A language is a semiotic system, or a system for creating meaning that includes a spoken and written language. In the West, the oral language includes forty sounds with various intonations that describe well the relationship between the speaker and his or her daily environment, while the written language is based on an alphabet of 26 Latin letters and a very complex grammar. The grammar serves to control the medium.

Language is more than a tool. Combined with culture, it is the foundation upon which people develop identity and a sense of belonging. It is not only a gift from our ancestors, but it is regenerated as each new generation discovers its place in the world. Today there are about 6,000 languages ​​in the world. Because they are living systems, they are mutating and in some cases may even disappear. Language has always had several functions :

  • Articulating our universe in the form of information, that is to say describing, cataloguing and storing knowledge of our environment.
  • Strengthening links between individuals belonging to the same clan.
  • Serving as an instrument of governance.

Historical references

– 50,000 years ago : the first oral code was probably accompanied by a significant gesture. The first sounds used were undoubtedly linked to sounds found in the physical environment (rain, thunder, wind).

– 10,000 years ago : speaking was learned by heart: lists of gods, genealogies, etc. This form of « memory storage » became very important for shamans (for rituals), poets (sagas telling of the origins of the group) and the rulers (trade agreements with neighboring states).

– 3200 years ago : oral communication was codified in cuneiform or Egyptian pictographs. These drawings borrowed objects from the environment (door, animals, tools, etc.), and sometimes represent sounds.

– 1350 : appearance of the alphabet, which is a real revolution. Thousands of ideograms are replaced by thirty phonetic signs.

1440 : the style guide which (with printing) multiplies and disseminates existing content (Greek and Roman).

1905 : cinematic code; images in motion while silent film eventually transitions to speaking.

1950 : the television code and large continental electronic networks of distribution ; shows are translated and subtitled in several languages ​​at once.

2007 : the new media-based writing used by mobile devices requires a new interactive code and consumers who « borrow » the ideographic markers of environment and oral culture (chapter 5, no 9).

At each stage, an individual’s brain has to become more plastic and fluid, or more open than ever before to exploration and innovation :

  • if the invention of writing has confronted us with our memory ;
  • printing forced us to become a reader ;
  • cinema has made us a dreamer ;
  • television showed us our global village ;
  • the computer has converted us into content editors ;
  • the Internet makes us active citizens of cyberspace.

Technological milestones

1945 Memex of Vennevar Bush (see below)
1966 Eliza, a psychotherapy simulation program written by Joseph Weizenbaum.
1967 Logo (Seymour Papert), a reflective object-oriented programming language.
1980 WYSIWYG – the Look and Feel of Apple.
1990 Language introducing CSS style sheets.
1990 Deep Blue, IBM, the first computer chess world champion (1997)
1995 Mosaic browser.
1994 Yahoo.
1998 Semantic Web, Tim BernerLee (W3C).
2004 Web 2.0.
2007 Appearance of a new, more visual media language.
2011 Watson of IBM, artificial intelligence program presented at a Jeopardy.

In an article written in 1945, Vannevar Bush described a system called Memex in which he portrayed an office with screens on top and a library of texts and films inside. This concept gave birth to the mouse (Douglas Engelbart – 1963), which inspired the coming of the Apple II (1977) and hypertext Ted Nelson (1965), and ultimately is responsible for the arrival of the web (1989), etc.

This is Memex :

The language industries

The language-training and translation industries are flourishing around the globe. In 2000 revenues associated with human translation were reported to be $11 billion, with machine translation $134 million and for translation software more than $1 billion. (Report of the Canadian Association of Language Industries, 2000)

This is an industry that evolves as needs appear in society :

Several recent studies indicate that English occupies a super-central position globally and that French, Spanish and German languages ​​are also key central languages. But Hindi and Arabic, although very widely spoken are surprisingly peripheral.

In the 21st century, the centrality of language is no longer related to demography or geography, but rather connectivity (electronic distribution networks, translation or academic research). See Weber Study 1990, the Index Translationum UNESCO from 1979 to 2013, the study Calvet 2012, the Bloomberg Agency Study, 2011 and that of the MIT Media Lab, 2014.

After 2020 (?)

Most of the research is currently focused on mastering the complexity of natural language in order to develop more effective digital tools, tools that are closer to the user. For example : a computer that can understand a user’s natural language or a system that learns based on its interactions with the user (machine learning).

See the example of IBM Watson project :

This server uses 2800 processors which, in milliseconds, processes millions of films, texts and encyclopedias and other using 6,000 common-sense rules. It is a forecasting system based on statistical judgments.

Watson DeepQA system combines several technologies : natural language processing, semantic analysis, information retrieval, machine learning and automated reasoning :