In defense of natural language

1 June 2020
1 Jun 2020
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

Natural language – the way we humans organically and intuitively combine words and symbols to communicate meaning – is constantly criticized for its fundamental structural inconsistencies, lack of precision, and fluidity. We complain that natural language is unfit for the greatest challenges that are asked of human intelligence. We eschew the unstructured, artful study of words in favor of precise grammars and exact notational crutches of mathematics, computer code, and formal logic.

Natural language is great for entertainment and the day-to-day, we say, but when it comes to things that matter, we need to bring out the industrial tools, ones that are designed to be precise, exact, and narrow in its scope. We place our faith in the unwavering hands of equations and algorithms and logical deductions, because unlike natural language and the fluffy stuff of organic, human thought, these heavyweight tools for thinking leave no room for manipulation or ambiguity. And sometimes, that’s exactly what we want.

We can even understand the history of science as humanity’s singular pursuit of more and more exact projections of the world’s organic chaos into the precise molds of these industrial notations. Engineers hate dirty data, and companies and researchers spend millions of dollars each year to parse through the terabytes of natural language we produce in our daily life, and classify them into precise data points.

But natural language hasn’t failed us; if anything, we’ve failed it.

Natural language is a uniquely powerful tool. It trades off the precision and universality offered by more formal tools, for unmatched expressive and narrative power. But like all powerful tools, we need to learn to tame that expressiveness. We need to learn to be better writers.

In every discipline with its own, precise notation for thought, there’s a set of customs for what makes “good” notation. Mathematicians strive for concision and elegance in reasoning. Programmers aim for efficiency and similar elegance of structure. Physicists search for simplicity and universality in patterns and equations. As people study these disciplines, they also learn what makes good notation. Good mathematicians and physicists and programmers have a sense of what makes a well-written, precise program or theorem.

Most people who write don’t pay as much attention to good notation. We just write. But writing and natural language is a tool for thought and communication just the same. It’s a powerful one, if we put care into understanding the tool more deeply and using it more thoughtfully.

Great writers use language differently than most people. They employ it as a tool, not just a part of the ether of human existence that we tug on to chase away silences in our conversations. Like any craftsperson, writers use their tool deliberately and economically. They spend time picking the right words, fixing and learning from mistakes, redesigning their sentences, and reordering their ideas. They wield the tool of natural language differently from most of our nonchalant, day-to-day utterances. There is intentionality and consideration behind its use, and that consideration behind the craft is what makes great literature and rhetoric as profoundly useful in moving the world forward as the best equations and algorithms and scientific theories.

Rather than demote organic, natural language into a second-class citizen of humanity’s ascent, I think we need to study and use it with the same care and dedication we give to other tools for communicating thought. We need to be more intentional writers and more attentive readers.

Of course, natural language isn’t the best tool for every job. The notation of mathematics will still best it when it comes to its domain of expertise, and software will always be written in the more formally defined, more mechanical computer code. But natural language also has its specialty: the amorphous, mercurial nature of human history, experience, and relationships. And in this domain, there’s no more expressive, purpose-built tool for communicating our intent and our ideas and our stories than natural language itself.

Good language comes in all forms. Sometimes, a carefully assembled string of words pulled from a doorstopper thesaurus might be the best expression of an idea. At other times, emojis and a few short, sweet abbreviations might encapsulate our feelings most precisely. My ask is not that we all train ourselves to be technical writers or aspire to be literary geniuses. Just that we acknowledge the potential of choosing the right words at the right times, and know that those well-chosen words are just as responsible for our progress and our future as any other tool by which we speak our thoughts.

Text as an interface

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