Semantics

Natural language may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think.  Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention of cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision.  Language needs its “flaws” in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

-Arika Okrent In the Land of Invented Languages (p.258)

That’s kind of the meat of it, right?  Okrent’s exploration of Loglan and its derivative logical languages is fascinating.  The idea that a logical, mathematical language would free us from the “inadequacies of language” reminds me a lot of the debates around not only the possibility, but the merits of a semantic web.  Contrary to this week’s posting prompt, I am far from an expert on the subject so hopefully this video will summarize the concept for you far better than I could:

Web 3.0 by Kate Ray

Loglan and its cousins, as well as Wilkins’ and other similar approaches to ordering the universe, seem to take the view that we can fully and finitely understand the world around us, we just have to clean up the noise through logic or agree on the right ontology.  Creating a semantic web seems to hinge on a very similar belief that our exponentially expanding online universe just needs to be organized with a structure that defines every possible relationship between two pieces of data.  As we are “re-rendering” our universe as information, a semantic web could help us to understand the meaning of that information universe.  But as Clay Shirky points out in the video, this naturally brings us back to the basic philosophical question — does the world make sense, or do we make sense of the world? 

I think Okrent, in finding the beauty of flawed natural languages would tend to side with Abraham Bernstein and David Karger as proponents of a Sloppy/Scruffy Semantic Web.  And I tend to agree as well.  Even as we are increasingly re-defining life and the universe as information, and we are getting exponentially better at computing that data, we will still find ourselves just trying our best to make sense of the world around us and falling short.  And just as Wilkins found in creating his categories and subcategories and sub-subcategories of all things, our understanding will always be tied to our perspective.  In that sense, I think the potential for a semantic web that helps us parse our experiences and understand on a greater, perhaps closer to more holistic, level the context around our information is a good thing.  But maybe, like the invented languages in Okrent’s book, the pursuit of one universal structure is a false goal.  Perhaps the semantic web is one where each and every one of us is able to program our own relational structures, and there are as many semantic webs as there are individual human perspectives.  And maybe the goal is the same as it has always been — to figure out how to help these disparate individual experiences in understanding each other.

…his own nation in his own little room…

The lyrics tell the story of a young person who feels completely alone, but then goes to an Esperanto congress and feels such friendship and connection to the world that his loneliness leaves him…until he is back in his own nation in his own little room. (131)

Normando, Okrent’s “Esperanto abassador,” here describes to her the meaning of the song “Sola” (Alone) that Kimo and Jean-Marc perform at an Esperanto conference in Havana. I misread the lyrics at first, assuming that the lonely young person in the song feels such connection to the world because of Esperanto that he is able to find “his own nation in his own little room.” When I reread the passage before typing it here, I noticed my error. I guess it is obvious though that “back in his nation” would mean much more to the young person who does not have the benefit of Web-enabled, constant, global communication. “Esperantoland” does not describe an actual land but an identity. Esperantoland worked from its origins for its small community because it could be accessed by anyone anywhere, and it was inclusive (particularly to the cranks). There is not a nation or culture or language that cannot now be accessed by anyone anywhere because of technological revolutions in global communication. Does this mean that localism is now wholly independent of geography? Are our identities constructed more from our physical local environs or from our own nations in our own little rooms? It seems that children spend as much time in their “own” nations as they do in their “real” communities—to which nation do they actually belong?

Okrent describes how during the Enlightenment thinkers saw Universal Language as something that would reveal a deep truth when it was discovered/created. Then as nationalism was privileged on the eve of WWI and became a threat to scattered peoples (like the Jews), language became a unifier—an instant form of community. Although young people will always continue to feel at times “completely alone,” it seems that today, with the technology that enables global communication speeding ahead of a potential universal language, people are more likely to create tools to aid understanding than to create a language itself. One example of such a tool is an app called World Lens that instantly translates foreign-language signs.

Perhaps as it becomes easier through technology to communicate, a language that incorporates popular aspects of different languages will organically emerge. That, or English will take over. Whatever the case, given the ease with which younger and younger people are able to figure out through technology how to understand the world and communicate with one another, it seems unlikely that someone will feel compelled to facilitate connection through the creation of a spoken language.

How will society change as identity-formation in youth depends less on physically localized culture?