Re: live meaning and dead languages

Hello Alan,

In an ideal world perhaps we could define distinct roles to the  
precision of SW languages as opposed to natural language.
However, in the real world this is not possible. What we are talking  
about here is an old chestnut, long pursued in AI.
The fundamental point is that all formal languages (including  
programming languages) are, among other things, means for *human  
beings* to communicate with machines (or abstract machines in the case  
of formal logic). cf. Davis et al. 1993 [1]. It is the fact of this  
communication which means that natural language phenomena (meaning  
shift, vagueness, ambiguity) are inherent in what is going on.

With respect to your point 1) - you are partially correct in that it  
is in specific scientific domains where there is considerable  
community buy-in that we will see the successful application of the  
Semantic Web.
Community buy-in is also a natural language phenomenon, the absence of  
which on occasions has led to the collapse of the cohesion of a  
language (the inter-operability) as seen in Europe following the  
collapse of the Roman Empire and the gradual transformation of Latin  
into a number of different languages (French, Italian, Spanish,  
Portuguese, Romanian, etc.).

There is a chance that in the Life Sciences the need for standards  
will obtain the necessary community buy-in.
We nonetheless have continuous changes in meaning, even in this  
domain, as the science moves on, e.g. consider how our definition of  
'gene' changes all the time.

Out in the wild it will only work in narrow domains or where for some  
reason there is great consistency.

With respect to 2) there are plenty of cases in software development  
where there has been communication breakdown because of different  
understanding of some aspect of the software.
So SW languages are like programming languages in that sense. But also  
remember that the 'reserved' vocabulary of a programming language is  
quite small while SW is trying to 'name' a great deal especially when  
ontologies are built for different domains.

With respect to your point 3) I agree entirely that the continuously  
evolving nature of words *is* something to celebrate. It is exactly  
this fluidity of meaning which gives language so much expressive power  
and actually *enables* communication. If meaning were entirely fixed  
then we could not extend meaning in use and thus communicate the  
similarity of a new concept with existing concepts already present in  
out experience.

The multiplicity of human languages has never prevented human beings  
from communicating. The vast majority of people in the world  
effortlessly have a command of 2, 3 or more languages. And the  
existence of a common language has never prevented the dire  
consequences you mention (I wish it were the case).

The key point that is missing from this debate is that rather than  
deny the complexity, creativity and ever changing nature of language,  
we need to take an engineering perspective and treat this as a given  
fact and build our systems accordingly. Means will change. How do we  
handle this effectively, consistently and above all robustly?


[1] Davis, R.; Shrobe, H. & Szolovits, P. (1993), 'What is a Knowledge  
Representation', AI Magazine 14(1), 17--33.

> On 7 Feb 2009, at 15:17, Alan Ruttenberg wrote:
> Hello Jeremy,
> My first reaction to your comment is that it is, at least, overbroad.
> At worse, the attitude it espouses is a threat to the utility and
> success of the Semantic Web.
> Some cases to consider:
> 1) The Semantic Web is for science too. Within that domain, precise
> definitions of many terms are essential if one is to make meaningful
> comparisons.
> 2) Your comments don't square with the experience with programming
> languages, where having terms (functions, operators, data structure
> constructors, etc) not being precisely defined leads to unportability
> and difficulty in maintenance. Why are SW representation languages not
> like programming languages?
> 3) Is the evolving nature of words, while undeniably operant,
> something to celebrate? Perhaps on the level of celebrating creativity
> it is. But the flip side is that the fact that we have so many natural
> language means that large groups of people have no way communicate
> with each other. Even within a single language dialect, idiom, and
> drift over time serve to put in place barriers to communication. I
> think it would be fair to say that this inability to communicate has
> had dire consequences in our history.
> Why do SW languages need to mimic natural languages? Why not let each
> serve a distinct (and to be celebrated) function?
> -Alan
On Thu, Feb 5, 2009 at 10:34 PM, Jeremy Carroll  
<> wrote:
> One of the occasional defects of people in SW is a tendency to arm  
> chair philosophizing.
> I will indulge.
> A book I've been reading this week, had the following, rather over- 
> egged, paragraph:
> "By language, I mean the dance of signs, the continuous process of  
> symbolic exchange between people, the humming communication network  
> of which the human life world consists. I mean also to invoke the  
> vast strange and multi-dimensional world of linguistic mean-ing --  
> and I am hyphenating mean-ing, like be-ing, because <em>mean-ing is  
> a process too</em>. We need to make this point because for so long  
> European intellectuals studied only dead languages -- Latin, Greek  
> and Hebrew -- and failed to grasp the way the transactions of life  
> are carried out and the life world is produced and formed by the  
> <em>motion</em> of living language." [1]
> In terms of meaning on the web, I see that the web as a place where  
> the life world is produced, by active extensions of our linguistic  
> apparatus. I hence have an aversion to techniques and technologies  
> that somehow pretend that meaning on the web, and in particular the  
> semantic web, should or could be made static and somehow lifeless.  
> So, I have difficulty seeing the meaning of any URI as univocal or  
> fixed or even particularly well-defined. This leads to some  
> hesitation concerning systems of definitions and axioms built on top  
> of such univocity.
> I think this worry becomes more so as axioms and systems of axioms  
> become more complicated. (I just about see similarities between OWL2  
> and the Shorter Latin Primer I had at high school).
> 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.
> Perhaps fortunately, I am an engineer not a philosopher!
> Jeremy
> [1] Don Cupitt, 2001, Emptiness and Brightness,  p95

Received on Sunday, 8 February 2009 20:27:59 UTC