Saturday, February 26, 2005


Linguistic Experiments

Andrew Wedel at the University of Arizona is doing an interesting linguistic experiment:
Wedel has devised an experiment with several computers that "speak" to one another.


Their language is built out of sounds analogous to the range of sounds from a vowel continuum that starts with "eee," which is made with the jaw closed, down to "aaaah," which is made with the jaw open. As the jaw lowers from "eee," the vowel changes, eventually to something approaching "aaah." This continuum of sounds are assigned a number between zero and one or a percentage thereof.

At the beginning of these simulations, the computers start with random words made out of random combinations of vowels and don't understand what each other are saying, much like babies trying to understand and mimic speech for the first time.


After running for thousands of "conversations," the system begins to develop certain characteristics that are like human language that the simulations didn't begin with. The computers begin to recognize each others' sounds and agree on their meanings.

Eventually they develop a common vocabulary of words that mean certain things.
This reminds me of another linguistic experiment, long before the computer age, described by Herodotus (2.2, tr. George Rawlinson):
Now the Egyptians, before the reign of their king Psammetichus, believed themselves to be the most ancient of mankind. Since Psammetichus, however, made an attempt to discover who were actually the primitive race, they have been of opinion that while they surpass all other nations, the Phrygians surpass them in antiquity. This king, finding it impossible to make out by dint of inquiry what men were the most ancient, contrived the following method of discovery: He took two children of the common sort, and gave them over to a herdsman to bring up at his folds, strictly charging him to let no one utter a word in their presence, but to keep them in a sequestered cottage, and from time to time introduce goats to their apartment, see that they got their fill of milk, and in all other respects look after them. His object herein was to know, after the indistinct babblings of infancy were over, what word they would first articulate. It happened as he had anticipated.

The herdsman obeyed his orders for two years, and at the end of that time, on his one day opening the door of their room and going in, the children both ran up to him with outstretched arms, and distinctly said "Becos." When this first happened the herdsman took no notice; but afterwards when he observed, on coming often to see after them, that the word was constantly in their mouths, he informed his lord, and by his command brought the children into his presence. Psammetichus then himself heard them say the word, upon which he proceeded to make inquiry what people there was who called anything "becos," and hereupon he learnt that "becos" was the Phrygian name for bread. In consideration of this circumstance the Egyptians yielded their claims, and admitted the greater antiquity of the Phrygians.

That these were the real facts I learnt at Memphis from the priests of Vulcan. The Greeks, among other foolish tales, relate that Psammetichus had the children brought up by women whose tongues he had previously cut out; but the priests said their bringing up was such as I have stated above.
Wedel's computers seem to speak only in vowels. If consonants were introduced as well, I wonder if they would ever say "becos."

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