Monday, August 25, 2014

Name that Þing

[Image credits Ria Novosti, source]
As teenager I switched between the fantasy and science fiction aisle of the local library, but in the end it was science fiction that won me over.

The main difference between the genres seemed the extent to which authors bothered to come up with explanations. The science fiction authors, they bent and broke the laws of Nature but did so consistently, or at least tried to. Fantasy writers on the other hand were just too lazy to work out the rules to begin with.

You could convert Harry Potter into a science fiction novel easily enough. Leaving aside gimmicks such as moving photos that are really yesterday’s future, call the floo network a transmitter, the truth serum a nanobot liquid, and the invisibility cloak a shield. Add some electric buzz, quantum vocabulary, and alien species to it. Make that wooden wand a light saber and that broom an X-wing starfighter, and the rest is a fairly standard story of the Other World, the Secret Clan, and the Chosen One learning the rules of the game and the laws of the trade, of good and evil, of friendship and love.

The one thing that most of the fantasy literature has which science fiction doesn’t have, and which has always fascinated me, is the idea of an Old Language, the idea that there is a true name for every thing and every place, and if you know the true name you have power over it. Speaking in the Old Language always tells the truth. If you speak the Old Language, you make it real.

This idea of the Old Language almost certainly goes back to our ancestor’s fights with an often hostile and unpredictable nature threatening their survival. The names, the stories, the gods and godzillas, they were their way of understanding and managing the environment. They were also the precursor to what would become science. And don’t we in physics today still try to find the true name of some thing so we have power over it?

Aren’t we still looking for the right words and the right language? Aren’t we still looking for the names to speak truth to power, to command that what threatens us and frightens us, to understand where we belong, where we came from, and where we go to? We call it dark energy and we call it dark matter, but these are not their true names. We call them waves and we call them particles, but these are not their true names. Some call the thing a string, some call it a graph, some call it a bit, but as Lee Smolin put it so nicely, none of these words quite has a “ring of truth” to it. These are not the real names.

Neil Gaiman’s recent fantasy novel “The Ocean at the End of the Road” also draws on the idea of an Old Language, of a truth below the surface, a theory of everything which the average human cannot fathom because they do not speak the right words. In Michael Ende’s “Neverending Story” that what does not have a true name dies and decays to nothing. (And of course Ende has a Chosen One saving the world from that no-thing.) It all starts and it all ends with our ability to name that what we are part of.

You don’t get a universe from nothing of course. You can get a universe from math, but the mathematical universe doesn’t come from nothing either, it comes from Max Tegmark, that is to say some human (for all I can tell) trying to find the right words to describe, well, everything - no point trying to be modest about it. Tegmark, incidentally, also seems to speak at least ten different languages or so, maybe that’s not a coincidence.

The evolution of language has long fascinated historians and neurologists alike. Language is more than assigning a sound to things and things you do with things. Language is a way to organize thought patterns and to classify relations, if in a way that is frequently inconsistent and often confusing. But the oldest language of all is neither Sindarin nor Old Norse, it is, for all we can tell, the language of math in which the universe was written. You can call it temperature anisostropy, or tropospheric ozone precursors, you can call it neurofibrillary tangle or reverse transcriptase, you can call them Bárðarbunga or Eyjafjallajökull - in the end their true names were written in math.


  1. "if you know the true name you have power over it"

    Vernor Vinge, True Names
    Samuel Delany, Babel-17
    Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash

  2. Sumerian (3350 BC), in the case of Snow Crash.

  3. I stand corrected :) I never finished Snow Crash. I got stuck on the pizza guy very early on, too much background packed into the first chapters.

  4. I left out a wonderful example, although it's not an old language:

    Ian Watson, The Embedding

    Three of the four books won awards. The fourth (Snow Crash) was nominated for two awards.

  5. And on the other hand, I'd say that only modern works are about "old language". Old Magic was old by itself, and so Old Poems were.

  6. "Tegmark, incidentally, also seems to speak at least ten different languages or so, maybe that’s not a coincidence."

    I've personally spoken Swedish, English, and German with Max. I've heard him speak Portuguese, Spanish and French (all three quite well). Since his new wife is from Romania, he's learning Romanian. He also knows some Russian and Mandarin. This list might not be complete.

  7. An especially elegant exposition, Bee. I nominate Cthulhu. Why vote for the lesser evil? The One Name is the tetragrammaton

    which is uncomfortably close to hν. Alas, Hebrew had no written vowels (OK, maybe an "oo"). Build a voder, pronounce it in all possible ways. When one by one the stars go out, that's the boojum. Then again...

  8. "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name; The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The named is the mother of myriad things.

    Thus, constantly free of desire
    One observes its wonders; Constantly filled with desire
    One observes its manifestations.

    These two emerge together but differ in name. The unity is said to be the mystery; Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.

    - Lao Tzu (

    "Since within this mind of enlightenment there is nothing upon which to meditate, this modality transcends all objects of knowledge. Since within this mind of enlightenment there are no distractions, it is the essence of the radiance itself. This Buddha-body of Reality, the uninterrupted union of radiance and emptiness in which the duality of appearance and emptiness is naturally liberated, becomes manifest this way unattained by the structured path to Buddhahood. Though one were to scan the entire external Universe, searching for the nature of mind, one will not find it. Buddhahood can only be attained through the mind."

    - Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation Through Naked Perception (a wonderful little verse from the Dzogchen tradition)

    Mathematics may be older than old school but it's still a structured transformation system, i.e. a language used to convey information and knowledge. As soon as one engages mathematics, or any other structured transformation system, they become the "Tree of Knowledge." To become the "Tree of Life" one must leave all such limitations behind.

    That said, I'm currently working on a massive art piece right now called: "Universe: Uni - versa: One - body of words."

    Congratulations on winning the essay contest.

    With regards,
    Wes Hansen

  9. Wes,

    Interesting... I don't think I agree that mathematics is necessarily a language to convey information, unless you abuse the words (convey information between t=0 and t=t_1, say). Convey information between whom or what?

    Mathematics as a language is special because, unlike all other languagues which refer to things outside itself, maths is entirely self-referential. It just 'is' information by itself, and not necessarily a channel to convey information, though we arguably use it for this purpose.

    This is what makes math a good candidate for a 'theory of everything' if you believe that there's no distinction between reality and the mathematical description of reality, ie there's no 'fire' that needs to be blown into equations to 'make them real'. Whether or not that is so is at least presently a question nobody knows how to answer.



  10. Another great fantasy saga (for younger readers) that has "true names" and a powerful underlying magical language is "A Wizard of Earthsea." I don't know whether or not Ursula Le Guin was aware of the analogy to mathematics, but it's a good one.

  11. “This is what makes math a good candidate for a 'theory of everything' if you believe that there's no distinction between reality and the mathematical description of reality, ie there's no 'fire' that needs to be blown into equations to 'make them real'. Whether or not that is so is at least presently a question nobody knows how to answer.”

    Hello, my name is Nobody and I am from future. Therefore the answer to the question is obvious. Mathematics is generally a kind of machinery helping to solve problems much more efficiently, sort of “computer” from the pre-computer age. And similar to any other machinery, this one can vary from very advanced to completely broken or deceptive mechanisms (like all those “working” versions of perpetuum mobile or quantum computers today). By the way, I rigorously (mathematically) specify that necessary “fire” of life, which is missing in the ordinary framework, making its structures only unreal and separated “models”, sometimes partially useful, but always fundamentally different from the unified and “breathing” reality. That new mathematics with “fire” is not different from reality (at any level, from now totally causal and unified fundamental physics to biology, consciousness, the humanities and spiritual matters). Time to move from past to future, even in mathematics.

  12. ´And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

    'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

    'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

    'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

    'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

    'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

  13. Brings to mind the Clarke story "the nine billion names of God", where finding the true name of God is the purpose of the universe.

    Also appropriate that you're writing this after having been in Iceland, whose language is the old language, as far as the Nordic countries and the English speaking world are concerned. Well, minus any magic, sadly.

  14. I remember two sf books in which old and ancient language plays an important role.
    One is "Dune" by Frank Herbert, a true classic.
    The other one is "Feersum Endjinn" by Iain M Banks, in which good old English is the "Old Language", and thus is very much fun reading.

  15. A tweet from a friend some minutes ago, about the secret name of Rome:

    "Según Plinio y Macrobio, un tal Valerio Soriano reveló el nombre secreto de Roma (¿a quién?) y murió crucificado por ello."

  16. The old language is Vedic Sanskrit :)

    e.g., in the words of Jonardon Ganeri (emphasis added)

    Quote: ....Some of the more important Hindu philosophers are atheists, arguing that no sacred religious text such as the Veda could be the word of God, since authorship, even divine authorship, implies the logical possibility of error. Whether believed in or not, a personal God does not figure prominently as the source of the idea of the divine, and instead non-theistic concepts of the divine prevail.

    Gary Gutting: What do you mean by “non-theistic” concepts of the divine?

    J.G.: One such concept sees the text of the Veda as itself divine. Its language, on this view, has a structure that is prior to and isomorphic with the structure of the world and its grammar is complete (although parts may have been lost over the centuries). The divinity of the text inverts the order of priority between text and author: Now, at best, assignment of authorship is a cataloging device not the identification of origin. Recitation of the text is itself a religious act.

    End quote

  17. A lot of creative writing lately on this blog. If this is too long I put it up as a note on my facebook.

    * * * *

    The Sagicorn explored the known worlds as he grew in magic and wisdom
    At times the hourglass of his soul in collapsing spin or endless meaningless fall
    Cubes of crystal, his ethereal blood stopped higher time as
    their corners held apart yet blocked the Now at its smallest aperture

    Not even the SphereFather he overthrew in the former era
    phase of dark stars could reverse the hour, tag and mark the bells by
    wishful intervention, that it made a difference,even given a
    secret name only former gods remembered

    In these times of wingless horns and broken vanished arrows pointing everywhere yet
    Nowhere, as if the steeples on his one lonely
    former world when he was part of the godhead
    Exploring gods and idols in the universe and goat eaten Quinadad

    Integrating his quest and life through time his endless beach became a fjord and fjords
    He himself a giant now but a forgotten name carved on stone, a sleeping dwarf
    Could only dream in packets of themes between the dark or now beyond the stars
    Of what he had seen

    As SphereDream,back when, his brother SphereChrist long vanished,
    a bottleneck of the changing sea itself,
    thus the measure of the year, no year zero before or afterward

    No SphereGhost, save empty echoes to comfort him
    no SphereVirgin, fertile mare maid caught in the tidal pool
    to journey with him

    So it came to pass at this point in time he dreamt of the Academy in Far Rock'a'bye,
    the philosophers gathered
    debating the origin of language where this time around
    Sagicorn just listened as he had learned to mimic deeply
    the songs of sea birds, parrots, and empty wide eyed night owls
    So something gained for himself of their spectrum of intelligence

    "They were wrong," he thought as he left the city
    "There are two ancient languages. The first is the rune-like
    carving and names of trees also recorded as numbers
    Tally-marks storing trades as replete as stored frozen sunlight in the stores
    of corn so soon again but firewood

    The other heated, wet wedges worked on clay and like the
    names of former Pharaohs to be broken to fill the
    columns of great cities of the new regimes,
    these surrounded by clay, a seal if broken
    the truth of commerce could be revealed

    Inspired by cycles of the stars a Pharaoh's code and calendar as if god given design
    yet before the written word and warbler's finer eyes
    Ten thousand years the desert dwellers told of one among the fixed stars
    that traveled half the bowl of the canopy of heaven "

    Sagicorn so much the lesser god of ice lands and ghostly dreams so seemed
    back then, a warm volcanic fire in retrospect, he felt sorrow
    looking back at the spires of his beloved central city then understood the source of his sorrow.

    "It is not that I will find her beyond the darkening skies down the endless beach
    beyond, but that I must leave her again..."

    * * * * * * *

  18. Arun,

    I quite like the appearance of the word 'isomorphic' in this quote... Best,


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  21. The true word is the no word; the absence of word, the anti-word, the word of silence.

    The true language is the silent language of silence. He who truly knows is silent.

  22. For me the best candidate for the "old language" would be that of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. While it's "officially" understood as in a sort of combination of Hebrew and Aramaic, the literal translation is completely ordinary and in fact banal.

    Yet the sound of the prayer in its original language is deeply meaningful and in fact very emotional. Since the meaning and the emotion cannot possibly come from the literal meaning as usually translated, it must stem from the language itself.

    For me, the Kaddish is the only poem that speaks for itself to all people regardless of their language, and has no need of translation.

    Yisgaddal veyisqaddash shmeh rabba
    Beʻalma di vra khir'uteh
    veyamlikh malkhuteh
    beḥayekhon uvyomekhon
    uvḥaye dekhol bet yisrael
    beʻagala uvizman qariv veʼimru amen

    etc. For the full text, see

  23. Isaac Asimov, used the idea of an old language in Prelude to Foundation, when Hari Seldon encountered the sacred book of the Mycogenians. The book was written both in current galactic language and an archaic language that Hari could not understand.

    --glenn aguarte

  24. I am a great fan of both fantasy and science fiction writing.In some extent I agree with u but fantasy has a special magic.Anyway thanks for sharing.

  25. Yes, Sumerian (3350 BC), in the case of Snow Crash.

  26. Sabine,

    Ha, Ha, Ha, yes, exactly, it's self-referential, math is I mean; it conveys information between the various time-bound incarnations of itself; it's a structured transformation system. You can also think of it as computing itself, in the sense of the Self-Generating Systems of Ben Goertzel and Harold Bowman (

    The key point I was making is that, as you suggestively imply, mathematics exists in time. I know Max Tegmark, being an extreme Platonist, doesn't agree but anyone who has experienced the "Clear Light Nature of Mind" will tell you there is no math there; "since within this mind of enlightenment, there is nothing upon which to meditate, this modality transcends ALL objects of knowledge." This is the creatrix - pure, unsoiled consciousness. Mathematical structures exist independent of human minds but they don't exist independent of mind; this is my position. Mathematical structures are emergent; they reveal themselves when all of the pertinent information is properly integrated. This integration occurs due to a motive force - consciousness. I can prove it using the OLD LANGUAGE; the oldest language is no language, it is telepathy ( Read the fascinating comments attached to that above referenced paper, if you will. That would, in a general sense, seem to indicate that mathematical structures convey information to other mathematical structures, Ha, Ha,Ha . . .

    With regards,
    Wes Hansen

  27. My now long series called Sagicorn, a fantasy with sci fi in mind as the issue, and our desire to find what is original maybe beyond cultural experience. (See my blog or fb notes)
    I found Stephen King in the preface to the third volume of the Gunslinger having a lot to say about would be writers at nineteen on wanting to write something original. Synchronously I found republishing of books by Zane Grey on the Border or Frontiers that had a lot to say in the hopes of recovering the experience of history in the wilderness of the West.
    Of course recent influences in the popular media and other issues here that are foundational concerns as an inspiration. But I got good reviews from local people I could not imagine long reading all this say at the grocery store which in the end is about all we can expect or need - to find ourselves or connect with others. After awhile writing first draft in real time comes easy. Best

  28. Yes I searching like this post.

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  29. In "Lord of Light", Roger Zelazny's character Sam takes the opposite approach:

    "...'Fire' does not matter. No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words. The more words he remembers, the cleverer do his fellows esteem him. He looks upon the great transformations of the world, but he does not see them as they were seen when man looked upon reality for the first time. Their names come to his lips and he smiles as he tastes them, thinking he knows them in the naming. The thing that has never happened before is still happening. It is still a miracle. The great burning blossom squats, flowing, upon the limb of the world, excreting the ash of the world, and being none of these things I have named and at the same time all of them, and this is reality — the Nameless.

    I charge you — forget the names you bear, forget the words I speak as soon as they are uttered. Look, rather, upon the Nameless within yourselves, which arises as I address it. It hearkens not to my words, but to the reality within me, of which it is part. This is the atman, which hears me rather than my words. All else is unreal. To define is to lose. The essence of all things is the Nameless."

    However, I prefer your approach. Another example of it from fiction is Dan Abnett's "enuncia" the primordial language which controls the forces of Chaos in "Ravenor", "Prospero Burns", "Pariah" and other novels.

    And of course there was the comic book "Captain Marvel" in which an ordinary boy transforms into super hero by saying the secret word "shazam", with the implication that there is a secret word for each of us, if we could only find it.

    Such stories are fun, but partly because they elide the hard work it actually takes to find things out - the work of science.

    Thanks for another great post.

  30. Perhaps it is worth mentioning the Old and New Testaments:
    In the beginning God spoke (Word, Greek 'rhea") into existence.
    Or the word (logos) framing the substance of the world as if logically beyond appearance.

    Then there are still silences in this dynamic contrast to consider, nameless ones or a struggle to give names to things as time changes the meaning and memory as if that is all that is left.

    Sagicorn series is finished, thank you all for the inspiration.

  31. The Mourner's Kaddish is in Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew, but it's tonal, so the prayer is particularly musical. Aramaic was the language that people, like Jesus if he existed, spoke on the street in Roman era Judea. Modern Hebrew print was adopted from the Aramaic in Roman days. Before then Hebrew writing looked more like Egyptian demotic.

    The old language thing often bothers me. I can enjoy, but get annoyed by, stories where all the knowledge is written in an old language in old books or scrolls. When someone goes to some musty old library to dig up some ancient spell, I keep thinking that they should fire up a spell computer made of mystic chips and try the basic four billion spell permutations to find the optimal one to slay the demon or whatnot. The Harry Potter books at least had the idea that magic was something still being invented and improved.

    Wheeler used to tell the Parable of the Pebble in which he, as a physicist, argues with a pebble. He tells the pebble that he is going to throw it up in the air and that the pebble was going to return to his hand in 2.4 seconds. The pebble demurs citing free will, but Wheeler insists that the pebble has no choice.

    If our universe is comprehensible, that is, can be modeled in a predictive manner, then the language of this model is mathematics. If you have an equation that correctly (*) describes some behavior, real objects have no choice but to obey your commands. Even better, if you manipulate the symbols of the equation in the prescribed manner you can new laws that nature is obliged to obey. It is surprisingly powerful.

    (*) You can tell if your model is correct by casting a few spells and seeing if they work.

  32. Does Goedel's incompleteness theorem prevent the language of the universe being maths? Or does it mean the universe is large but finite, so that God never needed the natural numbers?

  33. Godel's incompleteness theory doesn't prevent the language of the universe from being maths. It just puts some limits on what that language can describe. Every linguist learns that context is essential, and, even with context, ambiguity is inevitable, just as Godel's theorem requires that any mathematical system described has at least two models.

  34. The issue is deeper than Godel and involves fundamental ideas of prime numbers.
    If there is a limit to what math may abstractly describe, an upper one and a lower one, the context is not necessarily ambiguous.
    After all the uniqueness of Godel's proof depended on the metalanguage as uniqueness by prime numbers.
    If there is ambiguity as an ultimate possibility such a grounding in proof or disproof and not possible as a unified physics view, this permits the persistence of physical structures that would otherwise vanish or be very rare as we measure things as random precise location among transcendental numbers. Or from an intuitionist approach we can deny such transcendental numbers exist. This dual model trumps the context of Godel's dual models yet raises higher questions of ambiguity than logic as incompleteness.

  35. In the beginning...
    all of us have a unique language.

    Spoken or Unspoken - directly proportional to human age.

    The Embedding by Ian Watson becomes obsolete and superseded.
    (No need to source language with an alien source.)

    Besides the agreed upon 5000+ extensions of the human language used today your unique neologism ups the number of extensions to the extensions of language to the present population of the earth.

    To avoid isolation you simply switch over to the conventions of consensus agreed upon for the 5000+ extensions used presently.

    For most people recalling their neologism is difficult.

    Neologism is genetic. Chromsky has no physical mechanism for the inheritance of any of his theories through genetics. I do.

    Which answers the question why any approach of all the computer sciences currently used will fail to successfully model the brain and/or mind...or, if you will...
    human language.

  36. There's a growing movement in the computer security community towards the use of "object capabilities", which are basically the "true names" of objects that can cause side-effects in a system.

    The most common use of object capabilities that I know of is cross-site request forgery protection: somewhere on the admin pages for your blog is a button that says "delete this blog". Also included in that page is the "true name" of the deletion service, a randomly generated string.

    An attacker who wants to delete your blog can set up a form on his own page that sends a "delete" message to on your behalf. He can disguise it to look like something entirely different. If he can trick you into visiting his page, he can make your browser send a message to, and the browser also happily forwards your cookie to authenticate that action. However, because the attacker can't get the true name, the attack fails.

    Brendan Eich, CTO of Mozilla, wrote, "Any time we deviate from OCap, we regret it for both security bug and access-checking overhead reasons." (

  37. So if maths is so 'real' why must we 'apply' it for it to be useful?

    Are you confused by menus in restaurants too?



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