The Exception, Not the Rule

The Exception, Not the Rule

Chatbots turn human language into coded abstractions. There is nothing particularly new about this abstract coding, however. Writing as we know it goes back to the wedge-shaped signs impressed on clay tablets in Sumeria, Mesopotamia and Ugarit back in 3100–2900 BC. The alphabet we use in the modern world today emerged from ancient Near East scripts, cuneiform and hieroglyphics, that is, from pictograms that eventually became letters.

Sumerian cuneiform tablet – administrative account concerning the distribution of barley and emmer, ca. 3100–2900 BC. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Cuneiform was a way of abstracting concepts, drawing up lists of gods, laws, slaves, recipes and produce, and conserving them as records. Amazing how so many tablets have been discovered and deciphered.

What is new about chatbots is the vast, unending scale of language combinations in the form of automated and coded abstraction. There may come a time when we prefer the simulacrum (the chatbot), the sign or representation of people and things, to real people and things themselves.

Writing systems are based on coded abstractions, but spoken language is anything but abstract

I mentioned in a previous blog that I hear language, even on the written page, as a series of voices. Language, as spoken in Quebec, is anything but an abstraction. This is true of French, English and also Indigenous languages. Spoken language is rooted in specific places; it is textured by accents and idioms; it brings to mind a panorama of references to survival, identity and belonging, to the legacy of experience, memory and culture, to the wellspring of creation. When I think of the way Québécois like to use colourful regional slang, from the Beauce to the Saguenay regions, this panorama of references includes self-deprecating, endearing humour.

Borrowings from other languages also reflect power relationships between communities: an example is joual, the working-class French Quebec idiom which has borrowed many English technical words, such as breakeur, tank and windshield, given that the Industrial Revolution was introduced and controlled in Quebec by English-speaking magnates.

I remember interviewing an Inuk lady once, with her friend, on the shores of Hudson Strait in northern Quebec. I think it was in Kangiqsujuaq, once known as Wakeham Bay. This interview gave me some insight into power relationships as conveyed by the choice of language. The lady said, with her friend acting as interpreter, that she was willing to tell me about traumatic abuse in a residential school, but only if the interview were conducted in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. Why? Because after leaving the residential school, she had vowed never to speak a word of English again, for as long as she lived! The interpreter translated my questions into Inuktitut, a language I do not speak, and helped me pronounce the words properly. Then the interpreter translated the answers, so I could understand. The vow the lady had made, never to speak English again, spoke volumes!

Accents can situate a person geographically. When I speak French, people sometimes ask what region or country I come from. Am I from Montreal, Belgium or Denmark? My answer is that I speak Radio-Canadien, a dialect spoken on radio and television. But accents are actually fluid, and my own accents in English as in French change periodically, depending on my mood, circumstances, concentration, fatigue, and the person I am speaking to.

Dead languages (like Latin) are well and truly dead, but living languages continually renew themselves

When reporting in French Guiana years ago, I learned that créole as spoken there is une langue verte, which I would translate less as a green language than as a language continually renewing itself.

Here we are at the dawn of a new age: the age of generative AI. How are writers and translators ever going to be able to keep up with the effortless mass production of words by chatbots?

I mentioned in a recent blog that artisan-creators may be swamped by generative AI, just as the horse was outmoded as a form of transport, although we still admire horses for their grace and energy.

Yet I wonder: perhaps in the act of creation itself, there is an element of defiance. We humans will never have the mental capacity or the time to generate endless text by scanning 200 million websites. We have our limits, and there is nothing wrong with that. We are the exception, not the rule.

The attention of creators to survival, identity and belonging, to the legacy of experience, memory and culture, to the wellspring of creation, means we are able to respect the intentions and perspectives of real living people in ways that I do not believe chatbots ever could. We do not simply regurgitate content mindlessly, expressing ourselves in a vacuum, as if we were in outer space: by communicating we interact with other people, here and now.

Perhaps in the act of creation itself, there is an element of defiance …


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