Saturday, 1 January 2011

An Infinite number of languages


image by Stephen Begin

The End of a year and the start of new one, forgive the cluster of peculiar posts you will see here for a while whilst I clear out the cobwebs. A heavier focus on Thai will resume next year at some point.

Whilst it is not strictly true that every snowflake is different (especially when small) it is true enough for me to compare them to language. It is not true that there are an infinite number of languages either but as a starting point, in my view there are at least as many languages as there are people on earth who can speak. That is just a starting point you would have to add each extra language that anybody can speak.

Saying that the language someone speaks is French or German or Spanish is just an approximation, it is applying some criteria to the individual language that they speak and own, a criteria that gives you a good idea which other peoples individual language is roughly mutually intelligible (near enough that they can communicate with little difficulty).

This viewpoint comforts me tremendously (I don't see myself as having to reach a standard that is fixed). All I have to do is insert a "new" language in my brain that gets near enough that a bunch of other people of a certain background can communicate with me easily. The more people #I can communicate with and the smoother the communication the more progress I have made. Not a trivial task but fuzzy enough to not be so scary as an absolute standard.


Every person has their own set of associations for every word, including their mother tongue.
Every person has been exposed to each word in a different way, whilst in different moods, under different circumstances. Every person (Ok there may be the odd freaky verbal doppelgänger out there) pronounces every word slightly differently to anybody else that speaks the same language (different pitch, different harmonics, different speed). We all have our preferred adjectives, greetings, swear words, words we like the sound of, words we don't like the sound of. Sub-groupings of similar languages within languages are formed by age-groups, professions, hobbies, sexual orientation etc. etc.

Dictionaries are approximations (or sometimes self-fulfilling prophesies if people learn most of their words from them). You could write a distinct dictionary for each individual. Many entries would be same across various people but each dictionary would be distinct, some would be considerably smaller than others.

Here is a prediction, I just know it is true (it has to be). Spain and Portugal share a border, there just has to some people somewhere that daily speak something that would cause people to argue about whether it was Spanish or Portuguese they speak. I won't even look on the Internet I am so confident this will be the case.


Some people won't like this view, it won't sit well, they will feel that they need an absolute standard to work to. I feel liberated by it.


  1. I totally agree, and so did Hermann Paul in 1880:

    "We must in reality distinguish as many languages as there are individuals."
    [Hermann Paul, 1880]

  2. Whoo seriously thanks for that :). Didn't know about Hermann Paul before.

    I WOULD take it further though, anybody who speaks more than one language will count more than once.

    Nice to know I am only 130 years behind the times with this though. :)