6
$\begingroup$

Most communications systems are intensely dependent upon the order in which you transmit information. For example, a binary code, like Morse Code, cannot convey information unless the order of the dots and dashes is strictly controlled and can be reliably transmitted. But, what about the opposite situation?

Imagine a language that evolve in, or was designed for, a context where you could not be assured of the order in which your words were transmitted.

Maybe it was usually transmitted one word at a time carrier pigeon-style by insects that could only carry one word each and traveled in swarms, or by groups of balloons carrying one word each whose order could be jumbled by air currents, or by sounds contained in bubbles whose flow through water could be jumbled by water currents, or by sound in caves with such intense echoes that the order of the words would be heard could not be reliably predicted, or by spies none of whom could be trusted with the entire message whose duration of travel could not be easily predicted relative to each other.

Suppose also that any of these potential methods of communication has a fairly high rate of losing words in transmission, maybe 2%-5% of the words transmitted would be lost in a typical communication (something that would seem likely to be the case in any of the examples of a means of communication where word order would be routinely compromised).

What features would a language that works well in these conditions have to have to function?

Real world examples of languages developed for use in these conditions, if any, would obviously be one way to provide a convincing an answer, although not necessarily the only one.

$\endgroup$
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Japanese actually has a very fluid word order. There is a normal sentence structure, but words don't have to be ordered that way. This is solved by attaching a "particle" to each word indicating its role in the sentence. For example, the particle "wo" indicates that the word it follows is the direct object. Japanese is also very context-based, so "terebi wo mimashita" literally translates as "television was watched", and it could mean "we watched television", "I watched television", or some other form depending on the context it is used in. The subject can often be dropped. $\endgroup$ – Phiteros Oct 10 '17 at 4:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You need some way of marking which words have which roles in the sentence. English uses word order for this, but Latin and Greek use different endings on the words, for instance, while Japanese uses particles (little words which don't mean anything on their own but attach to the important words to show what they're doing). These markings would have to survive the transmission method somehow. $\endgroup$ – Draconis Oct 10 '17 at 4:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ...At which point, if you wanted to be boring, you could just use English, but write a number after each word indicating where it falls in the sentence. And transmit each sentence twice to reduce the risk of losing an important word. $\endgroup$ – Draconis Oct 10 '17 at 4:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For a language without word order I suggest checking out the 'Arrival' movie. It's about scientists trying to make contact with aliens. I found it quite intriguing at least. $\endgroup$ – user2851843 Oct 10 '17 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ You may also wish to check out The Expanse series of books /tv. The conlang there for one of the factions (Belter) uses a lot of gestures that mean specific things, presumably for this reason. In fact, I'm going to expand this to a proper answer - bear with. $\endgroup$ – Miller86 Oct 10 '17 at 13:02
7
$\begingroup$

This is not as hard as it may seem. There are plenty of natural languages that do not have a regular word order and allow a great deal of word omission. Russian and Japanese are good examples of such languages. Although, they use slightly different approaches to solving the same problem.

1. Inflections

Inflections are modifications of a word that express different types of grammatical relationships with other words. English does not use inflections that much, they are mostly limited to verb conjugation. Therefore, the word order becomes important to signal a grammatical role of a word. (Bob eats fish has an opposite meaning from Fish eats Bob)

Other languages use inflections extensively and do not need a regular word order to indicate grammatical relationships between words. For example, Russian uses endings to signal whether a noun is a subject or an object and if it is the object its ending communicates a specific relationship with a verb. No native speaker will confuse Боб ест рыбу [Bob yest ribu] with Боба ест рыба (Boba yest riba) [the same meaning as in English examples].

In languages like this, word order is frequently used for emphasis and expression of nuances.

2. Particles

Another approach is the usage of grammatical particles. They play the same role as inflections but in a way are closer to prepositions. Japanese is an example of this type of languages. Particles indicate relationships between the words:

  • ボブが魚を食べる (bobu ga sakana wo taberu) -- Bob eats fish
  • 魚がボブを食べる (sakana ga bobu wo taberu) — fish eats Bob, where

ga marks a subject, while wo marks an object.

Particles must be attached to words, but 'word+particle' construction can be moved around without much change in the meaning.

It is important to note that while Japanese has a much freer word order than English it is still not as flexible as Russian. In Japanese, a phrase must end with a verb or a verb-like word. Modifiers must always precede what they modify. Russian does not have these limitations.

3. High-context culture

High-context cultures heavily rely on background knowledge and context. Messages tend to have additional implied meanings not openly stated in words. Communicators in such cultures frequently omit words or even phrases if they can be easily derived from context. For example, Japanese rarely use 'I'. It is also not uncommon for Russian speakers to omit a subject (including I) if it is clear who they are talking about.


Your language could rely on a mix of inflections with particles. Combined with a high-context culture, it would have both requested features: flexible word order and resistance to omittances. The bonus feature is that people from high-context cultures are usually very observant since they literally need to read between the lines.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ English has this as well in the imperative, which will admit "You" as the subject. Any order statement ("Go over there.") has an implied "You" as the subject ("[You] Go over there."). As for word order, while it is usually fixed, it's not hard to understand it out of order. Consider Yoda, who spoke predicate, Subject, Verb ("Truly Wonderful (P), The mind of a child(S) is(V).") as opposed to traditional English Subject, Verb, Predicate (The mind of a child (S) is (V) truly wonderful (V).). This was without any loss of information on a native English speaker's part. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Oct 10 '17 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ @hszmv, you are right, English has some flexibility. However, it is very limited. If we randomly mix words in your example (e.g. a is mind truly the wonderful of child) the meaning is lost completely. In Russian, the phrase becomes confusing, yet, it is still possible to decipher the original meaning since inflections preserve grammatical relationships. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 11 '17 at 13:46
3
$\begingroup$

You could have each word take the last half of the previous word and the first half of the next word as prefix/suffix. As an example:

Hello World! -> .HelloWor lloWorld!

Note the . At the beginning of the message to indicate message start (essentially saying ‘the word before this one is an empty sentence’)

This allows you to take a pretty decent crack at word ordering and also can be used to reconstruct or guess at missing words.you may, however, want to define one character to be ‘word start’ and one to be ‘word end’, so if start is X and end is Y then:

XYayY XLinguisticsY! -> .XYayYXLingui ayYXLinguisticsY!

Of course, you can replace X and Y with more pronounceable character sets.

Some issues:

It’s still possible to lose words if multiple adjacent words are lost. ‘Decoding’ the message could take quite a lot of effort Individual words might start exceeding your total word length if you have three long words one after another.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Language is not just words

Firstly, there seems to be an odd assumption that words are the be all and end all of language. Tone, punctuation and grammar and physical gestures are all part of language too. I can't remember the specifics but a high percentage of communication is non-verbal. Just because your words don't all come out, or come out in an odd order, doesn't mean you're not going to be understood. After all, if we are unable to speak clearly ourselves we often use gestures and exaggerated tone to be understood.

Therefore, a language that could not rely on word order or transmission would become heavily reliant on these things. The world of The Expanse has a conlang (Belta) that is designed to be clear even through spacesuits and as such uses lots of gesture to back up the words being spoken - presumably in case of poor transmission.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

One way to do this would be to use words which symbolize entire sentences. Of course that would mean there would be a lot of words in this language, but if both sides had a dictionary which was regularly updated then it would work.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Add words that replace the function of the word order

First, many already existing languages have quite loose word order rules, and you can still understand a sentence even if you put the words in a non-standard order.

For example... English:

  1. Where did Alice go?
  2. Alice did go where?
  3. Go where did Alice?
  4. Did Alice go where?

For the sake of an argument, let us make this a bit trickier and make the word order matter. Compare:

  • Did Bob go there
  • Bob did go there

Now we have changed meaning of the sentence by changing the word order. The first sentence is a question. The second is a statement of fact.

How can we resolve this?

We add a keywords that take the function of the word order

  • Bob question go there
  • Go Bob there fact

Now granted this cannot replace all the functions that word order affect. A sentence with enumerations and particularly multiple enumerations become next to impossible to do without word order — or at least word pairing — being relevant, such as:

  • Alice and Bob did go there but Carol and Dave did not

...but that can be solved in other ways.

Summary

A language without word order is quite feasible. The main features of it would be:

  • Words are added to indicate things that word order otherwise does, such as whether the sentence is a question or a statement.
  • You can expect the language to feature shorter sentences since long sentences in the language(s) that you are accustomed to depend heavily on word order to make sense.
$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ 1) One can use intonation to indicate whether it is a statement or a question. Even native English-speakers do it when they do not feel like being pedantically grammatical. 2) I am afraid that languages with no regular word order do not support your assumption that they will have shorter sentences. Russian literary language tends to have very long sentences. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 10 '17 at 10:00
1
$\begingroup$

You're effectively describing a communication protocol that matches the UDP network communication protocol.

In simple terms: the message is split into packets, and those packets are shoved towards the recipient. The protocol does not guarantee packet order, nor that no packets are lost in transit.

You can't directly copy the various solutions that sprung up around it, but you can certainly take inspiration from them.

There are three main issues when dealing with this kind of unreliable data input:

  • ordering: how should you sort all the bits you received?
  • verification: is anything missing from the received message?
  • error correction: bits and pieces are missing, can we still understand the message?

Ordering is relatively simple: you attach an index number to each "word".

UDP generally uses checksums for validating data integrity. Your language could incorporate these at a basic level (words in sentence describing word count and properties of sentence).

There are algorithms for effectively using redundant data (QR codes use this to be readable even after somebody drew on them with a sharpie). Using these ideas in natural language would take significant adjustments though.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A network protocol is not a human language. UDP transports data, it does not convey meaning. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Oct 10 '17 at 8:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK Asker effectively is using a very comparable communication protocol, so he's going to need the same kind of solutions as used in IT. The biggest difference will be that he'll have to optimise the same concepts for use by humans, who generally don't deal well with mathematical solutions. Updated the answer to be clearer about this. $\endgroup$ – Kargathia Oct 10 '17 at 9:09
  • $\begingroup$ The answer is still bad because you are still using word order. It is just that you are reconstructing the word order after transmission. It just becomes a very roundabout way to maintain word order. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Oct 10 '17 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ Very useful. I studied techniques like this in Operations Research and Linear Algebra but had forgotten some of them. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Oct 10 '17 at 18:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.