Functional Form

Avoiding side-effects since 2004.

Monday, October 11, 2004


She looked at me. "Dude. I don't want your Kleingeld," as she shook her hand in my direction. Most anyone would have no idea as to the meaning of her sentence. But I didn't even think extra about it. I learned to use it with her.

As foreigners conversant in German, Emma and I naturally receive a sort of collective vocabulary that hovers in the intersection of our experience. All our time together is spent spinning linkages in our associative memories. When we're groping through our pockets for that last ten cents, we ask one another for Kleingeld. Here in Berlin at least, it's wired more firmly into my consciousness than the English equivalent.

So I have to think of our experience as just a small part of an invisible process. Between neighboring countries with sufficiently porous borders cascades innumerable such reactions, and over time, two languages become one as vocabularies merge and words are purged. This idea isn't anything new, I know. It was however entirely different to realize that I was taking active part in it. I feel the language part of my brain in a whole new way, as if my cognitive muscles are flexing new winnings of this battle to understand the foreign world around it.

I love it. I feel it changing both expression and perception, widening the reach of my mind around sentences. The cursor is considering more words behind it and steering to utilize more words that lay ahead. I am also enjoying writing more deliberatively–pondering structural issues just a second longer and spending a bit more time to clarify my idea before pressing the keys. It's more like writing in a programming language, and perhaps also like writing when I was still focusing on improving my English.

But at least with language, I am from now on my own taskmaster. And beyond having someone pushing me to revise, I haven't found effective sources of improvement from inside the language. But with German, there's a new set of rules. I can keep pushing my system. My brain gains new discipline as it mints thoughts into this new medium, and I am finding it possible to carry that improvement back to my native language as well. But its way beyond sheer style and choices and technique. Its the kind of learning that reaches back into the subconscious and asks the brain to do something fundamentally new, a complete paradigm shift. I'm exercizing in a way my brain never really knew it could. Cool.

Saturday, October 02, 2004


Sometimes writing it feels like I am the captain of some ship of the line, trying to steer meaning away from the rocks. Our rules seem so irregular and quirky. How is it that a significant portion of our society's population can't spell a huge percentage of our vocabulary? Is this kind of insane conservatism needed? Is there any way at all to make things more regular? Establish some sort of reform that generalizes this insanity? In this paragraph alone I have already made a handful of errors, and I am a relatively intelligent user of the language.

It feels like we picked random misspellings of some words handed down by the ancestors of Anglo-Saxon tribes and just sort of played the ball as it lied. Lay? There's another quirk screaming like a bat from hell out of the germanic root of the fucked-up family tree. Everyone screws it up. But things seem rather in order on the Deutsch side of the fence. Where did things run afoul in English for us to save only that one piece of what seems to have given rise in German to the differences in active verbs between the nominative and accusative perspectives.

Ich lege den Bleistift auf den Tisch. Ich liege im Bett. The use of case makes the difference clear, acting as a system on which to hang my semantics that is so much more accessible from the surface. I remember the difference between transitive and intransitive because the very structure of the sentence implies it. Perhaps this is heavy handed for simple communication, but in the most intense of expressive situations, I can see where it would become worthful. When the real fur of meaning starts to fly, you need better tools than word order to get anything done with the language. It also helps to have more regular rules concerning word synthesis and modification.

I have read that the most revered writing of german philosophers is not really translatable into English, at least not in a form that can compactly retain the clarity of the original sentences. I'd then have to ask: Could these works have even been created in English in quite the way they were in Deutsch? No. And I think that's an indicator; all languages could not have been created equally. That is not to say that my mother language seems worthless to me now, but only that I am recognizing considerable shortcomings in certain areas. I've never had the perspective to see them because I never got the chance to escape their grip on my consciousness. I simply knew no other means of communication.

We have our strengths. Try writing some of my favorite English works in German and I think you'd flush them of most meaning in the massive hack job you'd need to perform on diction. It seems that, as a bizarre mix of so many languages, we have access to a palate of choices I haven't sensed in German, and I'm not sure that's because I am only learning. Walk, stroll, loaf, cruise, strut. Which shade do you prefer? We have more in the back.

But we do pay a price for this choice. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that a lingua franca does not make a lingua suprema. French was once a magnetic language, the king of politics. Now it is gone. Why should we assume that English is much different? That is unless the entrenching network effects of American technology make it un-usurp-able. But it frustrates me that I have to divide that very self-explanatory word with hyphens for fear of the fact that its not considered a word by those who might judge me ignorant for thinking it was. I wish we could do something better.

I don't believe that English being a Verkehrssprache is arbitrary. English is a product of a culture whose nature is inexorably stamped into their means of communication. While some may argue against the notion of Anglo-Saxon tribesmen being responsible for English's current popularity, note that English culture has evolved and expanded in such a way as to perpetuate their language and therefore at least some kernel of Englishness through to a position of global influence. The language, as a product of such a successful culture, must exhibit tradeoffs that reflect on values responsible for this cultural success. If it were different, even if that in some respects means it were better, could it be? Could it be the lingua franca?

To be the common language it must also be the language of the culture that others feel compelled to interact with above all. So then comes the question, are we just lucky, or is there something about Anglo-Saxon thought and culture that delivered us to dominance, whether or not you would call this nature or its resulting dominance virtuous. By evil deeds and by good this tribal tongue has arrived to its current status, both in terms of function and popularity. How tightly are these consequences coupled to one another remains for me unknown.

Such a dilemma parallels my questions regarding government. How much should the natural flow of human conduct and consequent cultural development be left to run its course? The last chapter of history seems to side with the protection of physical well-being while avoiding heavy interference with culture, and I believe that trend may continue. Control seems in many ways stifling, and homogenization equally so.

But in an era of standards-oriented technology and global communication, are we shooting ourselves in the foot by not looking into solutions for the inefficiencies in our language? Are we even capable of such collective change at the expense of individuals and our cherished right to be lazy? To reform you must first break, push, and shape the original. Will the culture that propelled its language into the mouths of the world put up with such violence to its traditions? My guess is no.

I have yet to decide if this stubbornness, perhaps the trait that propelled us to global dominance, will also be the trait that accumulates enough inefficiencies to keep us from staying there. But assuming that English may remain the world language for some time to come, perhaps we owe it to the future to investigate its improvement. It's fun spelling like a sea captain in his log, but I am, after all, using a computer.