Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology,University of Toronto
Dialects, Speech and Information:Chao Yuen Ren’s Route to Cybernetics
A founder of modern Chinese linguistics, Chao Yuen Ren (1892-1982) is famous for his extensive surveys of dialects and promotion of a national language. This paper examines a less familiar part of his later career: his thought and use of cybernetics. Chao’s cybernetic vision concerned the statistical distinctiveness of morphemes, quantitative measure of redundancy, and varying degrees of meaning in Chinese. Although he attributed languages’ information-theoretic “forms of meaning” as products of long-term negative feedback, he nonetheless stressed their stability and non-plasticity, unlike the contemporary Western cognitive scientists that highlighted feedback’s open-endedness or the later Communist technocrats that championed the power of human actions in controlling feedback systems. I will explore aspects of Chao’s intellectual trajectory that may have given rise to this view: his lifelong preoccupation with oral languages in both field and laboratory, his commitment to structuralism, and his attempt to modernize a longstanding humanistic area of study among Chinese literati – phonology – with “scientific methods” that characterized the intellectuals of the May Fourth generation.
Chen-Pang Yeang is an associate professor at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto. His research areas include the history of physics and engineering science in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, focusing on the interactions between theory making, experimental practice, instrument development, and technological applications. He is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, in 2012-13.
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