I am a computer engineer.  Before I learned Japanese, I have learned about sixteen different computer languages to a degree of proficiency with which I can make production applications out of them.  In doing so, I realized that there are features every language that runs on a procedural basis will have, and each language implements these using a slightly different syntax.  The same thing is essentially true with human languages:  why do all languages have essentially the same underlying conceptual structure, and only differ by means of vocabulary and grammar?  I think the answer to that is pretty obvious.  As someone I asked that question of once told me, “It’s the language of living”.

Out of procedural computer science evolved the idea of “pre-emptive multitasking”.  By which I mean, each process gets its own environment, and is not aware or doesn’t care that it is running on a multitasking operating system.  Sure, it could probably figure out how much time it was being allocated by checking the actual system time (and there are actual processes that do just this, they’re called “watchdog” processes, and they can be implemented in hardware too), but by and large, they’re completely unaware of other processes that are running.

This is one feature that human language has, to my knowledge, never had.  Perhaps for good reason, but I’m not talking about things with good reason.  I’m talking about my thoughts.

Because of the way my mind works, I have often wished there was a feature in language by which you could “save your stack”, in a sense, and then go off on another completely tangential thought, pop the stack again, and continue on like you never said anything.  That would be an interesting linguistic feature to have, and frankly, I’m curious about what kind of culture could use such a language feature.  We have something similar in the usage of parentheses (and hyphens, as I use them), but there’s no way to intermingle multiple separate thoughts together and not lose the cohesiveness of the whole.

I’ve often wondered what such a language would look like, and if most people could even adapt to it.  If I were to do it in Japanese, I would just add a couple of particles.  In English, well, I’d have to use a symbol and probably a really odd pronunciation, or some such.  I don’t know.  I’m not a linguist (and especially not a cunning one), so I wouldn’t know how to create it, and frankly, I’ve probably just caused every single linguist’s head to explode, followed quickly by a loud shout of “What?!  You can’t do that!”.

But maybe the more cunning linguists out there could come up with something that would actually be workable.  I’d really like to be able to hold several different concepts in my head at the same time and work on them all together, with structures similar to mutex locks, semaphores, multithreading, and a whole bunch of other stuff that is very much foreign to the way most people view language.  But I think I’d actually find it rather a challenge.

Oh, by the way, regarding the structure of computer language?  Toss quantum computers into the mix and the whole thing doesn’t apply anymore.  They run on a completely separate model.  I wonder if we could do a similar thing with the human brain, through language.

How Would I Have Done It?

Let me preface this by saying: this is only a thought experiment. I have no illusions that this will ever happen. I’m not even seriously proposing it. But I do like to think about these kinds of things.

So, that said, how would I redo Japanese if I were God?

Well, my first thought is, expand the syllabary. Add a couple of vowels and a couple of consonants.

Then, redo the syllabary to something that is logical, something like the korean hangul. Make the rules regular and predictable – this part means this vowel, this part means this consonant, etc.

I don’t think I would get rid of kanji, because that’s actually kind of useful, but I would normalize the pronuncation. One kanji pronounced one, or at most two, ways. I’d also add a cue to the kanji – like some already have – as to how to pronounce them.

And then I’d make sure the kanji had a little more variety in the pronunciation. It’s like there are about 10,000 kanji right now that are all pronounced “doo”.

And then what I’d have wouldn’t be Japanese and no one would care.

See, that’s the thing. Japanese is a difficult language, with many different rules, some without rhyme nor reason, some contradictory, some counterintuitive, some bolted on from other languages, and all of which come together to make… Japanese. Change it, and you’ve got an easier, more intuitive, more logical and regular, more consistent, and just probably better in almost every way language that isn’t Japanese.

Weight it all in the balance, and it’s probably better just to keep it the way it is.

All that said, though, a guy can dream, right?

Maybe I’ll do that someday as a pure linguistic exercise, just for fun. But it won’t be Japanese and I won’t make any effort to pretend it could be. Still, might be fun.

If you were God and didn’t have to deal with a hundred and fifty million angry Japanese, though, what would you change?