Consciously Evolving Language – Session 5 - 3 Nov 2020

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This Week

Structure vs. content; paradigm shifts as shifts of category structure; consider language as being like space.

Originally published at:


I hope that you were able to watch the video of workshop 2 if you weren’t able to attend, and to do the “hands on” stuff. Doing it is more fun than watching someone do it! (in other things as well, wink, wink)
Here is the reading for our next session:

Consciously Evolving Language chapters 14 and 15
Donella Meadows: Points Places to Intervene in a System.pdf (184.0 KB)
Selections from “A Pattern Language” A Pattern Language.PDF (4.7 MB)
(you can skim quickly through the pages of lists…I included them just so you can see the whole pattern)

Here are some questions to think about while you are reading:

  1. How would you integrate those two articles?
  2. How do you think they pertain to language (spoken and/or written)?

Have fun! We’re getting into juicy stuff now :slight_smile:


I want to be sure is that Pacific Time 11:00am-12:30pm? :thinking:

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I’m with Michael … are we starting an hour later than we were?

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I am assuming we would switch to “Standard Time,” so if we were meeting at 10 am Pacific Daylight Saving Time before, we would meet at 10 am Pacific Standard Time now.


Sorry I was so obviously lurking yesterday, but my current internet connection is so fragile, when I even think about unmuting, it kicks me off and logs back in, which happened about nine times yesterday. Next time I should be back in my usual environment, hopefully with a more stable connection.

There is one question I have, especially since the discussion never got around to the topic – which is fine: that’s one of the reasons we have these threads in addition to the synchronous sessions. And it is this: what makes Alexander’s et al. architectural building-block-design system a “language”?

(Of course, I don’t really understand why we call programming languages “languages”, as they are, in my mind at best, coding systems, and this is especially true for all SGML and its derivatives which are even further removed from what I think of when I hear the word “language”, namely tagging systems.)

I get a vague metaphorical connection, but I’m obviously missing something, or overlooking something significant or important, which is probably why I am having trouble getting my head around the notion. Any and all assistance would be greatly appreciated.


This is a set of questions, Ed, that are not quite clear to me. Can I clarify for you what is ambiguous to perhaps to both of us? Probably not but I might be wrong about that.

My initial response is to shrug my shoulders, to contract my brows, and to sigh…, I find the questions you offer to be kind of well-fuzzy-, a set of questions nested in other kinds of questions.

I ask myself-

And when code, how do you know code?

And when language, how do you know language?

And how would I know if Ed determines code from language in ways that are different from myself, or different from the group, or different from another group?
Heck if I know…

A house that has bedrooms on a ground floor, that have doors open up to a shared garden, is more pleasant to lots of people than a barracks style sleeping arrangement and that is a kind of pattern that is found in many architectural plans for patrons who can afford such a living arrangement . Having an open toilet in the kitchen area would be rejected. These could be considered habits but may have more to do with how we behave and function socially. Alexander would call these designs much like tropes in literature. Go figure…

I once had a client and we were working with memory and I asked her to describe her bedroom when she was a child. She looked at with surprise and said," I didn’t have a bedroom when I was a child."

I was startled and asked her to clarify. She said," We lived in a tent. There were no bedrooms and no running water. We had a well in the center of the village. I remember when I was naughty and would hide in the well while everyone ran around looking for me." A highly educated woman, with advanced degrees, and a lesbian, raised in Iran, she described how she wore lipstick, as a teenager, and makeup under her veil which were removed when she got to her friends house, where they listened to songs by the Beatles on a stereo , smoked cigarettes and drank booze. She was raised in a tent, in a desert, I was raised in a suburb ,in Texas, and we both identified as gay.

So how do you decide what is signal, what is noise? You can’t have signal without noise. Can the signal become noise? Information theorists talk about ratios between signal and noise… who makes the cut?

We used to play spin the bottle when I was a teen. If the bottle landed on another boy, everyone laughed nervously. This made me feel very weird. When I kissed a girl for the first time ( she had braces) in the spin the bottle game, and was approved of by the group, it felt very weird. What would have happened if the boys were allowed to kiss? That never happened but I can imagine it. The first time I saw two men kiss was outside of a gay bar in Houston. I was shocked and thrilled. I was under aged but I flirted with the bouncer and he let me in. Later, in New York, men wore handkerchiefs in their back pockets. Which pocket in the back indicated sexual preference. When I was a gay lad in Texas if you made a mistake, in reading the code, you ended up dead in a ditch.

1+1=2 This means if you add one plus one you will get two

This is a time signature

This is a capital A. This is also an a.

All Cretans are liars said the Cretan.

This sentence is false.

A man walks by with a t-shirt that says, I’m not gay but my boyfriend is.

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”-Edgar Allen Poe

Thanks for the question, Ed, and I am not confident that I have clarified anything.


Well, I agree, John, that my question is a bit fuzzy. I guess what I’m really driving at is what you ask in your last question: what is a language? what constitutes a language?

There are codes, yes, but I used the word really specifically in relation to what we call computer languages. An alternative way of describing what a programmer does is “coding”. That’s how it got in there. But what makes Python or C++ or Lisp languages? What is it about them that makes us say they are languages of some kind?

I want to thank you for you effort at responding at all, John. Maybe what I’m asking is what makes a language a language? how do we recognize a language when we see one? how do we know it is a language and not something else? And I’m not sure there are clearly definable criteria or simple answers to those questions. That’s why I was wondering what others think. You’ve been helpful, John. I have more and different impulses to think about.


And this is perhaps when we have to ‘go meta’.

And what language do we use to explore language with? Some kind of language about language.

And what is the relationship between language and communication? This is when the distinction between verbal and non-verbal become important as what is said is not the same as what is meant. Raising an eyebrow during a speech acct can negate what a person actually says.

If he says, " l love you" ( verbal) as he shake his head from side to side( a non-verbal gesture indicating no ) the communication might be considered incongruent. Bateson said a woman should listen not to what a potential lover says but to how he says it. The gesture is a meta-message. Or is it a para-message?

And what do dictionaries use to define a concept with? Words,words, and more words…

Syntax, semantics, and pragmatics overlap in ways that can’t be easily separated and put in different buckets. Definitions may give us some temporary comfort but the history of word usage would not give us much hope for anything like certainty. The complexity of translation from one language to the next boggles the mind.

Speech is structured breath. You can’t speak without tongue.

The deaf use sign. Is sign a language? Yes. It has a syntax.

Both deaf and hearing persons can write sentences. Deaf persons can compose poetry. When blind people speak they use gestures, too. So what is the relationship between analogue and digital?

So we can have visual and verbal language. And what about what non-humans do?

"The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge." Hamlet


You know how much I love that :crazy_face:, but I suppose you’re right.

We certainly use language for that purpose, but human language, at any rate, is not limited to communication only. All the additional features you mention are very relevant and certainly part of the whole “language package”, if you will. But human language, at any rate, goes beyond that and includes things like culture as well. We shouldn’t forget that there are language cultures in which shaking one’s head from side to side means “yes” and nodding means “no”. Even my qualification “human” restricts the discussion, or at least redirects in a specific way. (Whereby I personally think signing is language … at least much more so than, say, C++.)

Yes, John, what about what they do? I’m wondering myself; it’s one of the motivators behind my question-complex.

Again, John, thanks for the additional impulses.


Yes, and if I am not mistaken, culture has something to do with one town that puts applesauce on noodles and one town doesn’t. We explored these differences in the Axial Age conference, a very interesting exchange occurred in those episodes.

Culture are the rules we don’t know that we are obeying. When we violate the unspoken rules we usually get non-verbal messages, like the snotty waiter in a formal restaurant looks down at you if you pick up the wrong spoon to eat your soup with.

We do this with language as well. This is what Lisa was pointing to when she referred to invisible architecture. When you walk into a room you know what to do and what not to do in that room When a person makes mistakes then we worry that they are mentally disturbed. I have had to stop an elder person with dementia from urinating in a potted plant. The inability to figure out this hidden structure is the first sign of cognitive impairment. And there may be very deep structuring happening between logic, math, music and language that we have yet to figure out.


Let me take a stab at this question by relating it to writing. The alphabet has 26 letters, which are the basic building blocks of words, sentences, texts…
Alexander et al devised an alphabet of 253 patterns (at various scales, which is a bit different from the alphabet, in which there isn’t really a scale difference among the letters, only a difference in frequency of use, way their corresponding sounds are made, etc). Perhaps the patterns function more at the “word” level than the letter level.
To convey some meaning, we use various rules and suggestions to combine different words. Similarly, to build something using Alexander’s pattern-words, there are fewer rules but some correlative patterns, ie, patterns that generally work together well. You can customize the patterns that you want to put together, within reason. It might be hard to put some of the patterns together, much as it wouldn’t work (in English, say) to put together a word like “sgmtz” or a sentence like “outside television pasta Sheila baby swimingly.”

If it helps, rather, to think of it like a game rather than like a language, that might help it make more sense. The “sentences” you construct with it will enable you to construct something in the world, from a patio to a city to a nation.

Hope this helps!


Just saw this video
Remember when I led you through a meditation down through the scales of your body, from skin into the cells, into the DNA, into the molecules, atoms, strings (or whatever) down to the energetic? This video takes you on a similar journey in and back again. It’s not very long…

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Actually, it is very helpful, thank you.

As with computer “languages”, I get the metaphorical connection, but it was the actual connection that I was stumbling over. I suppose, by accepted convention, I will have to refer to things that aren’t actually languages as such because we’ve come to accept this particularly loose connotation of the word to describe things that are sorta-kinda-language like.

That’s fine. I think I’ve got it sorted for myself now.

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FYI, From the desk dust jacket of A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.

“Patterns,” the units of this language , are answers to design problems (how high should a window sill be? how many stories should a building have? how much space in a neighborhood should be devoted to grass and trees?). More than 250 of the patterns in this pattern language are given: each consists of a problem statement , a discussion of the problem with an illustration, and a solution. As the authors say in their introduction, many of the patterns are archetypal, so deeply rooted in the nature of things that it seems likely that they will be a part of human nature, and human action, as much in 500 years as they are today.

Alexander also has a 4 volume series called The Nature of Order where he expands on his ideas and applies it to building and to the cosmos. His book A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art: The Color and Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets is interesting for its exploration of how ‘wholeness’ is created through art and ties closely with religious belief. It is a kind of deconstruction and reconstruction of how the art is created.

For example,
“In fact the greatest and earliest traditions of textile art all occupy themselves with precisely that geometric problem which appears throughout the carpets in this book-- the creation of profound, even spiritual space, purely from the interplay of forms, and the creation of form, in which form alone, form, geometry, and color, produce feelings, the identification of wholeness or a being, and the close connection with the human self (Alexander 1993:88).”

My opinion is the work links strongly with the discussion in this thread and those previously that have considered consciousness, psychology, Gebser and art.



I ran across this in an article on Roger Penrose,

" Penrose remained friends with Hawking, but took a different path, working alone on a wide variety of challenges, usually at the interface of mathematics and physics. The relationship between the two disciplines has long fascinated Penrose. In essence**, they are both about patterns: mathematics is about patterns of ideas, whereas physics about the underlying order of the universe**, the patterns connecting quantities that observers can measure quantitatively."

“As do all mathematically-minded researchers in physics, Penrose values above all beauty in a new theory, whether or not it appears at first to account for observations and measurements.”

So one could surmise that Husserl’s phenomenology (strong math background; influence on Gebser) and also Alexander’s patterns in architecture and art are types of language?

from the article Footnotes to Plato | Roger Penrose: Beauty above all (

And there is also this to contemplate: “Among Penrose’s dozens of other contributions to mathematical physics, the most radical is twistor theory, a new approach to fundamental physics. Twistors are mathematical objects – Penrose still calls them his “babies” – from which ordinary space and time emerge as secondary concepts”


Penrose also loved Escher. I heard him speak about the paradox of self-reflexivity as the I/ eye moves between the levels within Escher’s weird psychescapes. There are many interesting connections between the boundaries explored by art, physics, and language.