Tagalog, language, deconstructed
Who would have thought that Tagalog could be de-constructed and that a mathematical order found in our use of verb phrases?
Who would have thought that there would be a discrete number of key verbs expressing, covering, every human experience, thought, action, possibility?
Who would have thought that different languages could be working from the same set of verbs, all perfectly lined up in a mathematical grid?
Who would have thought we could get to the bottom of language?
But this is exactly what Luis Umali Stuart, my mathematician-turned-lexicographer-turned-discoverer brother, sets out to demonstrate in his ebook The Secret Grid of Language. There is a foreword by Nicole Revel, an expert in Anthropological Linguistics and Semantics, and Director of Research since 1988 in the Section 34 (Languages, Representations and Communication) of the French CNRS (National Center of Scientific Research, the largest basic science agency in Europe if not the world). In Nicole’s words:
Luis approaches the morphosemantic problems of Tagalog in a totally different way: his is a rigorous mathematical intuition and mastery at the service of an extremely difficult empirical database and an observation of the perceptions of motion from the perspective of the speakers themselves.
My contribution to his work was to follow his thought without destroying his vision, while helping him to present his formal analysis in a way acceptable to linguists. It required (from) me a constant readjustment in order to free myself from classic linguistic references and to enter into another way of perceiving and ordering facts, a formal concrete-abstract way of apprehending an enormous number of roots and their semantic modulations–the subtle onmipresent interplay of affixes in spoken Tagalog–and accessing to the structure underlying them in an explicit manner.
This is a work in Cognitive Semantics but it avoids a complex metalanguage. Its very economy and minimal formulation should be a source of enlightenmentto linguists and neurophysiologists. I am sure it cannot but please the mathematicians. I can only hope it will also be of interest to philosophers, for it points to our embodied condition.
Louie had many eureka! moments over the 20 years of his study of Tagalog and fleshing out of the grid, some shared with me on occasional one-on-ones over shots of lambanog, even if I could always only intuitively grasp the significances (not being as cerebral as he). Here’s our latest exchange via email, on the occasion of The Secret Grid:
A: Before the grid, my impression was that language was an inchoate, forever-evolving thing, with new words and expressions always coming in and old ones being thrown out, and even, rules changing, the unacceptable becoming acceptable. Not really pala.
L: A language, Tagalog, learns new words and expressions all the time but the grammar stays relatively constant. It is what turns Tagalog into Taglish. Nag-apply ako, iprinocess kami, na-hire siya sa call-center. The grammar is still Tagalog but the vocabulary is bi-lingual, or international even. Na-coup-d’etat siya noong mag-perestroika. Vernacular Tagalog is riddled with Spanish and English loanwords from our past history, not to speak of Sanskrit and Malay and, of course, Chinese. We are adding to this vocabulary constantly. But the grammar is no different from Balagtas or the Pasion.
A: What are dominant / current theories of language that the grid disproves / confirms / puts into question?
L: Hmm. The two biggest puzzles in Linguistics are the “origin of language” and the “deep structure of language”. In other words, what are the key elements and molecules of language? And is there a common structure to all the languages of Man, a universal grammar? The former is still up for grabs but in the latter, the dominant thinking is from Chomsky of MIT although many linguists in Europe still prefer the structuralist approach of Levi-Strauss. Neither has been able to get to the bottom of the two puzzles, and the general mood is that they are unsolveable; thus we are unable to teach computers to converse. The grid offers a new approach and likely solution to the problem.
A: This whole project started out with Pinoy Translator, when you started listing Tagalog words, yes? When and what made you focus on verbs in particular?
L: At the end of Pinoy Translator I attempted a closing section “Elements of Tagalog Grammar” for the beginning non-Tagalog student. In the effort, it was soon obvious that the complexity of Tagalog, the difficulty in teaching and learning it, was all in the verbs. The rules for nouns and pronouns and adjectives, even sentences, were simple enough to set up, but the verbs and adverbs were very unwieldy. When to use what affix was the biggest problem; there was simply nothing for it, until the first signs of a grid appeared in my verb lists. Brain scientists have long suspected that verbs are at the core of the neural structuring of language.
A: How did Nicole enter the picture? The foreword gives no indication that she speaks Tagalog rather well. What got her interested in the grid?
L: As far as I can tell she came in the late 60s to join the team of Robert Fox at Tabon Cave. She stayed around and did her doctoral on Palawan languages, in particular the epic songs of the Palawan tribal shamans. She joined the CNRS in 1972 as a researcher in Linguistics, and visits the Philippines almost yearly for teaching and continuing research. She has an outpost on an island fronting Tabon cave but has been discouraged from travelling there by her embassy since the Dos Palmas crisis. Since 1990 she has been building an Epic Poetry Archive at Ateneo. My translation of the Pasion Henesis was part of this. The archive has recently been digitalized and will be available on the net sometime this year if it isn’t yet.
She is structuralist in her linguistics and locked into my work because it was obviously structuralist as opposed to all the Chomskian work going on in current Philippine linguistics.
A: Could all languages really be griddable?
L: As I’ve often said, it is not reasonable that Tagalog alone should have this mathematical arrangement; I am convinced it represents a neural structure in Homo sapiens sapiens. In the book, I actually demonstrate how the grid would work for the English language, and the result serves as my evidence.
The accomplished work still only accounts for 1/16th of the grid. Mapping out the entire Tagalog grid is the next challenge. In the short term, workers in language who are fluent speakers of both Tagalog and English have their work cut out for them. Once done, all other languages will only need to mimic the results.
A: Nakaka-excite nga the implications for language translation. What are your great hopes for the grid in this age of the computer and the internet?
L: Because it is a mathematical solution it interfaces perfectly with the problem in artificial intelligence of how to teach computers to comprehend and speak languages, and finally pass the Turing test. Geeks in natural language processing (NLP) will see that the grid is actually a binary system that provides the perfect algorithm for the definition of knowledge sets and, from there, the perfect translation of any language to another.
A: Do you have any thoughts on how the grid system could help improve the teaching of Tagalog/Filipino and English here, given how terrible the quality of Tagalog and English of students and teachers in public and private schools alike these days?
L: The long-term theory, when the grid of language by way of Tagalog and English is all-mapped out and the downstream technologies are perfected is that we won’t need to learn languages anymore, in the same way that calculators have taken over arithmetic. You say something in one language and a translator phone dishes it out in the other.
In my lectures, the most excited reactions always come from the language educators and child psychologists, perhaps because the grid amounts to a natural program of learning, from four elementary ideas, to sixteen, to sixty-four and so on, from the most general to the most specific, simultaneously building up the language and worldview of the learning brain.
Fascinating stuff. Check it out. If you’re not into language or education yourself, share the link with those you know who are. http://www.lulu.com/content/e-book/the-secret-grid-of-language/8537171