24 April, 2006

Birdman on Alphabets; Rules for ‘Net Warfare

Posted by alex in language at 2:55 pm | Permanent Link

Two of Net Interest

1. Ideographs and Alphabets

Sign language has been around ever since the cave man first grunted and pointed, and may easily be reckoned of as the most primitive form of language.

Spoken language developed from sign language as a result of stringing together various verbal and visual signs whose use eventually became habitual and, ultimately, cultural, with visual signs being dropped in favor of verbal ones except in the case of French and Italian, among whose speakers you can still see dramatic combinations of the visual and the verbal in bars, bistros and the presence of pretty girls. Written language, in contrast, came far later than sign and spoken language, and in fact never really got started until the invention of the phonetic alphabet, in which the sounds of verbal symbols were represented by combinations of alphabetical characters. It is possible — indeed, likely — that pictographic writing preceded alphabetic; but pictographic writing — by being far more complex, and by representing ideas (‘ideographic’) rather than sounds, clearly places an obstacle in the way of a speaker who wishes to convey what he says in writing — an obstacle which is absent in the case of alphabetic writing, since it is the sounds, and not the ideas, which are represented ab initio by the writing.

While an alphabet seems almost ridiculously simple to an educated person — witness, for example, the term ‘abecedarian’, which means ‘simple’ — even the development of an alphabet in relatively modern times for the language of the Cherokees was regarded with almost mystical significance, which is why the great redwood trees of California are named after the alphabet’s developer, Sequoia. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that with all the advances which have been made as a result of alphabetizing languages, we seem now to be headed back to a more primitive linguistic state, what with the supposedly-most-sophisticated devices of modern men — computers — coming more and more to rely on ideographs, as one can see from the little symbols which precede the names of the myriad kinds of files in a computer file listing. But the return to ideograms is not only seen in computers, but also in what might be called ‘universal language symbols’, the most familiar of which are the symbols for the men’s and women’s toilets, the sign for poison (the skull and crossbones) and of course the universal negative sign (the red circle with slash).

No doubt this recrudescence of ideographiti has to do with the multicultural mixology which seems to be going on all over the world, where there is a desperate need for language that can cross cultural barriers no matter who is involved; but the struggle to attain alphabetization — particularly in the Far East — shows clearly that modern ideas will have a difficult time penetrating an ideographic haze. And while it is clear that universal symbols need to be found for such emergency cases as restrooms, dining rooms and poisons — both because of the need for instant recognition which alphabetized descriptions do not have, and because of the need to bridge the language barrier in certain cases — we have to wonder in what direction we are going when we are confronted with the bizarre array of tiny indecipherable file graphics with which Bill Gates and his minions daily decorate our computer screens.

2. The Marquis of Shaftsbury Rules for Internet Fighting

As most pugilists know, the generally-accepted rules for fisticuffian encounters are what is known as the Marquis of Queensbury rules. There is, however, a type of fighting that goes on today with much greater frequency, and which is therefore in need of the equivalent of Queensbury rules, to wit, the written exchanges of blows among ideational opponents via email. Being a veteran of many such email exchanges, it has gradually dawned on me that such rules are necessary not merely to keep exchanges within bounds of civilized discourse, but also to insure that fights are fair, in some reasonable sense of the term. Here, therefore, are the rules which I propose, and which I call the Marquis of Shaftsbury Rules, since they are an attempt to codify the the rules by which one opponent is permitted to bury his shaft in his opponent:

* Insults should be avoided. When insults begin, serious dialog has ended, because insults are not exchanges about ideas, but are only points intended to hurt the opponent’s feelings. This is not to say that mockery, irony and similar devices should be banned — on the contrary, these have a genuine ideational function of pointing up and emphasizing the error of an opponent’s ways. On the other hand, four-letter words and their equivalents should generally be avoided, because they have no ideational function save to show that the user has run out of ideas and now must resort to insult. Or to put it in the words of JBR Yant, “Insult is the last refuge of the out-argued.”

* No member of a conversation should block the emails of his opponent. In a sense, such blockage is a confession of having lost, but it nevertheless imposes an improper burden of frustration on one’s opponent — improper because it does not allow for the equal and opposite play of ideational exchange which is the implied ‘contract’ of an email argument. This is not to say that one is obliged to answer, or even read, the emails sent to him by his opponent; but it is to say that each participant should at least have the right to vent his frustrations and put them in the other’s in-box. The recipient can then erase the comments, if that is his choice, but at least he has received the message — an important one, I think — that the argument is not over, and that his opponent is not about to walk away.

* If one of the parties wishes to end the conversation for whatever reason — too time-consuming, too uninteresting, too frustrating, or anything else — he should simply say in an email that he will discontinue writing. (The way I have often put it to opponents is, “Feel free to write again if you wish, and I will feel free to ignore you.”) This, then, will allow a person’s opponent to ‘have the last word’ — something which many parties do not wish to permit, but which seems a reasonable price for the privilege of removing oneself from further exchanges. It is not, we might add, a concession of defeat; it rather leaves the matter at a draw; for it is perfectly reasonable for a participant to feel that he has no more time or patience to deal with an opponent without therefore implying that he has conceded the argument to him.

To conclude, I offer the following comment: Many participants in email arguments seem delighted with the emotional destruction they can cause, particularly by the use of insults and profanity. Of course they often do not think ahead to the possibility that their opponent can also use such weapons against THEM. But my point is that such people are much like children, who delight in taking a hammer to an alarm clock: The child enjoys his power of destruction, where the adult who is able to fix the clock enjoys the far greater and more satisfying power of CONstruction. It is this division between those who enjoy destruction and those who enjoy construction which is the real division between children and adults. Furthermore, the real challenge is to be able to construct; for it takes no skill to destroy, but a lot of skill to build. To which I might add that building relationships is one of the most difficult of all skills to master, and that the many children on the Internet, armed menacingly with their soul-hammers of insults and profanity, are unlikely to ever discover the pleasures and satisfactions of such building.


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  4. 6 Responses to “Birdman on Alphabets; Rules for ‘Net Warfare”

    1. Ken Says:

      excellent article.

    2. Carpenter Says:

      Far too long for the topic, but it is a good point that flaming should be avoided. He writes about email discussions, but it applies just as well to internet forums.

      But what is this:

      No doubt this recrudescence of ideographiti has to do with the multicultural mixology which seems to be going on all over the world,

      Yes, he’s a Mensa member, we get it. But my IQ is just as high, or at least not far below, and I still get my point across by normal English and shorter messages. You want people to listen, that’s what you do. So he ain’t that smart, really.

    3. Angle Says:

      Pictographic language is not more complex than alphabetic language. Pictographs are primitive ostensive definitions, nearly-direct representations of the things to which they refer. This is one step above actual ostension (the so-called ‘caveman’ language).
      Alphabetic language doesn’t ‘represent sounds’ (if it did, we’d never be in doubt about its pronunciation, as the sounds would be clearly represented in the word, which is not the case at all); alphabetic language uses words, which are the combination of sounds broadly represented by letters, to convey the sense of the thing – by means of the sign itself (one doesn’t use the word ‘cook’ as if somehow that ‘represented’ anything to do with the sound or the shape or the action of a cook or cooking – though onomatopoeic words are the exception here). Neologisms abound in such a language (one doesn’t need to represent the thing before one talks about it, unlike in pictographic language). Disciplines can shoot up ‘overnight’. Alphabetic languages are superior in most respects.

    4. alex Says:

      Let the other guy determine the heat level. It can be as polite or vicious as he wants. Default being constructive and polite. Let the other guy have the last word, usually. This keeps things as polite and smooth-running as they can be.

      The extreme hostility on the net comes from the anonymity, which gives the fragile middle class room to let it’s fears run wild. Those who do not know the true value of their own opinions, which are usually not theirs, just borrowed, are threatened by disagreement. The viciousness with which they denounce, say, hate, reflects their fear and fragility.

    5. DMS Says:

      I learned to use AutoCAD and 3DStudio back in the early ’90s, when MS-DOS still dominated presonal computing. Because the technological limitations of the time precluded the use of graphic icons, all of the controls, dialogs and menu items were marked in plain english and I could train myself quickly. Nowadays my chief obstacle in learning new software applications is deciphering and memorizing the interface designer’s hieroglyphs. Instead of speaking my language, the self-important assholes invent their own language and expect me to learn it.

      Three years ago, I had to use a scissor lift to install roof insulation. Not a single word of english could be found anywhere on the machine’s control console- not even a single letter of the english alphabet. When I tried to operate the lift, the machine did not respond; all I got was a flashing yellow light marked by an exclamation point inside a triangle. Looking through the operating manual, I found multiple reasons for “exclamation point in triangle” to light up, all phrased in vague, useless terms. It took me about 20 minutes of trial and error to get the lift going, no thanks to the manual.

      Dashboard indicator lights were once labelled “OIL”, “TEMP” or “GEN”. Cryptic symbols now make idiot lights doubly idiotic. It reminds me of the wordless newspapers in the movie “Fahrenheit 451″. Maybe it’s an egalitarian thing, ensuring that the literate have no advantage over the illiterate.

    6. DMS Says:

      “…four-letter words and their equivalents should generally be avoided, because they have no ideational function save to show that the user has run out of ideas and now must resort to insult.”

      Hear that, Southron?