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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Empathy Hierarchy and Other Ungodly Things

A ways back I wrote a post about empathy (also called animacy or agency) hierarchies and how the empathy hierarchy in Spanish and other romance languages worked, explaining a peculiarity of their grammar that had haunted me since high school Spanish. Unfortunately, I was excited at the time I was writing, and didn't explain it near as clearly as I should have.

Anyway, to briefly recap, empathy hierarchy is a system of classifying entities (e.g. nouns) according to the level of empathy the speaker feels towards them. While the number and composition of levels vary by language, the general trends are 1st person >= 2nd person >= 3rd person, animate >= inanimate, definite >= indefinite (e.g. "those people" >= "some people"). In Spanish there were three levels with regard to verb agreement: 1st person ("[yo] juego" - "I play") > 2nd person familiar ("[tú] juegas") > 2nd person formal ("usted juega") + 3rd person ("[él] juega"); this makes logical sense because you would have more empathy towards those you would address with the 2nd person familiar (e.g. your friends and family) than those you would address with the formal 2nd person (e.g. people you meet on the street). One of the most common things governed by empathy hierarchy is verb agreement, which is exactly what is seen in Spanish in the above examples.

One of the languages (actually a family of languages) I'm creating for one of my stories turns the concept of empathy hierarchy completely upside-down. In these languages, verbs agree with the subject, direct object [if any], and indirect object [if any] (this is as complicated as it sounds, though some real "polypersonal" languages actually do have verbs that agree with all three of those). As the subject, direct object, and indirect object are not marked for case and word order is free, verb agreement is really the only way to tell who's doing what in a sentence; for example, you could have something like "Dog bone boy gaveheitit" or "Bone boy dog gaveheitit", which would mean more or less the same thing, as word order isn't important in this respect (word order indicates more subtle things, such as what is emphasized in a sentence).

However, instead of relying on animacy or empathy to create this agreement system (animacy and/or empathy being pretty much universal in natural languages, as far as I know), these languages use rank. Specifically, a seven-tiered hierarchy with levels I label -3 (lowest) to +3 (highest). For humans, rank reflects social status relative to the speaker. Rank 0 is reserved for the first person, ranks below 0 represent those below the social status of the speaker, and ranks above 0 above the speaker, with the degree of difference indicated by the rank (rank x + 1 > rank x); e.g. use of rank 2 by the speaker to refer to someone would mean that that person has a social status substantially higher than that of the speaker. For nonhumans (animals and inanimate objects) rank is based on respect for that thing - positive and/or honorable things would have high rank, negative or dishonorable things would have low rank; in this way rank resembles more arbitrary noun class systems.

Now, depending on how deeply you thought about what I just said, you may or may not already be scared of this idea; so let me illustrate. Suppose you have two coworkers at a job talking to each other (thus they'd be of the same social status). As it's customary to show some respect to those of the same rank as you in East Asian cultures (these languages are loosely based on Japanese, with a bunch of fun stuff thrown in), both would refer to each other ("you" in English) with the +1 level. However, as this system does not distinguish between 2nd and 3rd person, if one of them uses the +1 level for something, it could just as easily refer to some third co-worker who wasn't a part of the conversation (a 3rd person, no pun intended). Or it could simply refer to some inanimate object that just happens to be at the +1 rank.

But that's easy stuff. Now imagine a person writing to a politician. If this was just an average person, they might use rank +2 to refer to the politician ("you", in English), given the significant difference in social status. The politician would then use rank -2 to refer to the person (or -1, if the politician wanted to be polite), which would also be written "you" in English. Now suppose they were talking about the king. The lay person would probably refer to the king with +3 rank; the politician, however, would use a lower rank (+1 or +2), as their own social status is greater. Of course, any of these (-2, -1, +1, +2, +3) could simply be referring to an inanimate object, instead.

Worse yet, the innate rank of an animal or inanimate object could be modified based on the rank of a possessor; that is, if the possessor of an object has a significantly different rank than the speaker, the rank of the thing possessed might be elevated or lowered to reflect the possessor.
Suppose that dog' has an innate rank of +1. In the previous scenario, the person might then use rank +1 to refer to his dog, +2 to refer to the politician's dog, and +2 or +3 to refer to the king's dog. The politician, on the other hand, might refer to his own dog as +1, the person's dog as -1, and the king's dog as +2.

And as one last nail in the coffin of sanity is a concept I call the heterogeneous plural. That is, a plural that comprises members of significantly different rank. In this case, the rank of the group as a whole would be the rank of the highest-ranking member. So if the person writing a politician referred to level +3, he could be referring the the king, the king and the politician together, the king's dog, or something else entirely.

That's me: raping your mind since 1983.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Moving On Up

I'd heard all of this from him directly, but I just ran across this post on the ZDNet Security blog - Microsoft adds 'Skywing' to Windows defense team.

Incidentally, Miller is the arch-nemesis I mentioned earlier.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Random Late-Night Thought

For a while I've been aware of a particular piece of linguistic evidence - namely, that cross-linguistically it is common for the imperative (command) form of verbs to be shorter than other forms, seemingly lacking inflectional affixes applied to other conjugations. For example, in Old English, the verb 'creopan' (infinitive form) is 'creope' for first person singular, 'criepth' for third person singular, but 'creop' for imperative singular. This led me to hypothesize that language might have begun as commands, and later evolved to support more general types of expressions by the addition of affixes or extra words.

Think about the significance of this for a moment. One of the most frequent differences between normal sentences and imperative sentences is that the imperative usually does not have a (stated) subject, while, depending on the language, general sentences may require subjects.

Now, one of the big mysteries of linguistics is how we came to have such radically different language systems as accusative, ergative, and topic-comment*. Yet if commands were all that was originally spoken, this provides us with a trivial answer: initially, there was only a direct object and no subject, thus that language would predate the differentiation of the three types.

As the language evolved further, eventually there would be the need to add in a subject; how exactly this was handled would then determine which of the three paths was taken. Accusative languages would place the subject in a separate case (nominative) from the direct object (accusative case). Ergative languages would classify the subject based on whether its role is the agent (ergative case) or patient (absolutive case). Finally, topic-comment languages would place the subject (the topic) completely apart from the rest of the sentence (the comment).

*Since I don't think I've talked too much about topic-comment structure, I'll briefly explain here. In topic-comment languages, a topic is stated for a sentence or set of sentences, then a number of comments are made regarding that topic. Japanese, Korean, and Chinese are like this, among others, although it's also possible to use a periphrastic form in languages like English (e.g. "As for the movie [the topic], we'll meet at 2 [the comment]").

Of particular relevance, one thing the topic can be used for is the subject of the sentence, e.g. "As for him, he'll be coming later" (though true topic-comment languages usually wouldn't duplicate the subject as English does - it would be more like "As for him, will come later"); this is frequently done in Japanese and Korean, for example. Of course, the comment may have a different subject than the topic, so topic-comment languages may also be accusative or ergative (e.g. Japanese is accusative). Here I am hypothesizing that initially the subject was represented exclusively as the topic, then further evolution allowed the subject to be within the comment itself (although whether this is true is relatively unimportant to the theory that languages began as commands).

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Curve Ball

Some surprising last-minute good news from France:
After the parliament voted in favor of the law, no one doubted that it would be approved by the senate and National Assembly as well. As expected the law was indeed ratified by the senate this morning, but to everyone’s surprise it didn’t make it through the National Assembly.
Unfortunately the law is not completely off the table. It is likely to be voted on again on April 27 according to members of UMP, one of the supporting parties. However, failing to get it passed through the National Assembly the first time is clearly a huge mistake that is almost amateurish, and public opinion is not likely to change anytime soon.

Which I suppose makes for a (tentative) good-triumphs-over-evil-in-the-end Hollywood ending, after what the proponents of the law pulled in parliament.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Name That Movie

See if you can recognize this one.

A bill written by big business interests is proposed in French parliament. Hugely controversial, the bill is opposed by most apart from the business interests that wrote it, and it is difficult to see how it could pass (although you can never underestimate the corruption of government officials). As the deadline for the vote draws near, an intense debate lasting 42 hours straight breaks out among parliament members.

Eventually, late Thursday evening, it is decided that the debate should cease and parliament members should go home for the night, and the bill would be voted on the next week. So, parliament members do exactly that. After about 98% of parliament members have left the building, the vote is called early, at nearly 11 PM on Thursday night. With 16 members remaining, the bill passes, 12 to 4.

Can you name that movie?

Actually you can't, because it actually happened - yesterday. This is the French Three-Strikes law, which promises to disconnect people from the internet on allegation of copyright infringement, without ever having to present evidence in court or even tell the accused what copyright they are thought to have infringed. It will also require running spyware on all computers that constantly talks to government systems and monitors activity and the state of your network.

Welcome to French democracy, proving that America really isn't that bad afterall.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

& Patents... or Lack Thereof

A ways back (might have even been a couple years), I came up with an idea for something called Anonymous Private Mail, or a-p mail, a system of e-mail which provides for much greater privacy. Rather than using an e-mail address, a-p mail identifies individuals by their public/private key pair used to encrypt the e-mails (the private part). What made the a-p mail system so novel was that it was able to route a message from sender to receiver without ever knowing the keys of the sender or recipient (the anonymous part). Because of this, the e-mail server (or anyone monitoring it) could not even tell if two e-mails were sent by the same person or received by the same person (in contrast to normal e-mail systems, where the server always knows at least the e-mail address of the receiver).

I was initially concerned about disclosing how it works, especially with regard to patenting it. This system originated in one of my stories (the universe of Starfall and Eve of Tomorrow, which I briefly mentioned previously) as a method allowing criminals (especially terrorists) to communicate. I was concerned that if I patented it, it would be used in the same was it was used in the story. For this reason I posted the basic description (essentially what I wrote above) on this blog and some forums, asking for comments about whether I should patent it or keep it secret forever.

Eventually, a consensus opinion was reached that if I'd managed to come up with this idea, others would also be able to, so the only thing that keeping it secret would do is prevent me from potentially receiving licensing fees for the patent on it. So, after a great deal of procrastination (me being me), I finally wrote up the patent application and submitted it to the US Patent and Trademark Office last Thursday.

While not entirely unforeseeable, I was still very surprised to find two men in suits at my front door on Friday. To make a long discussion short, they explained that they were from the US Department of Homeland Security; they had seen my patent application, and, apparently, I wasn't the only one concerned about the possible application of the method to criminal organizations (particularly terrorism). They informed me that they'd deleted my patent application, and presented me with a federal gag order barring me from disclosing the details of the method to anyone else (including making further attempts to patent it).

So, I guess I won't be patenting it afterall. Funny how all decisions become easy when you're reduced to only a single option... At least this won't impact my stories - as they weren't targeted specifically at people with great knowledge of computers, most people wouldn't have understood the thing even if I had explained how it worked in the stories.