Not Even Wrong
A transcript of the 2010
SpecGram Free Form Linguistics Slam
Consider the Armenian proverb “You are as many people as languages you know.” Discuss!
M.C. Conlang: Groovy!
Specky McG: I’m not sure I’d expect a conlanger to like this. It implies that when you construct a language, you construct another version of yourself. Or does it only apply if you learn your own conlang? Or is forking off new personalities a good thing?
Matt B-Radical: I am a horrible L1 liar and a more-than-convincing L2 liar.
Alex HemiDemiSemicolon: Seems to me like it’d be more developing an aspect of yourself than constructing one anew... though I suppose it could go either way for some.
Matt B-Radical: The individual/person/self distinction is worth making in relation to the quote.
Specky McG: The individual/person/self distinction is worth making if it exists in Armenian. Your Armenian-speaking self knows this.
Matt B-Radical: Or at least it will when I learn to speak Armenian!
Specky McG: If you don’t know any Armenian, then your Armenian-speaking self is, in mathematical terms, degenerate. Whether it is also such in social terms is more based on either your core personality, or who you learn Armenian from.
Sophie Rebus: I sound like a complete retard when I speak French, and I guess the French think I’m a complete retard when they hear me speak their language. So I guess my French personality would be a retard...
Rick Co-ar-tick: Is “people” the best translation into English?
Specky McG: We don’t have access to the original Armenian, Rick, so it is hard to tell.
Rick Co-ar-tick: Yes, in that case it would be hard to know, Specky. Therefore, please allow me to go out on a speculative, linguistic limb. I have seen what appears to be nearly the same proverb in Slovak. The English translation in that case was literally: “As many languages you know so many times you are a human.” Perhaps more idiomatically as, “As grows the number of languages you know, so deepens your humanity.”
As I said, I’m out on a limb here. It seemed to me that the Slovak proverb was trying to express a more holistically integrated human experience through the expansion of personal language acquisition as opposed to the identification of some linguistically split-personality. Perhaps the Armenian proverb is similar???
Liz Shibilantly: So, how many languages do you speak?
Specky McG: The most commonly-asked question of a linguist is (all together now!): “How many languages do you speak?” I’ve decided that a good answer to this question is π: more than three, less than four. Your translation and interpretation of the Slovak proverb is enlightening, Rick, and probably correct. But it’s not nearly as funny as the idea of a degenerate Armenian-speaking self who knows π languages.
Rick Co-ar-tick: I must agree that the idea of a degenerate Armenian-speaking self who knows π languages is much funnier. It also hits unnervingly close to home. Is there a support group? If so, please count me in!
Specky McG: There’s no special support group for degenerate Armenian-speaking selves who know π languages. It’s a travesty of microscopic proportions!
’Nita Harmony: The number of languages I speak is closer to e than to π.
Specky McG: That’s so irrational—yet transcendental.
Mercy Faux-Ligature: I’d say you have as many voices as languages you speak.
Specky McG: Nice translation!
Kari Merger-mood-ian: Okay, my Armenian-speaking self tends to agree with Rick’s interpretation. Here’s the Armenian proverb: Ինչքան լեզու իմանաս՝ այնքան մարդ էս. (how-much language you-know: that-much man/human you-are) So, the word used is “mart” which means either man or human, though it could also mean “person” in certain contexts. The interpretation I get is definitely not that the more languages you know, the more persons you are but the more human you are.
Specky McG: Thanks, Kari for bringing actual content back to the discussion! On the other hand, since your Armenian-speaking self isn’t (mathematically) degenerate, your comments are less relevant to us degenerate Armenian-speakers.
Billy-boi Sprachbund: Wait a minute. Selves can’t speak Armenian imperfectly. That’s just interselves perfectly speaking an interlanguage whose name is homophonous with “Armenian,” for some value of “homophonous.”
Specky McG: You have an interesting point—does it apply in the degenerate case? Given that the Armenian alphabet is different, one can avoid even accidentally pronouncing a word correctly, and thus know absolutely no Armenian. Does that mean one then knows an empty or null or degenerate interlanguage that is homophonous with “Armenian”?
Billy-boi Sprachbund: Hmm... something only counts as a (mathematically) degenerate case in relation to something else (a point is only degenerate when you relate it to a circle, right?). I’d characterize the Armenio-homophonous interlanguage as “ineffectively generous” rather than degenerate. It’s giving you its all, but there may not be much all yet.
Specky McG: Mathematically degenerate is typically when you define something in terms of a set of some sort, and then the set turns out to be empty. You often need to allow the empty set to get the results you want (it acts as zero-like for whatever is analogous to addition, for example), but lots of irrelevant and uninteresting propositions are true of the set by virtue of it being empty, so you exclude those from consideration. For example, it is true that all elements of the lexicon of my Armenian-speaking self are also morphomes, and they are all unicorns, and they are all cannibalistic. This is not because these are interesting (or even possible) properties of lexicons, but because these propositions are true of all empty sets. “Ineffectively generous” may fall into that class as well: as generous as an empty set can be... but could a non-empty set of interlanguagitude have non-zero generosity?
Billy-boi Sprachbund: The ineffectively-generous Armenio-homophonous interlanguage (henceforth IGAHI) can only be said to involve an empty set of Armenio-homologous forms in the same sense that it involves an infinite set of empty sets of X-homologous forms, where X = possible languages (defined as “possible given a bunch of conlangers who are trying to out-original each other”). Regardless of how the interlanguage transforms, it will have no actual Armenian forms in it, so the empty set stays the same (in effect, it’s full of eigenemes, albeit cannibalistic ones of a potentially uni-Cornish persuasion). This does not represent a major problem, however, in that one cannot prove that a given native Armeniophone is actually speaking Armenian (it could just be something that sounds exactly like Armenian thus far). The interpersona speaking IGAHI can thus achieve native-speaker-like levels of performance by progressively transforming to more and more successfully deceptive states.
Specky McG: I agree with your analysis, but you need to be careful. Involving “an empty set of Armenio-homologous forms” is not the same as involving “an infinite set of empty sets of X-homologous forms, where X = possible languages”. One set is empty, the other is very much not. I think you mean “any of an infinite set of empty sets”, as then you can claim you are invoking the Axiom of Choice, which is very mathematical, and thus has the sociolinguistic effect of increasing your status as a linguist.
Billy-boi Sprachbund: Bah! Absence of non-humbugness! Forms are abstractions over instances, and thus sets themselves, so any set of forms is a set of sets. And a set with no forms is a set of absences of forms; there cannot be a state which is not a presence or absence of forms in a set, since the act of positing a set creates it, and one cannot posit a set without creating the potential for absence of things which go in it. A truly empty set can only exist in the absence of the set, so a reference to an empty set is an oxymoron. There. I see your mathematics, and raise you some faux-Hjelmslevian mystibabble!
Specky McG: Mathematically speaking, what you have said is not right. It is not even wrong. From a post-modern critical theory point of view, however, it is another form of subjective, socially-constructed truth that is just as valid as any other, even if all it has accomplished is to bemuse a few people for a few moments, while the intrinsically of-no-greater-value mythical narratives of “mathematics” and “science” have given us the moon landing, iPods, and microwavable Hot Pockets. Keep repeating “just as valid” until you feel better.
[Transcriber’s note: At this point, the conversation effectively came to an end, as further comments from Specky McG and Billy-boi Sprachbund were drowned out by the snoring of the other participants, most of whom had fallen into math comas. Later reports indicate that all eventually made a full recovery.]