced by individuals “parole”. With our definitions “langue” is the species and “parole” is the organism. Just as conspecifics of a biological species are able to reproduce among themselves the conspecifics of a linguistic species are able to communicate with each other. English and French are linguistics species. The linguistic competence of each individual represents an organism with its own unique language, which can communicate only with members of its linguistic species.

The ontogeny of language acquisition is both biological and cultural in that the child must be born with the genetic apparatus for speech and at the same time be exposed to a language. A linguistic species like English or French does not belong to an individual but to a community or a culture. Dawkins (1989, 192) has argued that Darwinian principles apply with the same validity to cultural replicators or memes as they do to biological replicators, namely genes. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

Robert Worden (2000) in an attempt to understand how language changes suggested a language as langue can be considered as an ecology populated by words each of which are memes that interact with each other. Intrigued by Worden’s idea I extended it by proposing that every word and every grammatical construction of spoken and written language as well as every semantic element and syntactical structure of math, science, computing and the Internet are memes just like the other elements of culture. If a new word is used to refer to a new experience or a new syntactical structure is used to refer to a new relationship and it is copied by a listener and replicated that word or syntactical structure fits Dawkin’s definition of a meme. Words and syntactical structures evolve and compete. They are adaptations and they contain vestigial structures. They are living entities that are part of a living language and they like biological systems evolve and compete. They differ in that they are information without extension rather than a living organism made up of atoms that occupy physical space. One can think of them as living systems of information or organization that propagate themselves in the same way that Dawkins (1996, 81) does. “Language seems to ‘evolve’ by non-genetic means, and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.”

The Sixth Language and the Evolution of Notated Language

Every particular notation stresses some particular point of view.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein

The memetic thinking of Dawkins and Worden intersects with my earlier work on the evolution of language in a book entitled The Sixth Language (Logan 2004b) in which I demonstrated that speech is part of an evolutionary chain of languages which also includes writing, mathematics, science, computing and the Internet. Each of these languages, as we will see, acts as cultural replicators that propagate their organization through their memes. And like biological organisms they are living cultural entities that evolve, compete and pass on some form of information.

Linguists traditionally define language strictly in terms of communication. One example is Edward Sapir’s (1921) definition of language is as “a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.” Communication is not the only function of language. Language also plays a key role in the formulation of information, including its processing, storage, retrieval, and organization. Language is a tool for developing new concepts and ideas as pointed out by Vygotsky (1962) and others. Writing, mathematics, science, computing and the Internet permit the development of ideas that could never arise through the use of speech alone. We must therefore consider these other modes as distinct, albeit related, languages.

Generalizing and extending Sapir’s definition, I define language as “a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires as well as a systems formulating, processing, storing, retrieving, and organizing information by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.” Speech therefore is not the sole form of language. We claim that speech and writing, for instance, are two distinct but related forms or modes of language. This position differs from the beliefs of traditional linguists who consider speech as the primary form of language and writing as merely a system for transcribing or recording it. Ferdinand de Saussure (1967), one of the founders of the field of linguistics, wrote: “Language and writing are two different systems of signs; the latter only exists for the purpose of representing the former…. The subject matter of linguistics is not the connection between the written and spoken word, but only the latter, the spoken word is its subject.” Leonard Bloomfield (1933, 21) wrote: “Writing is not language, but merely a way of recording language by means of visible marks.” These linguists did not understand the cognitive implications of language like Stubbs and Chafe. “Writing is not merely a record…. I know from personal experience that formulating ideas in written language changes those ideas and produces new ones (Stubbs 1982).” “Language is used in a variety of ways, each of which affects the shape that language takes. Since the 1970s, ever-increasing attention has been paid to differences between spoken language and written language, and it has become clear that each of these two broad categories allows for diverse uses and forms (Chafe 1998, 96).”

Clay tokens
Clay tokens

Although written language is derived from spoken language, it is useful to regard them as two separate language modes because they process information so differently. A similar argument can also be made that mathematics, science, computing, and the Internet should be regarded as separate language modes. Each of these five modes of language has unique strategies for communicating, storing, retrieving, organizing, and processing of information. I have therefore extended the notion of those linguists who consider speech and writing as separate modes of language to claim that speech, writing, mathematics, science, computing, and the Internet are six separate modes of language, which are distinct but interdependent. They form an evolutionary sequence in which the later modes are derived from and incorporate elements of the earlier modes of language. They form a nested set of languages in which the later forms contain all of the elements of the earlier forms.

Speech, the first form of human language, is the basis of all other linguistic modes of communication and information processing. We can define spoken language as the sum of information uttered by human speakers. Written language, which is derived from speech, is defined as the sum of information, which has been notated with visual signs. It differs from speech in that it involves a permanent record, whereas speech disappears immediately after it is uttered. We shall distinguish five different modes or forms of notated language: writing (or text), mathematics, abstract science, computing and the Internet.

Writing and mathematical notations were the first forms of written language; both grew out of the system of recording payments of agricultural tributes using clay accounting tokens in Sumer just over 5,000 years ago. They emerged to deal with the information overload and the limits on human memorization that the accountants had to deal with in keeping track of the tributes in the form of agricultural commodities paid by farmers to the priesthood. These commodities were then distributed to the irrigation workers whose efforts allowed the water of the Tigris-Euphrates river system to flow into the farmers’ fields. Because writing and mathematical calculations had to be taught the first formal schools arose in Sumer. The teachers began to collect information for their lesson plans and from this activity scholarship and eventually science emerged. Science emerged as organized knowledge to deal with the information overload created by teacher/scholars. The methods and findings of science are expressed in the languages of writing and mathematics, but science may be regarded as a separate form of language because it has a unique way of systematically processing, storing, retrieving, and organizing information, which is quite different from either written text or mathematics. A little more than sixty years ago, the next system for processing information emerged from science and mathematics in the form of computing, with its own unique cybernetically based and automated methods for processing and organizing information. Computing arose to deal with the information overload of science and science based technology. Finally, the latest form of language emerged from computing and telecommunications in the form of the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Internet emerged as a way of dealing with the information overload generated by computing and the need to store and transmit all of that information.

Clay envelope
Clay envelope

Whether these six modes of information processing and communication should be regarded as separate languages or whether they are merely six different aspects of the human capacity for language are questions we will not address. For the purposes of our analysis, we will consider speech, writing, mathematics, science, computing, and the Internet as six distinct modes of language, which form an evolutionary chain of development. What these modes of language share is a distinct communications and informatics methodology. Each provides a unique framework for viewing the world.

The Semantics and Syntax of the Six Modes of Language

The claim made here that writing, mathematics, science, computing, and the Internet are distinctive modes of human language is based on the notion that a language is defined by both its informatics and communication capacity. These five modes of language may be regarded as languages in their own right because of their unique semantics and syntax. The traditional linguists Paivio and Begg (1981, 25) argued, “semantics and syntax—meaning and grammatical patterning—are the indispensable core attributes of any human language.” Semantics relates a signal to its meaning whereas syntax is concerned with the structure or relationship among linguistic signals.

New modes of language evolved to represent increasingly more complex phenomena, and hence, according to Ashby’s law of requisite variety (Ashby 1957), they required a richer vocabulary and more complex structures to function. We therefore expect the semantics and the syntax of the new forms of language to retain the older structures and add their own new unique elements to those structures.

Akkadian clay tablet
Akkadian clay tablet

Writing, mathematics, science, computing, and the Internet are distinct modes of human language, which differ from speech, because they have distinct semantic and syntactical features above and beyond those of speech. The semantics of the written word are quite similar to those of the spoken word, but there are large numbers of exceptions. Many constructions, which are acceptable in oral language, are not valid in prose and vice versa. One’s written vocabulary is considerably greater than one’s oral vocabulary. We often use words in our written communication that we would never use in our oral discourse. For example there are many more abstract words in written prose. A comparison of the lexicon of Homer (as found in the transcriptions of his orally composed poems) and that of the ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE reveals the development of a new written vocabulary. The new lexicon of written words is rich in abstract terminology appearing in the language for the first time, and old words take on additional new abstract meanings (Havelock 1963).

Proto-Sinatic script
Proto-Sinatic script

It is syntactically where written language begins to diverge more radically from speech. Writing encourages a formal structuring of language consisting of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters largely absent in spoken language. Analysis of a transcription of oral discourse reveals that spoken language is often grammatically incorrect. The term grammar betrays its association with writing through its etymology. The Greek term for “letter” (as in letters of the alphabet) is gramma. Grammar was not formalized before writing, just as there was no such thing as spelling before writing, and no uniform spelling before the printing press.

In the language of mathematics, the semantic domain or lexicon consists primarily of precisely defined notations for numbers such as 0, 1, ½, 0.4, and the square root of 2; mathematical operations such as +, -, ×, and ÷; and logical relationships such as >, <, and =. The other semantic elements unique to mathematics are its definitions and axioms, such as those found in geometry, number theory, and other logical systems. The language of mathematics differs from natural language such as spoken English in that the semantic relationship between the sign such as a numeral—and the concept being represented, an abstract number, is totally unambiguous. The precision of the semantic conventions of mathematics also extends to the syntactical domain. The basic syntax of the language of mathematics is that of logic. Mathematical syntax, unlike that of spoken or written language, is totally unambiguous. The rules of grammar that govern speech and writing are subject to conflicting interpretations while those of mathematics are not. The language of mathematics also introduces unique syntactical structures not found in natural languages, such as proofs, theorems, and lemmas.

The language of science includes many of the semantic elements of speech, writing, and mathematics, but it also introduces new semantic elements unique unto itself. These include quantitative concepts like velocity, mass, and force; qualitative concepts like organic/inorganic, solid/liquid/gas; and theoretical concepts like inertia, entropy, valence, and natural selection. Like the language of mathematics, the semantics of science is characterized by precise and unambiguous definitions even though much of the terminology that is employed corresponds to words that appear in everyday spoken language. In spoken English, mass can refer to either volume or weight. In physics mass is precisely defined in terms of its gravitational and inertial properties.

The syntax of science includes the structure of speech, writing, and mathematics. Science also introduces its own syntactical elements, however. The three most important elements, the ones, which in a sense define the nature of science, are: (1) the scientific method; (2) the classification of information or data (taxonomy); and (3) the organization of knowledge such as the grouping of scientific laws to form a scientific theory. The centrality of the classificatory and organizational structures is due to the fact that science is defined as organized knowledge. The scientific method, with its elements of observation, generalization, hypothesizing, experimental testing, and verification, is the key element, which defines the character of science. It is the scientific method that qualifies science as a distinctive language rather than a carefully organized scholarly activity like history, which also makes use of organizational principles and other modes of language, namely, speech, writing, and mathematics.

The language of computing includes all of the semantic and syntactical elements of the earlier four modes of language. It also possesses its own semantic and syntactical elements by virtue of the activities of both its programmers and its end users. The semantics of the programming languages and end-user software programs specify computer inputs and outputs. The syntactical structures of programming languages and end users’ software formalize the procedures for transforming inputs into outputs. These syntactical structures are basically unambiguous algorithms for ensuring the accuracy and the reliability of a computer’s output. The syntactical structures that arise in a programming language or a relational database differ from the other language modes so that the user can take advantage of the computer’s rapid information-processing speeds.

Although the Internet and the World Wide Web incorporate all of the semantic and syntactical elements of computing they also include their own unique elements in both categories. Perhaps we should clarify the relationship between the Web and the Net. The World Wide Web is one of the many different elements of the Internet, which include its email facilities, listservs, chat rooms, ftp facilities, Telnet facilities, Web pages, Web sites, intranets, extranets, portal sites and e-commerce sites. Each of these facilities represents the semantic elements of the sixth language of the Internet.

The Internet has a number of unique syntactical elements. One of the unique syntactical elements of the sixth language is hypertext, which makes it possible to link all of Web sites and Web pages in cyberspace to form one huge global document. Another unique syntactical element is the Internet Protocol, which allows all of the computers connected to the Internet to form one huge Global Network and makes the Web, ftp and telnet all possible. McLuhan’s prediction of a Global Village has been realized. Still another unique syntactical element of the Internet are the search engines, which increase access to knowledge and information and hence provide an extra level of communication that the other forms of verbal language cannot match. The search engine also facilitates people finding each other and hence contributes to the creation of a global knowledge community.

The Alphabet Effect

The work we have reviewed here on the origin and evolution of language is based on the notion that language is both a medium of communication and an informatics tool. This idea grew out of the study that McLuhan and I made of the impact of phonetic writing and the phonetic alphabet on the development of Western culture where we demonstrated that the alphabet while primarily a medium of communications had an enormous impact on the way information was formulated and organized. What gave rise to this study was an attempt to understand why abstract science had begun in the West and not in China where so much of the world’s technology originated such as animal harnesses, iron and steel metallurgy, gunpowder, the drive belt, the chain drive, the standard method of converting rotary to rectilinear motion, and the segmental arch bridge. To this must be added irrigation systems, paper, ink, printing, movable type, metal-barrel cannons, rockets, porcelain, silk, magnetism, the magnetic compass, stirrups, the wheelbarrow, Cardan suspension, deep drilling, the Pascal triangle, pound-locks on canals, fore-and-aft sailing, watertight compartments, the sternpost rudder, the paddle-wheel boat, quantitative cartography, immunization techniques (variolation), astronomical observations of novae and supernovae, seismographs, acoustics, and the systematic exploration of the chemical and pharmaceutical properties of a great variety of substances. Having carefully documented through years of historical research the contribution of Chinese science and its influence on the West, Needham (1979, 11) posed the following question: “Why, then, did modern science, as opposed to ancient and medieval science, develop only in the Western world?” By modern science he meant abstract theoretical science based on experimentation and empirical observation, which began in Europe during the Renaissance.

I proposed that since monotheism and codified law were unique to the West and that together they give rise to a notion of universal law that this might explain the Needham paradox. I shared these thoughts with Marshall McLuhan who immediately pointed out that the alphabet which served as a model for analysis, classification, coding and decoding was also unique to the West. We (McLuhan & Logan 1977) combined our ideas and developed the hypothesis that the phonetic alphabet, codified law, monotheism, abstract science and deductive logic were ideas unique to the West and while they were not causally linked, they were mutually self-supporting or autocatalytic. I carried away from this work on the alphabet effect (Logan 2004a) the understanding that the way in which a language was notated could effect the way its users think and develop concepts.

The Mesopotamian phonetic syllabary inspired the organization of social mores into forms of codified law, the most famous of which is the Hammurabic code. The impact on the Hebrews of the alphabet, which they borrowed from the Midianites was immediate and dramatic. In addition to bringing writing to the Hebrew children, Moses also brought them codified law, or the Ten Commandments, as well as a more abstract and monotheistic concept of God.

The introduction of the phonetic alphabet into Greek society had an equally dramatic effect on that culture. Alphabetic writing promotes analysis because each word must be analyzed into its basic phonemes in order to be transcribed. When spoken language is transcribed, phonemes or sounds are coded with meaningless visual signs, the letters of the alphabet. And when written text is read those visual signs are decoded back into sounds. The alphabet is also a classification tool which allows a perfect ordering through alphabetization of all of the spoken words of any language transcribed with an alphabetic writing system. The analysis, coding, decoding and classification that the phonetic alphabet promotes are the basic ingredients of abstract science and deductive logic.


Within 500 years of the transmission of the alphabet from the Phoenicians, the Greeks developed the main intellectual concepts, which have formed the foundation of Western civilization. They created, for the first time in history, abstract science, formal logic, axiomatic geometry, rational philosophy, representational art, and individualism. While not suggesting a causal connection between these developments and the alphabet, I believe that the alphabet, by serving as a paradigm for classification, analysis, and codification, created the conditions that made these new ideas possible.

Another fallout from alphabetic writing was the invention of zero and the place number system. The place number system and the concept of zero were inventions of Hindu mathematicians as early as 200 BCE. The Hindu writing system at the time was alphabetic, as was their number system. Once the Hindu mathematicians developed the notion of zero, or sunya, as they called it, they quickly devised a place number system.

Sunya means “leave a place” in Sanskrit and indicates that the zero or sunya concept arose from recording abacus calculations. If the results of an abacus calculation was 503, this could not be written as “5” “3” (where “5” and “3” were the alphabetic symbols for the numerals 5 and 3) because “5” “3” would have been read or interpreted as 53 or 530 and not 503, but if instead the result was written as “5” “leave a place” “3”, the number being designated would be interpreted properly as 5 hundreds, no tens, and 3 units and hence 503. “Leave a place” or sunya soon evolved into the abstract number of zero, and was represented at first by a dot . and later by today’s current symbol, 0.

The Arabs used the Hindu system and transmitted it to Europe, where it arrived in the fifteenth century. The Arabs had translated sunya or “leave a place” into the Arabic sifr or cipher, the name we still use for zero as well as the name for the whole place number system itself. Our present-day term zero derives from the shortened version of the Latin term for cipher, zepharino. The place number system brought with it many advances in mathematics, including simple algorithms for arithmetic, negative numbers, algebra, the concept of the infinite and the infinitesimal, and hence, calculus. Cipher also means a secret code because at first the Vatican banned the use of Arabic numerals but Italian merchants used them secretly.

One of the mysteries associated with the invention of the place number system is why the Greeks, the inventors of vowels, who made such great advances in geometry and logic, did not discover zero. The explanation lies in the Greeks’ overly strict adherence to logic, which led Parmenides to the conclusion that non-being (and hence, nothing) could not “be” because it was a logical contradiction. The Hindus, on the other hand, had no such inhibition about non-being. In fact, they were positively inclined to the concept of non-being since it constituted their notion of nirvana (Logan 2004a; Logan 1979, 16).

The most dramatic communication revolution to follow the introduction of the alphabet was the Gutenberg printing press. The revolutionary changes brought about by this technology have been documented by McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy, a seminal work in which he shows the impact of print on such major cultural transformations as the rise of science, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the rise of nationalism, and the Industrial Revolution. “The invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge providing the first uniformly repeatable ‘commodity,’ the first assembly-line, and the first mass production” (McLuhan 1962, 153).

Human Language, Culture, Technology, Science, Economics and Governance as Forms of Propagating Organization

“I take informatics to mean the technologies of information as well as the biological, social, linguistic and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development (Hayles 1999a, 29)”.

Katherine Hayles’ quote indicates that there is a link between biological, cultural and linguistic information. It was also noted earlier and in POE that language and culture like living organisms also propagate their organization and hence their information. This also includes science, technology, economics and governance which are part of culture and will be treated separately because they provide vivid examples of propagating organization. The information that langauge and culture represent like biotic information is not Shannon or selective information but rather information with meaning, namely MacKay structural information.

Cultural and linguistic information is not fixed but depends on the context—as conditions change so do languages and cultures. This statement applies to the various sub-division of culture that we have explicitly identified, namely, science, technology, economics and governance. These forms of information do not represent Shannon selective information but rather MacKay structural information because of their dependence on context. Each one is more than a string of alphanumeric symbols or a string of 0s and 1s.

Let me provide an example of how linguistic meaning depends on context based on my experience of being the father of four children who in turn have provided me so far with four grandchildren. The meaning of the term Dad has changed for me over my lifetime. Dad used to be my father and then when I had children it meant me and then when my children had children and I became grandpa and Dad became the father of my grandchildren.

The point is that the meanings of words are context dependent. This is why I (Logan 2006 & 2007) identified words as strange attractors. They are strange attractors because the meaning of a word is never exactly the same as its meaning changes ever so slightly each time it is used because the context in which it is used is never the same. To illustrate the idea let us consider the word water which represents the water we drink, wash with, cook with, swim in, and that falls as rain, melts from snow, constitutes rivers, lakes, ponds and oceans, etc., etc. The meaning of water in each of these contexts is slightly different but there is a common thread and hence the claim that the word “water” acts as a strange attractor for a diverse set of contexts involving water.

A language is an organization of a set of symbols whose semantics and syntax is a form of information. A similar claim can be made for a culture, which Geertz (1973, 8) also defines in symbolic terms.

Information as a form of organization for either language or culture, although it is symbolic like Shannon information, still cannot be associated with Shannon information because linguistic and cultural information is context dependent and meaningful. It is also the case that language and culture are like living organisms in that they evolve in ways that cannot be predicted. We may therefore use the same core argument we did in POE to rule out the description of language and culture and their evolution with Shannon information. “The ensemble of possibilities and their entropy [for language and/or culture] cannot be calculated (Kauffman et al. 2007).” Therefore a definition of information as reducing uncertainty does not make sense since no matter how much one learns from the information in a linguistic or cultural system, as was the case with a biotic system, the uncertainty remains infinite because the number of possibilities of what can evolve is infinitely non-denumerable. Because science, technology, economics and governance are part of culture and it is also true that their evolution cannot be predicted and the argument we just made for language and culture applies to these subsets of culture as well.

At this point it is perhaps useful to define two forms of information micro-information consisting of isolated bits of information, the kind that are transmitted as Shannon information and are also components of a larger information systems or organization and macro-information or the organization of a system like a living organism, a language, or a culture. Other forms of macro-information include the specific elements of a culture such as a business, an economic system, a polity, science and the technosphere. Narrative is the organization of a text or a uttereance and therefore may be regarded also as a form of macro-information. Micro information is the string of characters and symbols that make up the narrative of a book, an article or a story.

There is still another property that the organzational information of language and culture share with living organisms that distinguishes them from Shannon information. This is the fact that language and culture, like life, are self-organizing phenonena and hence as is the case for biotic information and not the case for Shannon information we have a primitive model for the emeregnce of this information. Although we do not have a precise theory for how language and culture and the information and organization associated with them emerged we do have a number of proposals and models for how this might have happened through self-organization. Logan (2007) contains a review of these models.

The notion of organization as a form of information is based on the notion that the systems we have reviewed consist of components that are organized by some organizing principle. For living systems the components are the biomolecules of which living organisms are composed and the constraints or instructional information that allows the conversion of free energy into work is the organizing principle of these biomolecules, which is propagated as the organism replicates.

This model holds for languages where grammar is the organizing principle and the components are the individual words or semantics. Replication takes place as children learn the language of their parents or care givers.

The model also holds for social systems where the culture as patterns for behavior is the organizing principle and the components are the behaviors and judgments of the individual’s of the society. Replication occurs as young people learn the intricacies of their culture from a variety of sources including parents, teachers and peers.

For technology the technosphere is the organization and the components are the individual inventions or artifacts. Replication takes place each time an inventor or innovator makes use of components of the technosphere to create a new artifact or invention.

The model holds for economic-governance systems where the economic model is the organization and the components are the individual business transactions. Examples of different economic models based on the work of Johnson and Earle (1987) are:

  • individual families as basic economic unit;
  • the big man tribal economic unit where the big man is the co-ordinator of economic activity and serves at the pleasure of the people;
  • the chief dominated tribal economic unit where the chief controls all the means of economic activity but answers to a tribal council;
  • the state or manor economy where the monarch or the lord of the manor is the absolute ruler; as was case with medieval manor system, Czarist Russia and France before the revolution;
  • the market driven system, which is democratic as in a republic like the USA or constitutional monarchy like the UK;
  • the socialist state where private enterprise is controlled; and
  • the communist state, which is state capitalism as was case with Soviet Union and Maoist China. China is now evolving into a mixed communist-socialist state.

The replication of economic-governance systems is through cultural and legal systems.

The model holds for science where the scientific method is the organizing principle and the components are the individual scientific theories. Replication occurs through the publication of scientific results and the education of new scientists.


We have demonstrated the relativity of information by showing that information is not a unitary concept independent of the phenomena it is describing or the frame of reference with respect to which it is defined. In particular we have shown that Shannon information cannot properly describe living organisms, language, culture and the various components of culture such as technology, science, economics and governance. We have examined the relationship of information to materiality, meaning and organization and showed that Shannon information is independent of meaning, organization and its material instantiation, which is just the opposite for biotic information, and the information associated with language and culture. We have also shown that that there exists an intimate relationship between information and organization for biotic systems and the elements of human culture including language, technology, science, economics and governance.