Sat, 01 Nov 2003

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semantic relativism

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Taxonomy is a boundary object.

This blog post talks about how we shouldn't jump down other people's throats when they get the definition of some jargon (for example, "taxonomy" or "object") wrong. With this, I agree.

But the gist I start getting is that it's OK for a single semantic element to be "overloaded" with multiple meanings. Which I think is confusing.

Still, context is key. If a programmer says something, chances are, it will be different from when a suit says something.

Maybe I'm misreading it anyway, but I think it is important to keep these distinctions there. The way I see it, semantic elements need to either converge or diverge. We cannot propagate a multiply overloaded semantic element and expect everyone to just accept it without critical analysis.

Convergence: Ideally, while you might use the same semantic element and mean wildly differing things, if you are serious about communication, you will, at some point, have to statically define your terms. While the meanings of semantic elements will definitely drift with time, you cannot use this drift as an excuse not to nail down whatever you are talking about. While I agree that overloaded semantics are good conversation starters, you can't just leave at that. At some point, things need to be made concrete. Often times, this requires creating new terminology, because the original semantic element will have become so overloaded that it will become meaningless.

Divergence: Chances are, however, you will fail to converge on a single meaning. At this point, it is important to differentiate clearly and, again, define your terms unambiguously. As above, there needs to be a distinction between what a programmer means and what a suit means. While there is no need to create completely different terminology, and it is acceptable to keep a term overloaded, it is important that you can easily contextualize what it means.

But don't get me wrong. I understand fully well that the meanings of semantic elements drift with time. Words are not static. But words are not meaninglessly fluid either. Words are objects that exist in space and time, and in truth, words represent tree structures. Meanings are always related somehow, however non-obvious, and there must be a common branch point. This is where you must come from to start defining your terms. Context will allow you to hone in on the correct meaning.

This is precisely how language operates, in a truly democratic fashion. You cannot create useful words by fiat. The transaction of semantic creation requires one to utter the word, and the other to grok it, and if the other does not grok it, then you have failed and you must try again. I agree, language is really constant negotiation between interested parties.

In sum, all I'm trying to say is that while words cannot be arbitrarily tossed around and expect to be meaningful, words are also not necessarily tied to some Platonic ideal. Admittedly, on a physical level, the sound waves translated by different individuals' cochlear nerves will activate wildly varying neuronal pathways, and understanding requires a committment to be willing to fine-tune, until both sides are adequately satisfied that they mean roughly the same thing.

10:44:17 1 Nov 2003 > /language > permalink > 0 comments

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