Discrete combinatorial system

Language is the quintessentially human activity. It is quite amazing yet so natural that we don’t notice how fantastic it is. It is built on two simple yet profound facts.

The first is that we randomly assign meaning to sequences of sounds. The word duck does not look like a duck, walk like a duck, or quack like a duck, but it means “duck” all the same. It means duck because we all think that it does. Other people think that canard (French) means duck; or idada (Zulu), or oli (Korean), or thousands of other words, but English speakers know that duck means duck. Anything could mean duck, but only one word actually does.

The second profound fact is that we combine words together in an almost infinite number of ways. Language is a kind of “discrete combinatorial system.” It is discrete because it is made of a limited number of discrete pieces. English has only 26 letters in its alphabet and only a few thousand words. (The Oxford dictionary lists about 200,000 words, but the average person knows between 20,000 and 40,000.)

Language is combinatorial because we combine the letters and words together and different combinations give different results. The meaning of “man bites dog” is different from the meaning of “dog bites man” in spite of the fact that the two sentences contain exactly the same words and letters. Our limited set of letters and words can be combined into so many sentences that you regularly say sentences you have never said before. With some regularity, you even say things that have never been said before by anyone.

In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker wrote:

Go into the Library of Congress and pick a sentence at random from any volume, and chances are you would fail to find an exact repetition no matter how long you continued to search.

The number of potential 20-word sentences is so great that if you said a different 20-word sentence every five seconds it would take you 100 trillion years to say them all. When you finished you could start on 19-word sentences, or 21, or…

God gave us complexe language so that we could communicate with each other and with Him. It would be a shame to neglect cand tell God about something that bothers you, or that you are thankful for. You never know, maybe you’ll say something to God no one has said to him before.

2 thoughts on “Discrete combinatorial system

  1. You forgot that duck also means duck down. 🙂
    1a: to lower the head or body suddenly : DODGE
    b: BOW, BOB
    2a: to move quickly
    b: to evade a duty, question, or responsibility
    3a: to plunge under the surface of water
    b: to descend suddenly : DIP
    transitive verb

    1: to lower (the head, the body, etc.) quickly : BOW
    2: AVOID, EVADE
    duck the issue

    Like

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