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What characteristics would describe a "Non-Linear Language"? For instance would it use Logographs (Chinese, Egyptian, etc.)? Or could it use IPA sound symbols? What would make the language Non-Linear in a speech context (not written)?

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    What do you mean by 'non-linear language'? Oct 30, 2023 at 11:40
  • In written form it would appear as a "Hierarchical tree" -example: link or as a "mind map" -example: link ... where a thought starts but branches out into elaboration on each modifying phrase like a very large parenthesis ... The German language does this to some degree ... Also Egyptian Hieroglyphs spread out into 2 dimensional space ... Oct 30, 2023 at 21:08
  • I'm not sure how one would be able to do this verbally ... Oct 30, 2023 at 21:10
  • @bobengineer Well, in a certain sense, language does work like that! Words form noun and verb phrases together, those make sentences, and the sentences might themselves be subordinate to other phrases. This article might be an introduction to the concept.
    – Cecilia
    Oct 30, 2023 at 22:14
  • Cecilia, Thanks for your thoughts. Oct 31, 2023 at 11:00

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I'd like to argue that there is no such thing as a non-linear language. Every language needs to convey some some information from the speaker to the listener (or signer to the viewer, or using another channel at all), and that information can by represented as a stream of bits that is linear in time. I have heard of scifi writers talking about "non-linear languages" used by some non-human beings but no one of them provides samples or a tentative description of those non-linear languages.

P.S. My notion of "linear" is not identical to the term "linear language" in Theoretical Computer Science, those "linear languages" are a proper subset of the context-free languages (and from linguistics we know that natural languages are sometimes not context-free). In my answer I just mean "being able to be represented by a linear string of symbols".

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  • Sir Cornflakes, Thanks. Oct 31, 2023 at 11:02
  • This is mostly true for spoken languages, but what about signed languages, that can express multiple morphemes at once with none of them clearly coming "before" or "after" each other?
    – Draconis
    Oct 31, 2023 at 15:27
  • Well, think of them in an analogy of a musical partitur, and the different instruments are the hands, the facial expression and the other body parts relevant for the sign language, and everything stacked vertically above each other is one letter of a sufficiently large alphabet. A little bit of abstraction also helps, not every movement in going from one sign to another is really relevant for the meaning conveyed.
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Oct 31, 2023 at 19:43
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I agree with the answer by Sir Cornflakes; to phrase it in a different way: there is plenty of information that is non-linear. Thought, concepts, relationships, images, etc. But language is a code to transmit this information between people. I have an image that I want to describe to you, but I need to linearise my description, because in languages you have a temporal/sequential element in the transmission. Even German and hieroglyphs do that. There is a fixed sequential ordering when you read hieroglyphs (or Hangul for that matter, which is also two-dimensional).

If you want to look at an image, you cannot look at it all at once, so you need to select a sequence in which you visit the various areas of it. That is then linear again. And depending on the order, the image might have a different meaning to you, just like word order in many languages.

So, language being a means of communication, there has to be a linearity to it.

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  • Oliver, Thanks. Oct 31, 2023 at 11:02
  • ... "even German"? Why are we imagining German to be some special language? Oct 31, 2023 at 15:32
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    German is special in Oliver Mason's post because bobengineer cited it for discussion in comments under the question.
    – Vir
    Oct 31, 2023 at 15:55
  • @AzorAhai-him- -- exactly! And I'm a native German speaker, so I know it's not special :) Oct 31, 2023 at 17:07
  • @Vir Oh okay skimmed right past it Oct 31, 2023 at 17:13
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A purely spoken language could not be non-linear, as sounds must be expressed one after another. The only real exception to this that I can think of would be a language that must be spoken by multiple speakers simultaneously.

Written languages have significantly more options though, as they aren't restricted by time. The author will have to write in a certain order, but nothing has to guarantee that the reader reads in that same order. I would recommend reading this essay on nonlinear languages and looking at UNLWS, the Unker Non-Linear Writing System, which I think is an example of a nonlinear language done well.

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  • This work is worth a "notable mention" because it goes some steps beyond conventional writing systems. However, computer scientists have devised effective methods to transform complex graphs into linear notation as well.
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Feb 18 at 22:31

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