The Universality of the Semantic Field
Ludwig von Mises said in his classic “Human Action” that as soon as Marx understood the robust rationality of the arguments of the classical economists, he began a frontal attack against the logical reasoning itself. The classical Marxists tried to prove that social science and science in general were a cultural creation designed to keep the class structure, and a new social class as the proletariat was, needed a new logic. Since then, “polylogism”, that is, the theory that different human groups have different kind of logic has been a growing cultural industry.
The most powerful form of polilogism still alive is the linguistic polilogism. The most developed form of linguistic polilogism is the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, which states that every language represents a different vision of the world, and that strong syntactic differences make mutual understanding impossible. In fact the most perfect description of the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis could be “every translation is a form misunderstanding”.
Surprisingly, the most powerful enemy of this form of post-modern nihilism was Noam Chomsky. The Chomskyan Universal Grammar was supposed to be a normalized set of underlying syntactic rules that all the languages in the world had in common. The Chomskians considered that beyond the exuberant variety of syntactic structures, there were a few deep rules, which were the real grammar beyond grammar. The equivalence relations of these rules were the Rosetta stone of linguistics. Moreover, for chomskian linguists, the deep syntactic rules were biologically determined.
The empirical support for biological determinism of language has grown in the last years, and there is also an increasing evidence of the natural ability to create syntactic structures. For example, an study of the hybrid languages of the first generation of Antillean slaves proved that slave children created those hybrid languages on the spot.
But the existence of the universal grammar is nowadays not accepted by the majority of linguists. On the other hand the experience of every bilingual speaker (even if you become bilingual in your adulthood, as it is my case) is that translation is possible. So, different languages are not different worldviews.
If not syntactic rules, what do all languages have in common? For me, as a mathematician, long time (ago) involved with logic and model theory, the answer is clear: the semantic field is what all human languages have in common. The translation is something that doesn’t happen between syntactic structures, but between semantic objects. Precisely the difficulties to build high-quality automatic translators come from the fact that translation is not a syntactic but a semantic operation. And I fear our programs are still not manipulating semantic objects: that is, programs don’t understand.
When I say “the semantic field is universal”, I don’t mean that all human beings have the same semantic field in their brains: of course the size and form of the semantic field depends on the cultural background. What I mean is that given two individuals, native speakers of different languages, both of their semantic fields could be extended to contain the semantic objects of the other’s field. That is, the semantic field is not language-dependent.
I could try to prove this strong anti-Shapir-Wharf hypothesis; but the evidence is so overwhelming that I cannot choose where to begin: bilinguism, perfect translations, and literarian influence between languages... (for example, the style of Borges in Spanish is a beautiful mix of Gibbon and Lovecraft.)
I think that as soon as the semantic field universality hypothesis is clearly stated, it becomes obvious. Only the interests of linguistic nationalists and the nihilist preferences of some academics, keep the (racist) Sapir-Wharf hypothesis alive.
The universality of the semantic field has a beautiful literary consequence, I cannot resist discussing: high quality literature should not be written with phonetic regularities or rhythms, but with mental images. Valuable literature is always universal; this implies a sort of Platonism.
Take the beginning of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar “Lend me ears, Roman citizens”. The beauty of the statement comes not from the sound, but from the intellectually stimulating metaphor. The greatest example of perfectly translatable literature is the Bible, which keeps its beauty in all languages; this is not a accident: the biblical text is not written with sounds , but with a rhythmic flow of ideas and a powerful collection of literary archetypes. It is poetry, but not rhythmic poetry.
Unlike the Koran, which is devastated by the translation.