Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Symbols, rules and subgroups...


Languages are formed by a combination of symbols and rules. Individuals that have a common knowledge of these two components can communicate while those that do not are excluded. Most widely used languages share very similar symbols and rules simply because the types of communication needed are common across cultures and societies. Groups that differ in the number of common symbols tend to exist in different environments while groups that differ in the number of rules tend to have different relationships to the environments in which they live. (bigger versions)

The core set of symbols and rules that form a language are simply those that are needed to be a member of a group. Complete mastery and understanding of all the components of a language is rare and most individuals tend to use a highly restricted subset of a given language. The specifics of language usage and ability are almost always sufficient to uniquely identify an individual.

When a group of individuals decide that they would like to communicate with each other in a way that excludes other members of a society that group the symbols and/or the rules must be changed in a way that is unknown to the greater society. It is possible that both can be changed, and thereby creating a new language, but this is time consuming, inefficient and unnecessary.

Changing symbols could be the creation of a something novel or changing the meaning of a common symbol. It is common for adolescents to add new meanings to words that only their particular social group understands (when I was young we must have had over 50 different meanings for the word "dude" and seemed to greatly enjoy finding as many new situations where that word (that symbol) could be used to mean something else - understood only by us). Restricting communication to a subgroup by changing symbols requires special knowledge of the individuals in that subgroup and is not necessarily easy to explain to a new member of the group (because each member of a group may have a slightly different understanding of what a symbol means to another).

Changing rules is usually the addition of a new rule to the set of rules already in use. Probably the most familiar is the "decoder ring" which does a simple letter displacement function on a message. By reversing this function prior to following the normal rules of a language the meaning from the symbols can be extracted. It is far easier to add new members to a subgroup by changing a rule rather than changing symbols because the rules (unlike symbols) are an abstract idea that means exactly the same thing to everyone.

Things get much more interesting when we have a subset of people that want to communicate privately and clearly with no possible misunderstanding of the messages exchanged. Or, when a member of a subgroup needs to decide whether an unknown individual is also a member of the subgroup (this is important to consider since changing symbols and rules is a secret known only by the subgroup and if that information leaks, the privacy is lost). Things get even more interesting when those individuals wish to add or remove other individuals from communicating with a subgroup that already exists.

Perhaps the most interesting things come from the excluded group that wishes to understand the private communications of the subgroup...