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RE: live meaning and dead languages

From: Jeremy Carroll <jeremy@topquadrant.com>
Date: Fri, 6 Feb 2009 15:03:10 -0800
To: "'Frank Manola'" <fmanola@acm.org>
Cc: <semantic-web@w3.org>
Message-ID: <002301c988af$162de290$4289a7b0$@com>

Hi Frank

> Philosophizing is OK, but some examples might clarify things (or at
> least indicate how I've missed the point!).  I will indulge.

The example areas that work for me are from social networking.
I think we often think about either scientific or inventory type applications and knowledge, where there is a certain amount of pretending that things don't change, when in fact they do.

e.g. I was just having a conversation about the color 'red'. My colleague was insisting that 'red' is a particular wavelength of light, whereas I was saying it was the color of blood, coca cola bottles and fire extinguishers. I think my examples (certainly the first) predate the wavelength approach to light.


With social networking sites, certain database fields are displayed as having a particular significance, e.g. relationship status in facebook.
That these fields are meaningful in the sense of being part of (at least some people's) life world is clear
[1], [2]. The range of choices appears somewhat limited.
The choices about which sort of relationship to describe in which way, will inevitable interact with both social and technical change (relevant social changes include new concepts like gay marriage, relevant technical changes include the range of options presented, and whether these are user customizable etc).

I think these sorts of concepts are more relevant to businesses than the hard-nosed red is the color between r1 and r2 Hz.

> 
> >
> >
> > A term which is too tightly nailed down in its relationship to other
> > terms has been dug into an early grave. Having fixed its meaning, as
> > our world moves on, the term will become useless.
> >
> > The trick, in natural language, is that the meaning of terms is
> > somewhat loose, and moves with the times, while still having some
> > limits.
> > This looseness of definition gives rise to some misunderstandings
> > (aka interoperability failures), but not too many, we hope.
> >
> > So I wonder, as some people try to describe some part of their world
> > with great precision, using the latest and greatest formal
> > techniques, just how long that way of describing the world will
> > last. Maybe there is a role in such precision in allowing us to be
> > clear about differences of opinion --- but it doesn't seem to me to
> > be a good foundation for building knowledge.
> >
> 
> One thing that needs clarification here, it seems to me, is what is
> meant exactly by "term" in the SW (maybe that's an illustration
> itself!), particularly when comparing it with natural language.  The
> meaning of terms may "move with the times", but when a term has been
> used in a specific context, I want to know what the term meant in that
> context (which may be a temporal context, or some other kind).  Take
> the term "torpedo", for example.  At one time, it meant a particular
> kind of electric fish.  Later, it became used to also refer to various
> kinds of explosive devices (e.g., naval mines, as in "damn the
> torpedos, full speed ahead", and railroad signals).  Today, you
> usually think of a self-propelled naval weapon, but the fishes are
> still "torpedos", and the use of the term to refer to a naval mine is
> obsolete (but would be relevant in, say, discussing the American Civil
> War).  So is this acquisition (and de-acquisition) of other meanings
> an example of the meaning of a term "moving with the times" as you
> describe it?  Or do I really have, so-to-speak, several terms "with
> the same name" (torpedo).  If the latter, the distinct "terms" seem to
> have fairly exact and reasonably unchanging meanings (even though the
> "same name" can cause confusion).  I'm sure there's some linguistic
> vocabulary to describe this stuff.  The point is, I'm not sure I want
> "looseness of definition";  what I want is some kind of flexible
> versioning mechanism.

Natural language assigns multiple different senses to the same term; often the senses have some relationship to one another, and help guide further new uses of the term.
But each of these senses also drifts with the times. Versioning presents meaning change as a controlled process of steps - whereas I think meaning change is a somewhat more amorphous process with no one in control. I just start using a term slightly differently, and hope it sticks.

Jeremy


[1]
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/lancashire/7874273.stm
[2]
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/staffordshire/7845946.stm
Received on Friday, 6 February 2009 23:03:53 UTC

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