Thursday, February 2, 2012

as Imperial to measure, English to language

D - this Monday, I went to visit my sister and her family. Like most (OK, all) people, he was curious about my interest in aux-langs, particularly in international world languages. Like most (OK, all) people, he was not sold by any of the arguments I had for an IAL.
We agreed to disagree about whether the economic decline of the English-speaking nations would lead to a decline in the prestige and use of English as the de-facto international business language. After all, India and China have both invested much training in their elite learning English. He also seemed to think that the low per-capita income of those nations would also impact on the language issue.
He asked how successful the transition from Imperial to Metric has been, as an example of how difficult changing a nation's habits can be. Well, OK, let's talk about measurement systems.
In the following discussion, look at the parallels between Imperial and English.
We have a clumsy, entangled, confusing measuring system! And it not only confuses the rest of the world - no, it perplexes Americans themselves!
Which is more, 2 quarts, 5 pints or 36 fl oz? How many pints are in a gallon? How many pounds are 200 ounces?
Then you have a problem - a problem called English Imperial system.

D - the site goes on about the arguments in USA for Imperial.
1) it works just fine
2) it's our heritage (no, it's British - you revolted against them!)
3) the rest of the world tries to make us use Metric
4) we aren't joiners like those Metric nations
5) Imperical MAKES the USA great
6) Imperial is natural where metric is arbitrary
Note: I've admitted for human anatomy that I prefer Imperial units.
Stones for weight. Feet for height. Inches for y'know... heh.
7) other nations who adopt Metric still use other systems
D - kinda - However, all of these units can be scaled to SI units by powers of 10, i.e. just by shifting the decimal point (1 bar = 100,000 pascal, 1 hectare = 10,000 m², 1 ton = 1,000 kg, 1 quintal = 100kg). Also, all non-metric units have been redefined to exact metric values, e.g. 1 pound = 500g, 1 pint = 500ml.
D - I confess to perpetual confusion about tons and tonnes.
8) Metric nations use Imperial measures
But — the so-called inch pipe names are nominal numbers that do not reflect an actual size. There is nothing 1/2 inch about a half-inch pipe. In fact there are different standards for pipe sizes depending on whether it is water pipe, gas pipe, or electrical conduit. Half-inch water pipe is really 16 mm inside diameter and 18 mm outside diameter. Neither of these comes close to 1/2 inch.
And after all even these are dying standards based on outdated traditions.
9) well USA has the highest standard of living
D - nope. Luxembourg does. EU. Metric.
10) we don't NEED Metric.
And, what's the main point, do you know what the exact, official U.S. definition of inch, pound and gallon is since 1959? Now listen:
1 inch = 25.4 millimeters - All the English Imperial units are actually defined by metric units! The English system is just a tumor on the metric system!


D - you get the idea. I read a review of factors that count against the USA economy. I think Imperial measures rated in the top 4.
D - for example, they lost a Mars mission that way.
The primary cause of this discrepancy was human error. Specifically, the flight system software on the Mars Climate Orbiter was written to calculate thruster performance using the metric unit Newtons (N), while the ground crew was entering course correction and thruster data using the Imperial measure Pound-force (lbf). This error has since been known as the metric mixup and has been carefully avoided in all missions since by NASA.

D - the obvious riposte here is that this was only a problem since most other nations use Metric. However, Metric and decimal concepts were adopted in single nations without this. Why: BETTER.

Metric Mil-dot formula
Users of the metric system, (which includes most of the world's military forces by whom this system was developed), can much more easily use a Mil-dot reticle since the mental arithmetic is much simpler. It is always decimal.
To determine the distance or range to a target of known size at an unknown distance this formula can be applied (easy 1).

Around the time of the start of World War I, France was experimenting with the use of milliemes (circle/6400) for use with artillery sights instead of decigrades (circle/4000). The United Kingdom was also trialling them to replace degrees and minutes. They were adopted by France although decigrades also remained in use throughout World War I. Other nations also used decigrades. The United States, which copied many French artillery practices, adopted mils (circle/6400). After the Bolshevik Revolution and the adoption of the metric system of measurement (e.g. artillery replaced 'units of base' with metres) the Red Army expanded the 600 unit circle into a 6000 mil one, hence the Russian mil has nothing to do with milliradians as its origin.

In the 1950s, NATO adopted metric units of measurement for land and general use. Mils, metres and kilograms became standard, although degrees remained in use for naval and air purposes, reflecting civil practices.


D - whence came Metric? France.

In 1790, in the midst of the French Revolution, the National Assembly of France requested the French Academy of Sciences to “deduce an invariable standard for all the measures and all the weights.” The Commission appointed by the Academy created a system that was, at once, simple and scientific. The unit of length was to be a portion of the Earth's circumference. Measures for capacity (volume) and mass were to be derived from the unit of length, thus relating the basic units of the system to each other and to nature. Furthermore, larger and smaller multiples of each unit were to be created by multiplying or dividing the basic units by 10 and its powers. This feature provided a great convenience to users of the system, by eliminating the need for such calculations as dividing by 16 (to convert ounces to pounds) or by 12 (to convert inches to feet).

D - reminds me of the ratios between cosmological constants.

Although the metric system was not accepted with enthusiasm at first, adoption by other nations occurred steadily after France made its use compulsory in 1840.

The standardized structure and decimal features of the metric system made it well suited for scientific and engineering work. Consequently, it is not surprising that the rapid spread of the system coincided with an age of rapid technological development. In the United States, by Act of Congress in 1866, it became “lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system in all contracts, dealings or court proceedings.”

D - this is not an early-adopter quandary. This is an an innovation, paying dividends to whoever commits first.

Metric system
Main articles: History of the metric system, Mesures usuelles, and Units of measurement in France
The official introduction of the metric system in September 1799 was unpopular in large sections of French society, and Napoleon's rule greatly aided adoption of the new standard across not only France but the French sphere of influence. Napoleon ultimately took a retrograde step in 1812 when he passed legislation to introduce the mesures usuelles (traditional units of measurement) for retail trade[89] – a system of measure that resembled the pre-revolutionary units but were based on the kilogram and the metre; for example the livre metrique (metric pound) was 500 g[90] instead of 489.5 g – the value of the livre du roi (the king's pound).[91] Other units of measure were rounded in a similar manner. This however laid the foundations for the definitive introduction of the metric system across Europe in the middle of the 19th century.[92]
D- the Brits still resist Metric as foreign also.


D - so what is my point? My point is that a reformed measurement unit provided significant advantages within a single nation (or national sphere of influence, including colonies) even without any other faction joining. The other factions were not pushed- they were PULLED. By the same factors that led France to adopt Metric in isolation in the first place.
(Aside- part of the reason the French people did not like it is cuz their week was changed to a 10-day 1 at 1 point, resulting in 1/10th of days being holy days of rest versus 1 in 7. Big surprise there. )

While growing up with Imperial presumably leads to a greater ability to perform complex arithmetic in 1's head, in the age of the calculator, that really amounts to being an idiot savant. Time is wasted on overly-complex calculations when the student could have instead progressed to grasping a more complex math formula. The MEDIUM of math obscures the MESSAGE of useful ways to apply math to real-life solutions.

Language is the same. The first faction (city, state, nation, regional faction, even corporation) that adopts a language that is as superior to English (or any other) as Metric is to Imperial has a competitive advantage.
Here in Canada, we waste huge resources with half-hearted efforts to teach French to Anglos in our officially bilingual nation. Other than a few annoying language-savvy academic pedants who are gifted, I know almost nobody who can speak French despite wasting 100s if not 1000s of hours of school time 'studying' it.

We know the advantage of
1) superior # naming conventions. It puts kids with the right linguistic background about a YEAR ahead of kids from other 1s.
2) superior orthography. The Finns start YEARS later yet end up YEARS ahead on spelling and reading.
3) at least for a childhood first language, complexity and nuance are not the problem (e.g. Turkish complex infixes), irregularity and exceptions are.

D - I find grammar and syntax and punctuation errors in ALL my national media! Globe&Mail, CBC, all of them. It's too hard for the professionals! What about the rest of us?

I keep hearing echoes of Sapir's aux-lang sentiments here. If somebody designs a language as superior to English as Metric is to Imperial, then any group adopting it has innovated and has a competitive edge.
For example, here in Canada we have a big push for trained immigrants. We just tell ourselves we'll pick those who already speak English - problem solved, right? Well we're pretty high on the hog right now, but aren't always. Plus define "speak English" for me. Basic literacy, sure. But fluent? And almost never like a native speaker. (I have a slight auditory processing problem, and get tripped up rapidly by accents.)
The first nation to adopt a supplemental aux-lang will be able to finally make rapid use of all those talented and trained foreign speaking immigrants in short order.
I suspect an inter-aux-lang (IAL - I am too lazy to type International Auxiliary Language every time) will result in the first time here in Canada that a citizen will be understood from coast to coast.
It would also provide the option to learn only 1 additional language. While childhood immersion does not require this, consider the profile of the typical adult immigrant. Not much of a polyglot. Not particularly academically inclined. Not particularly interested in learning language for its own sake. An adult brain changes the nature of language learning. Trapped on the outside of the national culture of their new home by the bizarre quirks of their natural language. Wanting to work, but finding doors shut since they cannot communicate fluently in this new tongue. Unable to blend in, even if they want to, always somewhat the outsider since their accent gives them away, as well as a poor grasp of any of a million little mistakes they'll make while over-regularizing, like a child initially acquiring their mother tongue.
We could have our pick of a world full of economic talent - if only we had some way to make communication accessible.

So that's the challenge. To design "the Metric of the language world" ... wish me luck.

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