language and mind

April 13, 2011

Language as a program – natural language processing versus ‘neurolinguistic programming’

People have the tendency to put things in order and keep them neat tidy. Categories, labels, tags, and markers are to give objects some structured arrangement – sometimes mistaken for meaning.

I do not mean that keeping things regular and straight makes no sense. Already my files on my computer would become unmanageable without folders. Parallels and comparisons may help see things – myself I’d be ‘guilty’ of using the parallel between language and a program. Yet I’m not really a criminal. Actually, I’m about to plead innocent of considering language any programming device.

Why compare language and a program? Imagine you would like to discuss something like feedback phenomena. You don’t like the label ‘feedback phenomena’, let’s name them the Chinese pear. You’d like to write your thesis about your Chinese pear – and your master’s degree is a Buick convertible kind of a feeling to you, that is, really, really good. What do you do? You think about your Chinese pear and apples. There are some similarities and there are some differences. Telling the pear from the apple gives you your fancy.

Please remember that the above is just an illustration, I had to do some hard work for that (my thesis). The work I’ve done has given me ground to go about my another Chinese pear, my grammar book – definitely serious work I am doing at the present.

Back to languages and programs, there is a misunderstanding about the alleged use of IT terms in linguistics. The word ‘program’ comes from Greek. Centuries ago, it meant ‘to set forth’, ‘write before’ – right, it’s a ‘we-were-here-before’ type of a case[1]. IT happens to be used in some, but not all branches of linguistics.

The purpose of those IT models is to try to reflect on how brain cells might be working really when processing language. The reason is the fact that live neurons tend to remain active; they are like a lit structure – the lights being on everywhere, you can’t tell anything by the light. You have to try to make a model to see how things might be working.

Back to humans and their language skills, your language capacity could not be anywhere outside your head. You could not need to ‘connect to a server’ in order to speak. Your language knowledge has to be stored physically in your brain – the brain is a physical structure. This is how language happens to be compared with a program. This is your language knowledge to tell your brain how to work when you want to say something. These are neurons to tell your lungs and tongue how to function in producing speech sounds.

A program may be defined as a formal system to part determine the work of a physical structure. Your language knowledge would be the formal system and your brain the physical structure. Why should your language knowledge be formal? ‘Formal’ relates to form here. People can speak many languages. The brain of a speaker of American English will have language forms different from those in a speaker of French, for example. Obviously, the example does not include American speakers of French and French speakers of American. Your language use can be very colloquial; still, it is going to have a language form.

The parallel might be useful when telling apples (for example, programs) from pears (feedback phenomena)[2]. It would not mandate projections, however. Human brains could not be programmed – ‘the pears would not allow it’. The so-called ‘neurolinguistic programming’ would be a projection on natural language processing, in which there is some role of reflex. However, this deserves a separate consideration, in another post (‘Not a lonely reflex‘).

Please feel welcome to see my scribbling site

my poetry corner

or my other WordPress posts; they are listed at

[1] The case is the same with the word ‘cybernetics’.

[2] I know I say that my grammar idea is my another Chinese pear. Grammar would be a program therefore an apple, someone might say. Well, there is no need to build referential systems for all comparisons. It’s just my Chinese Pear :) Please see ‘Grammar – why think about space?‘ or ‘My travel‘ for more details about my grammar project.

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