W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > semantic-web@w3.org > February 2009

Re: live meaning and dead languages

From: Charles Dylan Shearer <dshearer@nekonya.info>
Date: Sun, 8 Feb 2009 21:38:51 -0500
Cc: Tim Berners-Lee <timbl@w3.org>, Jeremy Carroll <jeremy@topquadrant.com>, "semantic-web@w3.org" <semantic-web@w3.org>
Message-Id: <826B3356-B0CE-4E0F-B432-02FCCC11354A@nekonya.info>
To: Hugh Glaser <hg@ecs.soton.ac.uk>

Hugh, you provided an interesting example.  I think we should make  
some observations about the difference between words and the things  
they denote, using your example as illustration.

The question of this discussion is what implications does the fact  
that the meanings of words in natural languages change have for the  
long-term utility of the Semantic Web's method of vocabulary  
creation.  You alluded to the fact that, in the 1960s, the word  
"hacker" meant something like "a person who programs as a hobby", but  
in the 80s its began to mean something like "a person who tries to  
gain unauthorized access to networked computers".

> For example, if there had been a SW in the 1960s, there would have  
> been a URI for the concept addressed by the word "hacker", say, http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
>  or even http://tmrc.mit.edu/dictionary.rdf#hacker.
> However, once it had appeared in the metadata for TRON, and War  
> Games, or whatever, in the 1980s, the URI http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
>  would have changed its meaning, with the most widespread meaning  
> still being that usage today.
> And no amount of pointing the world at dbpedia and other definitions  
> would ever change that.
> So "meaning as use" is not the basis of the design, but it is a  
> reality we must face in the long term.


You argue that changes in words' meanings will cause a problem for the  
Semantic Web, by arguing that the change in the meaning of "hacker"  
would cause a problem for its related URI (let's pick "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
").  But I think that it is not clear what the URI "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
" refers to.  You said that "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker" is a  
URI for the concept addressed (in the 60s) by the word "hacker".  If  
that were so, then the change in the meaning of "hacker" in the 80s  
should have no impact on that URI: the change involved the *word*  
"hacker", not the concept "a person who programs as a hobby".  The use  
of the word "definitions" in your comment "no amount of pointing the  
world at dbpedia and other definitions would ever change that" betrays  
your switch, at the end of the paragraph, to assuming that the URI  
refers to the word, which is contrary to your earlier statement.   
After the 1980s, the world had two concepts: "a person who programs as  
a hobby" and "a person who tries to gain unauthorized access to  
networked computers".  The word "hacker" had been changed from  
pointing to the first concept to pointing to the second, but I think  
that both concepts were well-used in computerized societies (the first  
one was more often referred to with the words "nerd" and "geek"  
instead of "hacker").  So, I think that we can conclude that, if "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
" is the URI of the concept, then the change in the word "hacker" has  
no impact on it.

As I pointed out, you seemed to draw your conclusion from the  
assumption that "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker" refers to the  
word "hacker" (rather than a concept), but I believe that, even in  
this case, the change in the meaning of "hacker" does not cause a  
problem for that URI.  Because the word "hacker" changed, it would be  
proper to modify the published assertions involving the URI "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
" to reflect these changes, just as an English dictionary would modify  
its entry for "hacker".  If the word "hacker" had become ambiguous,  
then presumably the document retrieved by dereferencing "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
" would mention that ambiguity.  The important point is that "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
" itself did not become ambiguous -- it still referred to the word  
spelled "h"+"a"+"c"+"k"+"e"+"r".

There is one alternative meaning of the URI "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
" that would cause the change in the meaning of "hacker" to change  
what "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker" *ultimately refers to*.  In  
this case, "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker" means "the meaning of  
the word 'hacker' " -- that is, it refers to a specific concept only  
when that concept happens to be the meaning of the word "hacker".  So,  
when the meaning of "hacker" changed, the referent of "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
" changed accordingly, but not the *meaning* of "http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
".  Again, I think that the change in "hacker" does not create a  
problem.

In general, I think that ontologies on the Semantic Web will be most  
affected by changes in the concepts people use rather than the changes  
in word-meanings that often accompany them.

Dylan


On Feb 8, 2009, at 9:19 AM, Hugh Glaser wrote:

>
> Hi.
> I expect it to be the case that meaning can seriously change, and  
> there is an analogy with natural language.
> (URIs based on formal groups such as WGS84 will always tend to be  
> more stable, of course, just as words are.)
> For example, if there had been a SW in the 1960s, there would have  
> been a URI for the concept addressed by the word "hacker", say, http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
>  or even http://tmrc.mit.edu/dictionary.rdf#hacker.
> However, once it had appeared in the metadata for TRON, and War  
> Games, or whatever, in the 1980s, the URI http://dbpedia.org/resource/Hacker 
>  would have changed its meaning, with the most widespread meaning  
> still being that usage today.
> And no amount of pointing the world at dbpedia and other definitions  
> would ever change that.
> So "meaning as use" is not the basis of the design, but it is a  
> reality we must face in the long term.
> Of course, this is not just a problem - it is an exciting challenge!
> And the fun is to work out how the SW can give us a better handle on  
> all this.
>
> <cod philosophy warning>
> I consider that there is a great danger when designing systems that  
> they get built for the way we would like the world to be, not the  
> way it is. That way lies failure (cf the attitude to broken links in  
> the old hypertext world already mentioned).
> </cod philosophy warning>
>
> Best
> Hugh
>
> On 08/02/2009 00:12, "Tim Berners-Lee" <timbl@w3.org> wrote:
>
>
>
> Jeremy,
>
> The Semantic Web is a system we design, not one we observe from the
> sidelines as we do with Latin, say, or English.  It is simply a
> different system. While analogies with natural languages are sometimes
> useful they are often quit misleading. In particular, meaning as use
> is not the basis of the design.
>
> The design of HTTP space is that URIs -- terms in the language --  are
> owned by particular agency -- people or communities of them.
> The terms are defined well enough for a particular use.
> The defining agency is often available to resolve the meaning n the
> case of dispute.
> The lifetime over which the terms are useful are the lifetime of the
> application.
>
> For example:
>
> wgs84:lat is short for a URI defined by the international group WGS84.
> The rdf property makes reference to a spec which has been implemented
> thousands of times.
> It is is well known as the numbers you get out of a GPS unit.
> The term can only be used for positions on earth in a particular
> projection.
> If a new GPS system comes into play in the future which is much better
> than the current, and uses a different projection, then new GPS
> systems may be built to use new different terms by default.
> The new terms will of course use a different URI, so there will be no
> confusion.
> But the relationships  between the projections will be well  
> documented.
> And the WGS84 system I would expect to have a very valuable life, huge
> amounts of data being reliably exchanged using it, fro maybe
> centuries, and I hope even in future millennia being a dead language
> which is extremely well known by future librarians (human or not).
>
> This stability of terms like this if very important for the systems we
> are building.
> You say you are an engineer not a philosopher.
> I would, as you know, call you a philosophical engineer.  We are, in
> the semantic web, building systems in which we engineer the philosophy
> so that the system will have properties we desire.
>
> Tim
>
> On 2009-02 -05, at 22:34, Jeremy Carroll wrote:
>
>>
>>
>> One of the occasional defects of people in SW is a tendency to arm
>> chair philosophizing.
>> I will indulge.[...]
>
>
>
Received on Monday, 9 February 2009 08:10:54 UTC

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.4.0 : Tuesday, 5 July 2022 08:45:10 UTC