The first indication that language is not all it seems actually comes from Claude Shannon, a physicist. He analysed the transfer of information, and concluded that most language is heavily redundant. I am not sure of the exact numbers, but in English something like eighty per cent of the letters are not needed. I suppose that explains a lot of the text speak we see around these days.
The second issue that Shannon identified was that information degrades as it is transmitted. The original thought on this was, I suppose, ‘Chinese whispers’, where the message is passed on from person to person, and is mutated in that process. However, this also happens in electronic transmission, and so some of the redundancy of language to provide context and checks to prevent this from happening. Indeed, a fair bit of our electronic transmissions are devoted to check bits to ensure that the correct message was received.
The other indication that all is not as it seems with language came from Wittgenstein, who observed that his earlier idea, that language gives a picture of objects in the world, is probably false, at least in large part, and language often functions in a different way, or, actually, several different ways. The meaning of a word, he argued, was in its use, not in its definition, as definitions change over time, guided by the use to which the words are put.
I think that this sort of approach to language has two impacts on the world of wargaming, at least. Firstly, we have to live with the fact that language is not a transparent medium. What I write in a set of rules is not exactly what a given reader might understand from those words. As I noted previously, the reader is bringing a whole load of other understandings with them, and using those to interpret my text.
I had an example of this recently with the Polemos SPQR rules, where someone was asking about the ranged fire of skirmishers. In SPQR skirmishers do not fire at range, the skirmishing rules, and the underlying model for skirmishing, are different. You could argue that either my correspondent was not reading correctly, or that my text and writing skills are simply not up to the job of transmitting the ideas (the latter being the most likely, as readers of this blog can testify), but the most likely thing happening is that the words are actually getting in the way of the meaning.
The second issue which arises from this consideration of language is that the language we use shapes our understanding of the world around us. A real world example at the moment would be the arguments around about ‘gay marriage’. I am not, here, going to take sides, but simply want to observe that the use of the term I have put in scare quotes is, in itself, a change in the usage of the word marriage. It sometimes seems to me that the proponents of such are good Wittgensteinians and are trying to redefine the term by changing the usage, while to opponents are attempting to shore up the ‘traditional’ definition of marriage by rejecting the change in use.
Be that as it may, in wargaming terms the issue is about the language we use in definitions. If, for example, I give a definition of a cavalry unit as a chap mounted on a horse, in close order with other chaps mounted on a horse, with a shield, a couple of javelins and a disinclination to charge home, then that is how the term, in my rule set, will be defined. I will then go through the real world defining the troops as cavalry or not cavalry. The law of the excluded middle applies; there are no ‘sort of cavalry’ troops.
This, of course, has ways of imposing our scheme on other societies. I may well have defined my ‘cavalry’ by means of a few examples in my particular culture, say, European mounted troops around the era of the Roman Empire. When I go beyond those confines, it becomes harder to fit the troops into by pre-decided categories, and things start to look a bit flaky.
The situation in then compounded by the fact that I have not just a single category, but a whole system of categorising troops, in terms of mounted troops as, say knights, cavalry and light horse. In my scheme, therefore, everything has to fit in one of these three categories. There are no alternatives. In the scheme you cannot be ‘sometimes a knight, sometimes a cavalry’.
I dare say that some of you are now recognising the point I am trying to make, for I have, at least, hinted at it before. We cannot honestly impose our categorisation of troops on cultures alien to those in which the category was created. I cannot impose the categories of the early Roman Empire on Warring States China, or on the Carolingian Empire. At least, I can, but I am then faced with some distinct oddities in terms of nomenclature, as, for example, calling Roman cataphracts knights.
This also links to what I was whiffling on about the other week, in terms of how we read texts. If we come to a bit of Herodotus where he describes the Persian cavalry, do we ask the modernist question: are these cavalry?, or do we attempt to be good postmodernists and ask ‘how did these guys actually behave?’.
It may be that, at the end of the day, it does not much matter, as we have to impose categories somewhere, but I prefer mine tightly linked to a distinct, and named, troop type in a given culture. But, perhaps, I am in a small minority.