Tagalog, language, deconstructed

04 April 2010

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

14 Responses to Tagalog, language, deconstructed

  1. April 4, 2010 at 1:20 pm
    Isabel

    OMG, this is not new. Read Chomsky so you don’t salivate. He set this up way back in the ’60s. Pffft.

  2. April 4, 2010 at 2:46 pm
    Luis Umali Stuart

    @ Isabel: That’s just plain dumb. I’m in touch with Chomsky.

  3. April 4, 2010 at 9:51 pm
    jojie umali-riyadh

    dear Pinsan,
    I once browsed thru this link for curiosity sake and could only conclude what my celebral intuition says with a blinking (idea) sign that his calisthenics on Tagalog language grid was a work of a genuis. No wonder among the multi-lingual,multi-racial and multi-national staff i work with here in Middle East, most of them have told me that among the native langauages, Tagalog is the easiest to verbalized and learn.

    Congrats for your great effort, Louie

  4. April 5, 2010 at 5:46 am
    GabbyD

    interesting! i downloaded it and will browse thru it.

    my concern about filipino (sige, tagalog) is whether it can be used to be a formal language.

    so ur nephew’s position is that filipino can borrow words, and keep the grammar. mag-apply is acceptable. but is this still (formal) tagalog? can we write magazines and newspapers, not to mention journal articles?

    a question as i browse thru it… in Q1, the upper left quadrant is basic affix+simple root = “possible”

    possible represents theoretical actions? but in the prev par, these are commands. its not theoretical at all.

    maglagay for example is a request or command, which when undefined implies immediacy.

    maglagay ka ng pera sa pitaka means do it now, unless clarified, diba?

  5. April 5, 2010 at 11:08 am

    gabbyd ;) my brother… he’s in tiaong right now but should be online sometime today to answer questions like yours, thanks.

  6. April 8, 2010 at 11:40 pm
    manuelbuencamino

    truly fascinating. what a great breakthrough for automatic translation.

  7. April 9, 2010 at 10:38 am
    Luis Umali Stuart

    @ Isabel : You are mistaken.

    The title of Chomsky’s first book Syntactic Structures (1957) says it all. The basic premise of Chomskian linguistics is that syntax, the arrangement of words into phrases and sentences, is the key to the inner workings of language. The grid challenges this approach. I offer evidence that the deep structure is embedded (not in the arrangements of words but) in the actual meanings of the words, in the semantics of the language, of its verbs in particular.

    Chomsky and I are both interested in the deep structure but we are poles apart in our methods, and our results.

  8. April 9, 2010 at 10:38 am
    Luis Umali Stuart

    @ jojie umali : This surprises me, the idea that the grid might shine through in spoken Tagalog, enough for non-speakers to pick it up more easily. It makes me wonder if the bilingual Pinoy kid picks up his Tagalog faster than his English. Salamat, Jojie.

  9. April 9, 2010 at 10:40 am
    Luis Umali Stuart

    @ GabbyD : “my concern about filipino (sige, tagalog) is whether it can be used to be a formal language. ur nephew’s [sic] position is that filipino can borrow words, and keep the grammar. mag-apply is acceptable. but is this still (formal) tagalog? can we write magazines and newspapers, not to mention journal articles?”

    Pinker (The Language Instinct 1994) distinguishes between “mental grammar, the hypothetical rules of grammar stored unconsciously in a person’s brain” and “prescriptive or stylistic grammar taught in school and explained in style manuals, the guidelines for how one ‘ought’ to speak in a prestige or written dialect”. The former is the domain of the Tagalog grid, the latter of “formal Tagalog”. The two are naturally different.

    Perhaps as a result of the grid, formal Tagalog might consider relaxing the rules for the use of vernacular loanwords, it would do the language a lot of good. If we think “nag-apply” but can’t use nag-apply something is sure to get lost in the translation.

    More likely, as a language embraces the grid, it will develop a separate formal language around it for use in materials specially headed for translation.

  10. April 9, 2010 at 10:42 am
    Luis Umali Stuart

    @ GabbyD (cont.) : “a question as i browse thru it… in Q1, the upper left quadrant is basic affix + simple root = “possible”
    possible represents theoretical actions? but in the prev par, these are commands. its not theoretical at all. maglagay for example is a request or command, which when undefined implies immediacy. maglagay ka ng pera sa pitaka means do it now, unless clarified, diba?”

    This is a critical question you raise, the first hurdle in the grid.

    It is true that in your example ‘maglagay’ is a command or request, implies immediacy, and means ‘do it now’. In any case, you must admit that from the point of view of the speaker, the action maglagay (the ‘putting’) is still uncertain of happening.

    The command or request may still be ignored, may be impossible to carry out, or for any other reason remain undone. It is still only in the realm of the Possible, theoretical in the mind of the speaker, a hope. The action hasn’t been done (Past, naglagay), it is not going on (Present, naglalagay) and not pre-determined in any way (Future, maglalagay).

    A direct command or request does not report on an action (Past, Present, Future) but only expresses the possibility of one.

  11. April 13, 2010 at 12:28 pm
    GabbyD

    @luis

    1) on the formalization — do u think filipino has a dearth of formal words? if so, why bother importing them, when we can learn the language that possesses the formal words anyway.

    2) ok, its clearer. command words arent uncertain in from the motivation/objective/POV of the speaker, but they may or may not “actually” happen.

    but many declarative sentneces have this property. Merong upuan sa kuwarto need not mean there is actually a chair in the room. assuming sincerity, all we can say is that he believes there is a chair.

    lemme read it further tho…

  12. April 15, 2010 at 6:51 pm
    Luis Umali Stuart

    @GabbyD:

    1) on the formalization — do u think filipino has a dearth of formal words? if so, why bother importing them, when we can learn the language that possesses the formal words anyway.

    Loan words enrich every language. We import words because there are no quick, clear equivalents in our own language. The end purpose of any import is to communicate a thought that has a foreign element to it. By its linguistic context the grid soon guesses what the foreign word signifies and integrates it into the lexicon.

    Nothing wrong with being multilingual. But I think formal languages are there precisely because of the need to translate between languages. Formal Tagalog is actually an invention that crosses Spanish and American English with Tagalog grammar to facilitate the rendition of difficult foreign ideas into Tagalog, and to make Tagalog thinking accessible to a foreign audience.

    2) ok, its clearer. command words arent uncertain in from the motivation/objective/POV of the speaker, but they may or may not “actually” happen.

    It’s very subtle, the Possible/Future contrast. Kumain ka. By the choice of verb the speaker allows for the possibility of the action not being performed, of being ignored or disobeyed, the action is not pre-determined, only pre-conceived, only Possible. Kakain ka. Here the speaker will not take no for an answer, the action is predetermined in the mind of the speaker, and certain to happen in the Future.

    but many declarative sentneces have this property. Merong upuan sa kuwarto need not mean there is actually a chair in the room. assuming sincerity, all we can say is that he believes there is a chair.

    Merong upuan sa kuwarto. This sentence has no verb and is outside the current purview of the grid. But it sounds to me like a statement of fact (in the Past). If one only believes there is a chair, we would expect a yatà, siguro, bakâ, malamáng, or some such in the sentence (assigning it to the Possible). If it turns out there is no chair in the room, we would say that the speaker was mistaken or lying.

  13. April 19, 2010 at 2:25 pm
    GabbyD

    the importing of words issue is even trickier than i thought.

    i saw noynoy on TV and he said, “ang kulay ni aking katungali ay orange” or something like that.

    kulay orange? some research on the web says the orange color is “kahel”. i’ve never heard that word in spoken or written filipino.

    such a basic idea too … we’re not talking formal/technical/scientific words — this is filipino words for colors!

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