October 9, 2015

Colloquium on Chinese linguist Chao Yuen Ren

Professor Chen-Pang Yeang of the U of T's Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology will be giving a talk on Wednesday the 14th at 4 PM in Victoria College room 323: "Dialects, speech, and information: Chao Yuen Ren’s route to cybernetics." Refreshments will follow.

A founder of modern Chinese linguistics, Chao Yuen Ren (Zhao Yuenren, 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. When Chao taught at Harvard in 1947, he read Norbert Wiener’s manuscript on the topic, and immediately acknowledged its importance. In 1953, Chao attended the Macy Conference (the major symposium for cybernetics) to give a paper on meaning. In the following decades, he further developed his thought and introduced it to his research on Chinese language. 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 give 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.

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