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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

On regulatory linguistics

THE ARGENTINIAN WRITER Borges once observed thatevery word is a metaphor, including the word‘metaphor’. This simple but profound observationtravelled unremarked around the world,until one day it was absorbed by Mir Uqbar, a functionaryof the ERZ, the insurance regulator of Ruritania. The ERZhad for some time been concerned about the connotationsthat might be attributed to words used in the insurancesector; in particular, how could they control themeanings that people might ascribe to the Ruritanianequivalents of words such as ‘bonus’, ‘independent’, or‘guarantee’? Debates were held, sages consulted, paperspresented, but all to no avail until the day Uqbar, thinkingabout language and metaphor, remembered a book hehad once seen in the National Library of Ruritania. Thisbook was An Essay towards a Real Character and a PhilosophicalLanguage, written in 1668 by Bishop JohnWilkins, brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell and one of thefounders of England’s Royal Society.In this work Wilkins set about the task of creating ameaningful language, meaningful in the sense that eachword would define itself rather than rely on metaphoricalassociations. Wilkins divided the universe into 40 categories,each denoted by some two-letter combination;these 40 classes would then be further subdivided by affixing,alternately, vowels and consonants with certainsemantic significations (interestingly from a theologicalpoint of view, the category representing God permitted ofno further division). For instance, de denotes an element;deb, the first element, fire; deba, that portion of fire whichis the flame; or the same stem could give us det, a meteor,and then deta, a halo. In this system, every word woulddefine itself; ambiguity and blurred meanings would be nomore. The English word salmon by itself tells us nothing; itsRuritanian equivalent omisoc tells us nothing; but theequivalent word in ‘Wilkinese’, zana, denotes a scaly riverfish with pink flesh. Wilkins also proposed a new symbolicalphabet, wherein each symbol would in some way have anatural association with the underlying concept, thus tofacilitate the international diffusion of his language.Inspired by the categorical beauty and unequivocal efficiencyof this system, our Ruritanian regulator went on toresearch other attempts to concoct self-defining languages.Uqbar found that George Dalgarno of Aberdeen hadconstructed a similar language several years beforeWilkins, in 1661, as described in his Ars Signorum, or UniversalCharacter and Philosophical Language. The centralidea of this language was the same as that of Wilkins,although Dalgarno’s categorisation was less minute andverbs were neglected (not the linguistic problem onemight think – this attitude to verbs has been adopted bythe writers of headlines for our tabloid newspapers). Heended his treatise with translations into his language ofthe first chapter of Genesis, five Psalms, and two ofAesop’s fables; Genesis started, ‘Dam semu Sava samesaNam tun Nom’.Going further back, Uqbar discovered that Descartes hadsowed the seeds of such languages in 1629. Descartes hadobserved that any number could be ‘constructed’ by applicationof a simple system of enumeration; equivalently,therefore, it should be feasible to establish a set of buildingblocks from which any concept or object could beeasily labelled.By this time Uqbar was getting more and more excitedabout the idea. However, it was not the discovery of thisCartesian blessing that prompted his creation of a new regulatorylanguage, but his discovery of the fundamentalproblem inherent in all such a priori languages – that of categorisation.Any such language, when created, representsthe then total catalogue of knowledge. Any new knowledgewould render the original categorisation invalid; discoverieswould require extensions, new interpretationsmight require internal recategorisations. In a book by FrederickBodmer, he read the magic words, ‘Had Wilkins’s plancome into use among scientific men, science would havebeen fossilized at the level it had reached in 1650, as Chineseculture was petrified in a logographic script severalthousand years before Wilkins wrote’. Eureka!Here was the solution to two problems: how to avoid thesubjective interpretation of words, and how to stifle theculture of innovation that plagued the Ruritanian insuranceand pensions industry. Within a year, the new language‘Erzat’ had been created in line with Wilkins’ssystem; within two years, all relevant company literatureand industry regulations had been translated; within fouryears, to avoid ‘metaphoric pollution’ of Erzat by Ruritanian,the whole country switched to Erzat.Since then, the ERZ has had remarkably few problems.