WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CODE AND LANGUAGE?

In the simplest of terms, code is not language and language is not code even though informally sometimes code is incorrectly called “computer language”. Neither the computer nor any linked community of computers such as the internet speaks a language; humans represent language information in their use of computers through code they invent and create for that purpose. Persons speak and code, this is all these words have in common.

Code is a finite set of rules for getting specific outputs from specific inputs. This is why you can create code for an language alphabet but not for a language directly: finite input leads to finite output. Language has neither finite input nor finite output. All non-mathematical language is vague and indeterminate. Vagueness and indeterminacy cannot be coded: infinite input leads to an infinite output. When I translate a word from one language to another, there is no code for doing so and any translation is as indeterminate as the speaking of the languages themselves. Different translators will translate sentences from one language to another in countless different ways. For more detailed conceptual analysis of this issue, one should read philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine’s essays dealing with his concept of “indeterminacy of translation”. All words are vague and the rules for using them are indeterminate. The whole purpose of a code is to try to be universally precise by being finite. For example, in Morse Code, once anyone knows it, the code … – – – … universally gives you the word SOS regardless of what language you speak. Most English speakers understand the meaning of SOS. But, how would you explain its meaning to a Basque, Greek, or other non-English or non-Latin alphabet user? There is no code for that translation nor any determinate way of doing it; regardless, in action all Morse Code users understand the use and usefulness of SOS.

Though language is sometimes a rule-based activity, it is not defined by rules — it defines rules and pretty much everything else. Language is best described as a holistic social activity by which individuals in a society communicate: it is a behavioral activity in which we as humans are immersed in the same way fish are immersed in water. Do not commit the Homunculus Fallacy that is omnipresent in artificial intelligence, in much of modern linguistics, and even in so-called cognitive sciences. When some say you speak a language when you find words stored in your brain to associate with what you want to say, ask them who or what is this “you” that finds and wants and associates them. For a computer, you find the files you want and you use them; so, is there a homunculus in your brain that does the same? For further contemplation, see Kenny, A.J.P. “The Homunculus Fallacy”. (1971) reported in his The Legacy of Wittgenstein. Oxford: Blackwell (1984), pp. 125-36.

Language does not exist in the brain anymore than code exists in the computer. The brain and the computer have the same electrical and chemical activity, but neither speak a language nor have code just as neither the electrical wiring in your house nor your car battery speak or have either. A brain is necessary to speak a language in the same way that a computer is necessary for computer code but it is nonsense to say the brain contains or has rules for language in the same way it is nonsense to say the computer contains or has code. Code exists on the paper on which you write it or on the computer screen on which you write it, but it is not in the computer anymore than running or walking is in your legs or speech is in or on your tongue; language exists in the room in which you speak it not in your brain. “You” as a person and persons not brains speak and code. This is just as true of the so-called “code of life” called DNA and genetics. It was no more discovered than language is discovered; its statistics are invented and created by human activity in the same way bookies invent statistics for horse-racing or any type of gambling.

Language is the social activity by which we create words such as “brain”, “genetics”, “DNA”, and all “code” and by which we invent or create the word “meaning” not the other way around. To paraphrase the Ancients and Star Trek: language is the fire in which we burn. Talking about language involves an observer effect as much as does quantum physics, however there is no way to compensate for it but we can be aware of it. For more contemplation, see Bennett, M.R.; Hacker, P.M.S. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Oxford: Blackwell (2014).