Subject: Re: PART TWO: winning industrial-use of lisp:  Re: Norvig's latest paper on Lisp
From: Erik Naggum <>
Date: Fri, 21 Jun 2002 23:28:54 GMT
Newsgroups: comp.lang.lisp
Message-ID: <>

* Thomas Bushnell, BSG
| It's also a pretty good proof of my point--excellent fluent non-native
| speakers of English have probably not read it (have you?  do you think it's a
| normal text for, say, a German university teaching the English language to
| ordinary undergraduates? [outside linguistics departments, that is]).

  Yes, I both own it and have read large parts of it, but not studied it.

| The foreign learner has absorbed--sometimes very well--a set of formal rules
| for the language which have been typically somewhat ossified compared to the
| actual speech of actual speakers.  And it's those actual native speakers
| which define correct usage, at least for their own dialects.

  The key is to think in the language.  This is not about absorbing formal
  rules any more than native speakers absord rules.  The same applies to Common
  Lisp (oh, no, it's on topic!): we are all "foreign learners" of programming
  languages, yet some people acquire a "feel" for it and some do not.  As far
  as I can see, the ability to acquire a "feel" for a language is unrelated to
  which one was your first.

  But what is most interesting here is that some native speakers do not know
  their own language, nor do they have a "feel" for it.  The magnitude of the
  absence of absorbed formal rules in some speakers and writers is astonishing
  to people who know the language, foreign _or_ native.  The sheer _inability_
  of some people to accept that others may have something to tell them, or that
  what others do is worth studying, regardless of how much they think they
  know, is completely unrelated to whether you are a foreign or native speaker.
  The "I know better than you, so you have nothing to tell me" attitude is
  rampant in people who stop learning at some random point in their life.

  E.g., I know people who arrived in Norway as young children and still speak
  with an atrociously thick accent at 40, and 40-year-old who arrived six
  months ago who speak without a trace of accent.  Norwegian is a very hard
  language to learn, according to those who try it as a second language.

| I've heard people brand new to the study of New Testament Greek pontificate
| about how in Greek every word just has one meaning, unlike the complexities
| of English.  What bogosity!  They've only been taught one meaning; a brief
| tour through Liddell and Scott will disabuse that away from even the most
| casual obsever.

  Well, it is not uncommon for even native speakers to believe in one meaning
  of a word.  There are lots of people whose understanding of their native
  tongue is so deficient that they do not understand transferred meanings of
  words they have once learned with their concrete meaning and vice versa.
  This is not peculiar to any particular language -- it is peculiar to some
  people, and I think of it is a serious learning disability.

| A native speaker of English, by contrast, has to learn the standard written
| dialect as a maze of weird rules, independently memorized, a hard-to-organize
| set of deviations from the dialect they know in their bones.  It can be done
| (it's easier than learning a foreign language), but it's usually skipped.

  Nothing I have read about how people learn languages rhymes with anything you
  have said about either foreign or native speakers.  The expression of a rule
  and its internalization are quite different cognitive phenomena.  The rules
  of languages are not strong enough to express themselves the way we really
  work.  This is really obvious to me, but I consequently have a hard time
  arguing for exactly how this works.  By analogy, a person can read the Ten
  Commandments and get the point or not, but still flawlessly repeat them word
  by word.  People can recite the valid syllogisms from Aristotle and still
  violate them in their reasoning.  Have they learned them?  I would say no.

  The whole point of learning something is that it takes an internal form that
  is completely unrelated to its formal expression.  An idea may find different
  forms of expression that to one who has yet to understand it, may seem wildly
  dissimilar, yet to one who does only mildly so.  What is so fascinating about
  _learning_ a foreign language is that so many ideas have seen so different
  forms of expressions historically as to be completely untranslatable in their
  present form.  The nature itself may have shaped so many expressions of ideas
  that one who has not actually seen it will not understand the expression.
  For instance, the origin of heavenly gods (yes, plural) in early Judaism is
  quite distinct from the origin of earthly gods (including forefathers, etc)
  in other tribal religions related to the lack of anything interesting in the
  soil at the place of its origin.  Where various religions have "placed" their
  invented deities is quite telling.  E.g., Norse mythology involves a lot of
  mountains and rock.  Island religions have tended to find deities in the sea.
  Desert religions in the sky, jungle religions in the ground.  The forms of
  expression of ethics in most religions are similar in that they are rules
  that defy explanation -- until you look really closely at them and untangle
  their often ridiculously elaborate wrappings -- and most deities were very
  powerful and could hurt people who broke their rules, clearly a brilliant
  device to make (stupid) people obey them instead of breaking them because
  they could do so with impunity.  Hence, when religious nuts see that society
  loses its religion and this dangerous god thing is no longer able to scare
  people into submission, they believe people will become evil and destroy
  themselves and everything good in the world.  That we have invented a legal
  system that can wreak much more and much more immediate damage in a person's
  life than any "god" could do and that the IRS alone can be more frightening
  to behold than any psychotic deity, and thus that "god-fearing" has been
  replaced by "law-fearing", the priesthood with judges, random acts of revenge
  and retribution in the name of a psychotic deity with the rule of law and due
  process.  Some religious people pine for the days when their evil gods would
  exact revenge on people they did not like simply by praying for it (which
  would be "answered" and the religious nuts would be free to act in accordance
  with their invented deity).  The core principle remains the same: "Do what I
  tell you to do, or I'll hurt you".  Gods, laws, priests, judges, hell, prison
  -- who cares, the point is simply that some people set the rules, most people
  get to follow them, and those who do not pay the consequences in ways that
  strike fear and terror into the hearts of the rest.  Extremely elaborate
  systems are concocted by the smartest of people to erect a defense shield
  around their position in power, the legality of their monopoly on power, etc,
  and may express the concept of "rights" and "constitutions" and the like to
  limit the randomness of those who hold power, but all in all, it boils down
  to who has the more painful or lethal weapon and what your philosophy or
  religion tells you you should accept or not from and of those in power.  Are
  there universal rights and wrongs?  Most probably, but people will never be
  able to agree on them because they are mired in so many layers of expression
  and so thick a context that any two expressions will sound different to two
  people from different backgrounds and will be unacceptable even though the
  two _mean_ exactly the same thing.

  The smarter you are, however, the more you should be able to cut through the
  crap and figure things out.  Most probably the ability to do this is well
  within reach of millions of people on this planet.  The catch is that the
  ability to write it back down so other people can also figure it out has yet
  to be discovered, after billions and billions of people have lived and died,
  so I keep hoping for machine intelligence vastly superior to any human, or,
  barring that, some alien invation by really intelligent beings who can just
  tell us what the fuck we have been staring at for, what, 40,000 years and not
  getting.  The catch with that theory is that they would quickly become gods.
  What do I know, maybe the gods _were_ aliens who had figured it out, but then
  they left in disgust when they saw what we puny humans did with it.  I know I
  would have if I were a really intelligent alien who came to this miserable
  planet and had to deal with people, _especially_ several millennia ago.

  Well, speaking of which, I'm outta here.
  Guide to non-spammers: If you want to send me a business proposal, please be
  specific and do not put "business proposal" in the Subject header.  If it is
  urgent, do not use the word "urgent".  If you need an immediate answer, give
  me a reason, do not shout "for your immediate attention".  Thank you.