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Usability of Language

February 14th, 2009

With many of our researchers currently working on Natural Language Processing coursework, the subject of the usability aspects of different languages is a reasonable topic for exploration.

There are a number of different qualities that add to the usability of language in people’s day to day lives. One of them is learnability and ambiguity of various word forms. One of my pet issues has always been English’s reliance on the inclusion of the letter’s ‘c’, ‘k’, and ‘x’, when a combination of two of these would suffice by eliminating the ‘c’ glyph entirely and replacing it with k and s when appropriate, and replacing the glyph for the ‘ch’ phoeneme with the original one, ‘x’. (The ‘x’ glyph has essentially zero places where it cannot be replaced by another letter).

Compactness isn’t everything when it comes to language, however. The graphical representation of languages, and the manner in which different written elements of a language come together, is another important aspect of using languages in modern computing environments. Block alphabet written languages, like Latin derivatives, have an extremely convenient way in which words are constructed compared to pictographic language sets, like brahmic alphabets.

In fact, the impact of this convenience in computing has arguably affected the progression of some languages. Most alphabets have shown a progression towards simplifying the set of glyphs available. This especially impacts languages like Spanish, which has constructs like individual ‘letters’ comprised of multiple letter glyphs, but also some languages like English, which used to share more of the stresses and notations of the languages from which it derived.

Do these potential changes increase the usability of languages, or decrease their ease of use, or breadth of expressiveness? One of the anti-patterns of user interface design is pigeonholing unique constructs into generic interfaces. Is reducing alphabets merely following the same pattern? Or perhaps the need of computers to limit their input options will help hone languages by removing extraneous features. I’d easily take the spelling “Klayton” if it meant I didn’t have to explain the intricacies of “ch”, “ca”, “ci” all using the same letter to my kids someday.

- ctsims

  1. February 14th, 2009 at 22:36 | #1

    Have you read “A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling”?

    http://everything2.com/e2node/A%2520Plan%2520for%2520the%2520Improvement%2520of%2520English%2520Spelling

  2. February 14th, 2009 at 22:37 | #2
  3. February 16th, 2009 at 18:01 | #3

    @Daniel - Thanks for sharing the link, it’s good stuff. I guess that trying to engineer cultural creations like language is an interesting balance between the useful and the comical.

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