Take off your shoes

How would you create a new language?

If you had to invent a new language, how would you go about doing it? What if you couldn’t use normal letters and numbers? What constitutes a “successful” lingo?

To find out, the Yale cognitive scientist Bruno Galantucci decided to run an intriguing experiment. He set up a computer game in which two people wander through a virtual bungalow with several rooms — each of which is marked with geometric symbol on the ground. Neither can see the other, but they can communicate by scrawling symbols on a rapidly-scrolling chalkboard that each can see on their screen. To figure out where each other is, they must develop a system of communication that is linked to the symbols on the ground, yet also which communicates complex concepts like the relative position of two rooms, the direction someone is heading, and the like.

Then he plopped a few subjects down to see what would happen. Nine out of ten pairs developed a communication system of three or four symbols, and solved the puzzle in three hours. A more complex version of the puzzle was solved in six hours, with 16 symbols created. But the thing is, each language was slightly different. As The Economist reports:

Dr. Galantucci had expected that the pairs would build their language on elements of the icons that appear on the floors of the rooms. A few did so, but they extracted different features of the icons — the number of vertices, say, or some linear abstraction of its shape. Others adopted a numbering system for the rooms — such as one slanting line for the first room and two for the second, moving clockwise or anticlockwise through the four rooms. Another technique involved labelling the rooms by their relative position in space, by placing marks on different parts of the screen.

So what was the spark — the birth of communication? Intriguingly, communication was born as soon as one partner decided to copy another’s symbols. This makes sense; there’s something cognitively deep about the act of mimesis between two sentient beings, since it’s inherently an attempt to communicate. But a couple of subjects never managed to communicate at all; one player was reduced to “the ideographic equivalent of a person shouting loudly in a foreign country where he does not speak the local language.” Doesn’t anyone speak ENGLISH around here?

Personally, I think this would make a kick-ass video game. Imagine if it were done in a massively multiplayer mode. What sort of language would 10,000 bored teenagers create at 2 am?

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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