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Monday, May 25, 2009

FoodTongue: Interview with Alan Huang

Alan Huang is a three- (soon to be four-) time alum of the Canada/USA Mathcamp, where the language FoodTongue started about five or six years ago. Alan learned FoodTongue just prior to his first Mathcamp, and he helped create the most recent dictionary, which is more or less all written in FoodTongue.

Brit: Hi Alan! In a sentence or two, what is FoodTongue?

Alan: Depending on the speaker, it's either a bold experiment in language design or a creative specimen of Mathcamp randomness (or an unnaturally long-lived bad idea, for certain non-speakers).

Brit: Can you tell us a bit more about the entries in the lexicon of FoodTongue? Is there a purely conventional connection between the symbols of the language and the entities referred to? Or is there a system or pattern which you follow when new words are introduced? Or is there an even closer connection between the symbols of the language and the entities referred to than that?

Alan: There's no general rule by which words are related to their meanings. Speakers are free to create any new words they need to express ideas, and the methods by which foods have been chosen include sound in English or other languages (lobster), properties of the food (popsicle), specific references (pie), related words (ketchup/mustard), themes (names of games), and randomness (Ice Cream).

Many words are thus easier to remember than if meanings were attached to random food names. Occasionally conflicts arise, but as FoodTongue evolves, ambiguous, hard-to-remember, and uncommon words tend to be replaced. The system also works well without a central authority -- the dictionary may be the closest FoodTongue has to one, but it's designed as a wiki so that it can respond to changes in the language, as opposed to instigating them.

Brit: What is the syntax like? Is the syntax that of English? Or does it have its own syntax? The phonology obviously must be that of English.

Alan: First of all, there's no inflection in FoodTongue, since there aren't many endings to add on to English nouns. (The obvious choice is to pluralize, but that has not been used yet. There has been discussion on grouping related foods; for example, if grape is a verb, raisin could be the future tense. But that was deemed infeasible.) So FoodTongue usually follows normal English word order (subject - verb - object, preposition - noun, etc.), and everything else (such as tense, number, and person) is done with separate words. However, grammar is still quite free-form as long as it's understandable, and speakers may have different styles based on preference or other languages they know. For example, a sentence that literally means "want have" would be understood as "I want to have it". A special case is music and poetry (of which there do exist FoodTongue examples). Since FoodTongue words tend to have more syllables compared to English translations, words are often omitted or moved to fit the meter.

Brit: Can you ascribe propositional attitudes to others in FoodTongue? You mentioned "want"-reports above. What about other attitude ascriptions? For example, can you say "I know that p", "I believe that p", "I hope that p", "I love that p", etc? More generally: is there a way of expressing tense and modality in the language? Can you talk about what once were the case but is no longer? Can you talk about what will be the case? Can you talk about what is merely physically, metaphysically or logically possible? Can you talk about what is logically impossible? If so, how do you do that?

Alan: All such constructions are usually just implemented with subordinate clauses, e.g. "I want that you be here". There are words for verbs like "think", "know", "love" and helpers like "should", "can", "must", which can be used with such clauses (or independently). Essentially everything else that's possible (and I don't know if some modals are in concise ways) is done explicitly, with words like "maybe" and "in the past" / "now" / "in the future". For example, "it PAST be, but NOW not" means "it was once the case, but no longer", and "not can be that..." means "it is impossible that".

Brit: Do you have ways of expressing indicative conditionals (e.g., "if John is home, then I will pay him a visit"), subjunctive conditionals (e.g. "if I had been a Mathcamper, I would have known FoodTongue"), conditional probabilities (e.g. "the probability that it will rain given how clowdy it is is 0.8"), etc?

Alan: There is no distinction between indicative and subjunctive conditionals; the difference is determined through knowledge and context. Probabilities are expressed by modifying "maybe", e.g. "if he NOW not be here, he big-maybe small-FUTURE be" would be understood as "if he is not here now, he will probably be here soon", but whether he is here now (and whether the speaker knows) is unstated.

Brit: Could you also say something about indexicals ("I", "now", "here"), demonstratives ("this", "that"), quantification ("there is an ...", "for all x") and anaphora (e.g., "A man entered the door. He took off his hat") Do you have a word referring directly to the speaker or the time of speech? Do you have words that refer only when accompanied by a demonstration (e.g. by an index finger or a gaze). Can you quantify over things as in "there are at least 30 people who are fluent speakers of the language"? Are there anaphors that refer to an entity already referred to, as in "The TV is in the living room. But it is broken".

Alan: There are words for "I" / "you" / "he/she" (plurals are formed by prepending "all"), "in the past" / "now" / "in the future", and "here"/ "there". Demonstratives are handled by "here" / "there" or by the word for "one", which serves generically either to specify or to refer to nonhuman objects ("one book be good; one be big and" means "this book is good; it is big also"). Humans are referred to by the pronoun "he/she". All of these words can also be specified nonverbally (e.g. a gesture in person, or a picture in a blog entry).

There is one relative pronoun ("that") and one interrogative (which can take a noun, as in "what person"). Quantifiers are expressed with "be x that y" and "all x y". When referring to mentioned entities, "one" and "he/she" may be omitted if understood. For example, "should talk he/she; be here" could mean "you should talk to her; she is here".

The word for "and" has several other meanings, including "add", "also", "so", "then", and "more". Comparisons and such use "and" (in the sense of "more") and/or an adjective or adverb followed by the relative pronoun (acting as "than"). For example, "and that 30" means "at least 30"; "and big that Dan" or "big that Dan" means "bigger than Dan". It sounds confusing as I write it, but in practice it's quite natural.

One caveat -- numbers. Usually, all numbers greater than four are lumped into "many". Thus, "at least 30 people speak FoodTongue" would simply be translated "many person talk food-tongue". When relatively small numbers must be named, as in specifying Mathcamp 06 / 07 / 08, the numbers will be added together ("four and two", etc.). There is a base-five system that uses zero through four, but it's not really in common use.

Brit: How is the language used? Is it used only in writing on certain internet sites? Or is it also spoken when you meet other speakers of the language?

Alan: FoodTongue is probably most often spoken on the Internet. Speakers often make blog entries or have IM conversations containing (or entirely in) FoodTongue. However, it may also be heard whenever speakers meet in person -- likely math and science competitions, university events, and Mathcamp itself, where it's seldom difficult to find someone speaking or teaching FoodTongue.

Brit: What was the reason for inventing the language? Was it started as a kind of experiment? There is something very secretive about the language. What is that all about?

Alan: The language started at Mathcamp 2004. I was not there, so my source is the first FoodTongue dictionary, distributed in that year. One evening, at a gathering of campers, the idea came up of trying to communicate entirely with food words. Soon the campers formed a basic vocabulary, and began teaching others. At that first meeting it was decided, as noted in the dictionary, that FoodTongue should not when possible be explained in other languages, which has remained a central principle. So it's not that the language is being kept secret, but that questions asked about it often cannot be answered.

Brit: Why have a principle to the effect that FoodTongue should not when possible be explained in other languages? Was it because you wanted the language to develop naturally?

Alan: As I said, I was not present at FoodTongue's creation, but I suspect that because it grew out of a suggestion to communicate entirely with food words, there was a desire to maintain that ideal by not bringing in other modes of verbal communication. As Waffle [Eric Wofsey] said, "The goal of Food Tongue is not to be understood. The goal is to communicate within a restricted framework." Or perhaps there is a tradition at Mathcamp to confuse people by not explaining things (but also to willingly demonstrate for those who show interest). Whatever the case, those who have learned FoodTongue since its inception have also been willing to continue upholding the principle. I think that as it's often brought up as a matter of following the spirit of the language, there's an element similar to suspension of disbelief, where speakers agree to abide by the rules or risk breaking the experience. It should also be noted that there is no restriction on discussing FoodTongue in other languages, only on explaining individual words.

Brit: So how did you manage to acquire FoodTongue prior to your first Mathcamp? Did you have a mentor?

Alan: The best way to teach FoodTongue without violating its spirit is in person, because gestures and other nonverbal communication are allowed. I was taught it before Mathcamp 2006 by a friend who had gone in 2005, and he demonstrated many of the words for me (for example, pointing at his watch to show the word for time). I should note that the *new* dictionary is written in FoodTongue -- the first dictionary, which I mentioned before, has two-way translations between English and FoodTongue. Clearly, this violated its own principle, so it was decided (I believe) that the dictionary should only be used by fluent speakers, as a reference. (The stated goal of the dictionary was to reunite some dialects that had arisen, for which breaking the principle was useful.)

Brit: What do you use the language to talk about? All sorts of topics? Math? The language itself?

Alan: FoodTongue generally doesn't have the vocabulary needed to delve deep into any field (although agglutination and calquing may produce approximations), but anything it has words for (or that words can be created for) is fair game, from talking about school to playing a card game. If anything, FoodTongue is particularly suited to Mathcamp culture; some words (grapefruit, smarties) refer to concepts specific to Mathcamp, and a few of those have become the primary means of naming those concepts (meatloaf, starfruit), at least among my friends. In practice, conversations may switch into and out of FoodTongue regardless of the subject at hand (or for gratuitous Mathcamp references).

Brit: How many people would you say master the language? Or is it hard to say? Can anyone join the forums where the language is spoken?

Alan: This is a tough question, and I doubt anyone has an accurate count. I personally know at least 30-40 people who would answer to their FoodTongue names; of those, up to a dozen are in my IM contacts and regularly converse with me in FoodTongue. But these are mostly Mathcamp alumni from 2007-2008; I know next to nothing about those from 2004-2006, and I'm also not the best-connected in my corner of Mathcamp. In theory, there's nothing preventing anyone from learning FoodTongue. However, the three main barriers are knowledge, interest, and teaching.

First, FoodTongue has probably spread little beyond Mathcamp, so many people who may be interested have never heard of it. Second, although many speakers try to teach friends the language, they are unfortunately often uninterested. Finally, as I noted, FoodTongue is best taught in person, and very difficult otherwise unless pictures are used (assuming the principle is adhered to). Most teaching thus goes on at Mathcamp, where each summer a handful of campers learn FoodTongue from alumni. This seems sufficient to keep the language alive, and indeed it shows no signs of dying just yet, but it is still limited in its reach.

Brit: It is obviously fun to learn a new language and to be able to speak a different language. But do you think that FoodTongue might also serve any practical purposes?

Alan: I have not seen any uses of FoodTongue for which it is particularly suited. That said, I think generally FoodTongue has as much practical use as any other natural language. It has sufficient vocabulary to describe everyday life concisely, especially at Mathcamp. But FoodTongue is probably spoken more for its principles and for itself than for any external purpose. Speakers enjoy being part of the community and communicating within the restrictions -- which is good, because short of aliens visiting Earth who share none of our physical features but somehow eat the same foods, I can't think of any situation in which it would uniquely useful.

Brit: Do you know of any other languages which are like FoodTongue? How does it compare to international languages like Esperanto? How does it compare to secret codes used throughout history by e.g. intelligence agencies?

Alan: So first of all, FoodTongue is certainly not an international language. It's spoken by people who already know English and much of it, from the vocabulary to word order, comes from English. The words are easy to learn because they're English food names, and the meanings are easy to remember largely because they have associations in English. (Of course, it's possible to create foreign equivalents by translating all of the food names; for example, "Pomme langue baguette-langue" is a valid sentence in French FoodTongue.)

I think the property that mapping a subset of a language (food words) into a complete language in itself sets FoodTongue apart from many languages. It may be similar to some codes, but it's not suitable for secrecy as it is -- many words are easy to figure out, and even if disguised as a grocery list it's usually obvious there's a hidden meaning. FoodTongue is probably most similar to games played by children in which they redefine words (for example, Tolkien's Animalic).

Brit: I once compared FoodTongue to so-called Lagadonian languages in which objects, properties, reletions etc. are names of themselves. Obviously, FoodTongue is not a Lagadonian language. However, I wonder whether there is any interesting similarity between FoodTongue and Lagadonian languages? Any thoughts?

Alan: As I noted before, it's possible to translate all the food words into another language, while expressing the same ideas. There may have been some dispute over the issue, but my view is that FoodTongue is theoretically independent of the words used to express it. That is, the concept of me is expressed by the concept of apple, not the English word "apple" (or the French word "pomme"), even if the concept was apple was chosen to represent the first-person pronoun because of associations of the English word "apple". It is thus possible to create a salad that's a valid FoodTongue sentence, though it may be a rather weird salad. Although the foods are abstract -- the concept of me is represented by the concept of apple, not a specific apple -- this interpretation is similar to the original Lagado, in that representations of concepts are not tied to any specific spoken, written, or physical form.

Brit: How do you predict that FoodTongue will evolve in the future?

Alan: As I understand it, after FoodTongue was invented at Mathcamp 2004, almost nobody learned it in 2005, but it became much more popular in 2006. In the first dictionary there are many words that have fallen out of use (some of which have been redefined), and there are many words that I use for which it includes no equivalent. Unlike with natural languages, once campers leave the population (graduate from Mathcamp), they maintain contact with friends from camp. A possible scenario is that every few years the FoodTongue spoken at Mathcamp will have shifted, and the alumni from those years as they move on will still speak it as they did as campers. So while the language continues to evolve at camp, multiple age-separated groups of speakers will form, still mutually intelligible but with visible differences in vocabulary and perhaps philosophy. I don't know how likely this is, though.

Brit: Do you have any advice to people interested in learning the language?

Alan: The best advice to people interested in FoodTongue is to contact someone who knows it. The wiki is designed so that it's possible to learn from scratch entirely using that site, but it's much easier to have a speaker walk you through (preferably in person). One of the things I learned from making the wiki is that there are significant numbers of people even at Mathcamp who are interested in the language but have not had a chance to learn -- so talk to a speaker, or someone who can refer you to one.

Brit: Thank you, Alan! To the interested reader: You can contact me via email if you want me to pass on your contact info to a speaker. No anonymous requests will be considered.


Melelaswe said...

Apple cauliflower Sweet Tea; apple sauce Food Tongue plantain Artichoke (Alan).

Many thanks for this interview! I'd have but one change to make, and that would be to change the number of speakers. I would say probably 500 people know at least some reasonable amount of food tongue -- there's been some degree of spreading Food Tongue outside of Mathcamp. I learned Food Tongue pre-Mathcamp, and I've taught probably 12 to 15 people food tongue myself. Not many are fluent, but they all know enough to understand a good number of my statements in Food Tongue.

Cherry chocolate! Kiwi!

Brit Brogaard said...

Cherry kiwi! Apple sauce Foodtongue grass cherry shellfish. (Hope that was a grammatical sentence). Anyway, thanks for the correction, Melelaswe! Very cool! Thanks! (Some of us down here are slowly learning via the online wiki).

Oxeador said...

I was there in 04 when FT was created (not in the room where it was born physically, but in the lounge where the creators started spreading it 3 hours after they had this idea). After reading this interview, I am in disbelief of what it has become.

I want to answer something to your question of "Why forbid explanations in anything other than FT?" If you allow an English-FT dictionary, then it becomes (oversimplyfying) a mere substitution code. There is nothing exciting about it. On the other hand, with the rule that only FT can be use to explain FT (and to create it in the first place) it becomes an interesting, challenging, and rewarding game at first (during the creation phase) and a sociological experiment later (during the expansion phase).

By the way, Apple cauliflower Alfalfa.

Jim Fowler said...

To those looking for a new holiday, July 27, 2009 will be the five year anniversary of Food Tongue.

Anonymous said...

Since I tend to respect Alfalfa's ideas:

Brit Brogaard said...

Thanks for the info and the link! We have just been picking up bits and pieces from the online dictionary.