I just finished the first chapter of The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar, written by Mark C. Baker and published by Basic Books. The book follows Baker's dissection of the human notion of "language" and asserts that all world languages are composed of the same theoretical building blocks. This idea doesn't originate from Baker but it's certainly relatively new in the study of linguistics, and he's done an excellent job (as far as an Introduction and one chapter can demonstrate) so far disseminating his ideas in an entertaining and readable way.
I'm not a linguistics person, but I guess I'm used to dealing with "the abstract" in computer science. Still, I was worried this book might be too over my head for me to get through. I'm not yet claiming its material is entirely within my mental grasp, but the obscure trivia and fun facts peppered throughout the text keep it relevant and entertaining. Did you know the Navajo people have more than ten verbs for "to carry," depending on the type of object the person is carrying?
Fun facts, aside, however, my main reason for reading this book is in preparation for the research I'll be doing in the Fall semester in Natural Language Processing; if you're not familiar with the term, you must not be a computer science nerd. NLP is a fascinating topic that deals with the problem of getting a computer to understand, interpret, and "speak" a human language such as English. If you've ever laughed at a free online translator or been frustrated by a search engine's inability to understand what exactly you're looking for, then you are an unknowing proponent of NLP research.
I'm partly interested in NLP due to its natural implications for games. Façade, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's "one-act interactive drama," is an excellent piece of non-linear storytelling that makes use of this technology. Peter Molyneux's recently-unveiled tech demo for "Milo," a virtual boy who interacts with the player via Microsoft's Project Natal, looks to combine NLP with other technologies for a "life-like" experience. Even much simpler games could lend themselves to this technology - a game like 5th Cell's upcoming Scribblenauts, combined with a C-3PO-like understanding of human language, could open up a lot of exciting possibilities.
Time to reign it in, though. After all, I'm only up to Chapter 2: In Which the Ambitions and Dreams of a Young Game Designer are Crushed by the Harsh Truths of Reality.
Can you think of any other experiences in your own life that would be aided by this technology? Feedback and discussion are welcome and encouraged in the comments.