Language is a fluid (Part 1)

Theoretical and Computational Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
College of Engineering
UMass Amherst

A few days before his defense, the very-soon-to-be-Dr. Shiva promised to make his phd defense as incomprehensible to a non-engineer as possible. He was teasing me, but it opens space for me to play with representing his work not only on its own terms, as I have tried to do with other friend's dissertations. In this "Part 1" post, I've selected items from Dr. Shivasubramanian Gopalakrishnan's defense that enable me to play with fluid dynamics as an analogy for language-based communication dynamics. My not-so-hidden-agenda is to attempt a translation between disciplines that might serve as an impetus to potential collaborations for addressing cross-disciplinary problems (the global type, interwoven across institutional fields, such as climate-change, grinding poverty, and widespread starvation, to name a few).

“Modeling of Thermal Non-Equilibrium in Superheated Injector Flows”

Dr Gopalakrishnan’s area of specialization is non-equilibrium phase change operations. The basic phase change he studied for his dissertation involves the change of liquid fuel into gas vapor in automobile and aircraft fuel. There are a whole ton of things that need to happen in order for a fuel to provide adequate power to an engine so that a car or plane can travel, and a fair number of things that can go wrong in the attempt, such as flash boiling and vapor lock. The engineers know all about these problems, but I had to do a bit of research. A liquid boils, for instance, not only as a function of temperature, but also as a function of pressure. Suppose one thought of a linguistic flash boil as the interaction of

    a) a word’s definition (its ‘temperature’) and

    b) the context in which the word is uttered (the environmental ‘pressure’).

Right word, right context: everybody happy.
Right word, wrong context: problem!
Wrong word, right context: just a goof.
Wrong word, wrong context:
potential domestic disturbance or international incident!

Suppose we were able to slow down social interaction to 2000 frames per second (like this water droplet) in order to perceive how a single word enters language (and thus communication) as a whole?  Most people tend not to think much about the language we use unless/until something goes wrong, and then our energies focus upon repair. If we could cultivate more consciousness about how (for instance) individual word choices merge with larger pools of language use, then we might be able to diagnose discourse patterns and even design ways of communicating that work more efficiently in developing and implementing ideas that solve real-world problems.

In terms of the analogy I’m proposing here, Snapshot 2009-11-17 18-22-14how or when do words conserve mass and momentum without changing the substance or direction of established discourse or social patterns?  When and how might particular words conform to the dictates of conservation while also accomplishing an alteration in substantive conditions that generates new forms of dialogue?

Vapor lock is not such a problem for cars anymore, but it remains a challenge for aircraft. Both issues involve the liquid becoming gas too soon. With flash boiling, part of the liquid fuel – but not all of it – superheats, leading to a two-phase (and thus inefficient) distribution of energy. With vapor lock, the bulk of the liquid vaporizes before practical use – also due to combinations of pressure and temperature. Vapor lock can cause a severe drop or even a complete stall in power. Not what you want to happen at high altitude! Nor in a conversation that you wish to proceed smoothly, for whatever reasons.

Suppose you need to talk with someone who uses a different language than you. A phase change is necessary for communication to occur. Suppose an interpreter (professionally trained, fluent in both languages) is available to transform the ‘fuel’ provided by your language into ‘power’ in the other language? This would be a phase change, yes? Keep in mind that in scientific categorization, liquids and gasses are both fluids – they belong to the same medium. Similarly, English and Turkish, Spanish and Hindi, Malaysian Sign Language and Langue des Signes Française are all examples of the medium of language. The question of efficiency in fluid phase change is comparable to the question of comprehension in interpretation: the challenge is to identify the relevant factors and manipulate the conditions so that the interaction occurs with the least loss. In fluid heat exchange, one considers the

  1. rate of downstream atomization, the
  2. starting point of the phase change – its location within the nozzle, the
  3. extent to which dispersion continues outside of the nozzle, the
  4. endpoint of phase change, and (finally) the
  5. overall emission characteristics: a comprehensive image, if you will, of what is happening when, where, and how that involves all interacting elements and environmental conditions.


One can surmise that in addition to the environmental conditions of temperature and pressure, timing is crucial for effective fluid dynamic engineering! Time comes first in the list above (rate), requiring us to imagine the complicated system in four dimensions. Temporality is also one of the more obvious constituents of interpretation, as people using interpreters to communicate across language differences often express concern with the amount of time required for the interpreter to process the ‘injection’ before manifesting ’emissions’. In aircraft, the particular mechanism that Dr Gopalakrishnan studied involved using the fuel system itself “as a heat sink to increase engine performance.”

Paralleling the practical application of a heat sink with interpretation, the question of efficiency involves the extent to which an interpreter dissipates the hot air, absorbing or otherwise deflecting excess energy that distorts the equilibrium of the relational exchange. This cooling effect of the interpreter is not intended to minimize an interlocutor’s intended meaning (a common concern), but rather, to enable the potential energy (one could say, the understanding) to be most efficiently utilized in whatever power application (voice – Blommaert: ‘the capacity for semiotic mobility’ (p. 69)) is called for: a sudden increase in speed (e.g., for emphasis), or a gradual drop in tone (perhaps to shift a debate from argumentation to persuasion).

Dr Gopalakrishnan’s work zeroed in (among other things) on the relationship between pressure and enthalpy. In terms of vaporization, enthalpy is “the energy required to transform a given quantity of a substance into a gas.” For some reason (unknown), the energy required by interpreters to transform language through a similar phase change operation seems expected not to change the substance. Liquid should not become gas! (Despite that they are still both fluids.) Put another way, the diction (discrete word choice) seems expected not to change despite the phase shift from one language to another!  This is akin to expecting, with fuel, that the molecules of the resulting gas would remain exactly the same as the molecules of the original liquid: in which case, no energy would be produced at all, as there would have been no reaction.

Based on everyday experience, language “is incompressible” (as Dr Schmidt teased when I posed my analogy to him), yet – ironically? – there seems to be widespread social conditioning about languages that presumes an interpreter is magically able to perform phase changes (interpreting from one type of language/medium to another type of language/medium) without effects from environmental conditions. Occupational health and safety evaluations, not to mention professional lore and training, reveal that communicators in a cross-language interaction do need to consider

a) the capacity of the interpreter to store extra heat/energy (technically, thermal inertia) generated by interlocutors and

b) the potential for long-term damage to interpreters (and thus, the communication system) by constraints imposed by conditions of ‘social temperature’ and ‘social pressure’ (which can show up, in fluid dynamic terms, as cavitation).

Often, when the complex realities of language-to-language interpretation are surfaced, the fallback position is to eliminate the need for interpretation. “Get everyone using the same language.” Instead, I want to suggest that there are tremendous benefits to embracing the need for interpretation as an opportunity for highlighting precisely those areas and moments of greatest difference and thus of challenge. When communication appears to fail or feels inadequate, this can be taken as an indicator to those involved that the interaction potential has shifted from a single/shared perspective to a fuller range of views – which, if utilized, may suggest greater/deeper capacities and efficiencies.

One of Dr Gopalakrishnan’s innovations was to apply two different sets of equations to the problem of fuel injection efficiency. Shiva'sLISA2By coupling mechanisms that perform distinct tasks in different domains, Dr Gopalakrishnan was able to generate new knowledge about the overall process which will likely lead to improvements in efficiency. In a similar spirit, I seek to draw on (admittedly limited) paradigmatic knowledge from engineering about fluids with paradigmatic knowledge from the humanities about language. This task necessarily involves translation between the two disciplinary languages. To be successful, co-learners will have to want to make the effort to move beyond disciplinary monolingualism. I hope the compelling problems of our time provide sufficient motivation for trying to bridge the segregation.

In a way, interpreters are always trying to apply “two different sets of equations” to the problem of efficient communication. These are the ‘equations’ of culture and language particular to each communicator. The unique aspect of interpreting (as a complex system involving the rapid combination of distinct tasks across domains with an ever-changing mix of elements), is that the people involved also have power to interpret – and re-interpret – the conditions. Unlike fluid dynamics, where the ‘temperature’ and ‘pressure’ are given factors of the environment (fixed, stable, presumedly controlled/controllable), individuals in a communication process can always choose to maintain or change the context: to alleviate or increase the pressure, to drop or raise the temperature, to decide that any word – ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ even if it generates vapor lock or superheating – can be worked with and turned to productive use. This takes effort, of course, and requires collaboration – therein lies the rub!

Coming up in Part 2: the challenge to traditional models of superheating fluids that only consider instability-based modes of breakup, the question of size vs quantity, and void fractions.

5 thoughts on “Language is a fluid (Part 1)”

  1. Wow Steph, you’ve displayed so many different facets of understanding of this piece. I think this may be the closest that i’ve ever been to understanding both injector flows and communication flows. I’m impressed!

  2. Well thanks m’dear. You’re in economics? Finance? So you know about circulation in monetary terms, eh? Notice any overlaps, connections? 🙂 I’m hoping some of the engineer and interpreter types will confirm that I’m not too far off base. (The delay in posting after Shiva’s defense, however, may have removed it too far from immediate interest…..keeping my fingers crossed though – one of the beauties of the internet is the conversation is “here” ready to be picked up if someone gets inspired.)

  3. Steph,

    I found your thoughts quite interesting, and your understanding of Shiva’s thesis quite impressive. You have absorbed quite a bit from those fluids/thermo? classes.

    All analogies are useful for helping bridge one discipline to another. Since I understand the fluids, this analogy certainly helps me understand what is important to linguists. I am less sure about if it will help the other way around. Does it really help linguists understand/describe linguistics better to think in terms of fluids?

    I see your translation problem as far closer to the computer science problem of data compression and expansion. How is
    music compressed into an MP3 file, and then regenerated. An
    idea is compressed into words (with some loss of info). Words
    are then translated into different words (mp3 to .wav) with some more loss of info, and then the new words are translated back into the idea by the final person. The computer scientists have very precise measures and terminology for each of these processes. They can predict on average how much info is lost. And they can even predict how much energy is required. Given a perfect ideal machine – it still takes finite energy to compress and decompress data. Data compression is closely related to entropy production, and decompression is entropy reduction (which always requires energy).

    Good luck with this.

  4. Blair, your question has not been far from my mind, despite the intervening timespan. Does thinking of language as a fluid help anyone involved with simultaneous interpretation think better about what is happening during this special practice of intercultural communication?

    I believe so, but it is an hypothesis without determinate results. Perhaps this is a point of distinction between literal fluids and language-conceptualized-as-a-fluid. The physical fluids that you work with have specific properties (all of which can be measured) and exist within conditions that also (typically, if not easily) can be measured. There are some relatively fixed and stable boundaries circumscribing the possibilities of *this* or *that* fluid exhibiting various properties and/or achieving particular effects. There is a range of existence and operation that function with well-known features, enabling a great degree of control.

    Communication among humans, however, is not so controllable. Even though marketers and politicians (among others) are skilled at wielding language persuasively (i.e., exerting a degree of ‘control’ over peoples’ behavior(s)), the range of meanings is wide: different individuals can interpret the same message in diverse ways despite ‘measurements’ that would suggest otherwise (such as being of the same race, religion, nationality, gender, etc), and groups of people bound by those kinds of social measurements (we can call them “identities”) can – and do – interpret messages in radically incompatible or incongruent ways.

    Rather than insisting that a monopoly of meaning exists, the virtue of a language-as-a-fluid analogy is (I hope) how it illuminates the ever-present reality that “communication [is] dangerous, fraught with opportunities to be manipulated…[while also] hold[ing] the opportunity to be destabilized, re-routed, and transformed. The fact that communication is open to collusion…implies that one must be attentive, but also that one can always find tactics within any situation. In short, the practicability of communication means one can always have hope and always has opportunity for engaging differently. There are no safe paths, but there are always multiple paths one can follow. To diminish the risk in communication is to diminish this value.” (Quoting P.J. Gehrke, “Paladins, Mercenaries, and Practicable Pedagogy” in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol 6 No 4, December 2009, pp. 416-420).

    An example (which will probably feel tangential), is this sample of communication (language use) from David Gessner, in his critique of environmental apocalypsism. “What would a new environmental music sound like? It might…sound a bit like a river. Burbling, lapping, rushing, calm, excited, but above all fluid. And contradictory, too, rushing one way but filled with back eddies and currents…it should also be blunt” (italics in original, My Green Manifesto).

    Given all this complication, you help me clarify that my most desired, intended audience is not the “linguists” per se (although I hope interpreters will notice and consider the ramifications for professional practice), nor engineering professors like yourself (although if more professors were as open as you to such interdisciplinary cross-pollination I suspect we might make greater headway at merging technological developments with policy and public support). Despite all this fancy academic language, I want to find and be able to express basic metaphors that support the broad application of communication skills across any kind of differences, especially those of language (culture) and knowledge (internal to western science and of other kinds, too).

    The power of thinking of language-as-a-fluid is to imagine that the ideas expressed by language can flow anywhere and result in all different kinds of relationships with whomever you’re communicating with, even acting back upon and effecting your own identity, too. Anyone completely satisfied with his- or herself can just keep communicating in familiar ways. Anyone with a bit of dissatisfaction though, can begin to consider the communication ‘pressures’ and ‘temperatures’ of their environment and relationships and start figuring out how to experiment with and tweak their own uses of language/communication for more desirable results.

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