Professionally, I am a computational linguist.
In the world of linguistics (the study of human languages), a computational linguist is a linguist who uses computers -- usually in the sense of word processors and databases to manipulate data otherwise organized, but increasingly also with reference to sophisticated computer tools for doing linguistic kinds of things such as analyzing the phonology of a previously undocumented language. In that sense, I am a computational linguist because I am developing computer software to facilitate Bible translation into remote languages.
In the world of computers, a computational linguist is a computer professional who uses linguistic theories originally developed for the study of human languages, but applies them to the artificial linguistic world of programming languages. In that sense I am also a computational linguist, because my PhD dissertation emphasized the preservation of correct semantics (meaning) across the translation of computer programs from (just barely) human-readable languages like Basic and C++ and Fortran and spreadsheets, into the arcane ones and zeros of machine language. Semantics in this context signifies that the program which the programmer envisioned and wrote, representing the precise and sequential manipulation of text and/or numbers, should in fact behave exactly as intended when the computer operates on those numbers as directed by the translated machine language which is the only language the computer understands.
The translation process effected by compilers in the computer environment is exactly the same as the process the same word "translation" denotes out there in the world of natural languages. The only difference is that in the computer environment the languages are artificial and precisely defined, while in the natural language world languages are ambiguous and changing, and meaning tends to be only an approximation. Meaning is only an approximation in the computer world also, but we pretend otherwise.
The purpose of this essay is to explore the nature of meaning and how
it is conveyed by the linguistic elements we use to that end. I can identify
three such linguistic elements, which for this paper I will identify as
and Context. I intend to look at these elements
in effecting the transmission of a Message from
the mind of the Author (or speaker; the medium of transmission is irrelevant
to the consideration here) to the mind of the Reader (or listener), without
any prejudice as to whether either party is in fact a machine. Of course
the "mind" of a machine is somewhat metaphorical, and refers more precisely
to the effect of the Message on the physical conditions (hardware and software)
driven by that message in the case of a computer Reader, or else the physical
conditions (sensors, other software) whose interaction generates the message
in the case of a computer Author.
A graphing calculator generates a message which is a curve on its x-y coordinate screen because the user intended to see the shape of that curve and therefore entered the terms of the formula into the program; furthermore, the programmer who wrote the calculator firmware intended to make that curve visible to the user, as did the engineer who designed the pixels of the screen to be controlled by the firmware. The Author of the particular curve is the user who chose the terms, but the Author of the visual message carrying that curve was the programmer and engineer working together.
Some messages -- such as art and music -- communicate only nonverbal
emotions, for that is what the artist or musician intended. Some messages
-- particularly jokes -- are intentionally ambiguous: the clash between
the two senses of a pun is the nature of the message. Some messages can
carry multiple non-clashing meanings, such as a fine illuminated manuscript,
which contains both text (what the words say) and the artistic visual presentation
of the calligraphy and miniatures.
A more reasonable example is "The boy hit the girl" which has a different meaning than exactly the same words in a slightly different order, "The girl hit the boy". In other, more fully inflected, languages like Latin or Greek, the word order is irrelevant to the basic meaning, because the noun inflection (also considered part of the syntax) tells the Reader which word is the perpetrator and which is the victim. In English we inflect the noun only for plural and possessive case, but verbs are inflected for aspect and tense, such as past or continuative.
In our boiler dial example, the position of the needle is the syntax.
A man and his wife are packing to go on a trip. She tells him that her carry-on valise is ready. He replies, "The car is open."What message did he intend to communicate? Something about the state of the vehicle? Hardly. She probably already knew that. He was inviting her to carry the valise out to the car. The shared knowledge he implicitly referred to is the fact that to go on a trip, you need to first move the luggage from the house to the car, and if one of the two is otherwise occupied (with his own packing), it is reasonable for the other to start carrying.
I recently finished reading Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, a novel about second- and third-order efforts to hide messages from prying eyes. The first-order effort is to encrypt the message, but if the opponent knows you are encrypting the message, he can use various known methods to break the encryption. Then, of course, the attacker wants to keep the primary agent from realizing that he is being spied upon, so he in turn uses third-order strategems to conceal that fact. It makes a marvelously complex story line. Not far from the end, the hero Randy has been thrown into jail with his laptop computer in an poorly concealed effort to get him to decrypt some vital information on his computer, which the opponent is surrepticiously monitoring. Into the adjacent cell another character -- sort of a guardian angel -- has managed to get himself thrown. He now tells Randy:
With any luck, Randy, you and I can make a bridge -- as long as you are just standing there pontificating anyway. [p.785, author's italics]The bridge, he subsequently tells Randy, refers to the game. The point of this strange sentence has nothing at all to do with the dictionary sense of any of the words -- not even the game of bridge. Its sole purpose is to communicate to Randy that he should now begin the process of communicating by means of an encryption technique called "Pontifex" previously sent to him by email, which uses bridge hands in a card deck to encode and communicate the decryption key, so as to conceal from the jailhouse eavesdroppers that they are doing so.
In both of these communications, the entire message is contextual, in one case as an abbreviation, and the other to hide its intent from third parties.
These examples are extreme. Most of the time context provides only part
of the message. How large a part varies from time to time, and from context
to context, but never is it completely absent. Indeed, the dictionary both
Author and Reader carry in their heads, which defines the meaning of the
words (semantics), and the grammar of the language they communicate in
(syntax), are necessary and intrinsic parts of that context. Beyond that,
the additional communication context (including facial gestures and tone
of voice) disambiguates words with multiple senses.
Legal documents by nature must leave as little as possible to context. Otherwise some zealous judge may presume to invent a context the Author did not intend. Poetry is often the reverse, where the poet seeks to evoke a great deal of context in the mind of the Reader -- sometimes with odd side effects. I think it was a Browning sonnet, when the poet was later asked to explain it, he replied, "When I wrote that, only God and Robert Browning understood it. Now only God does." [quoted in the Amazon review of The Barretts of Wimpole Street]
I have a particular interest in Bible translation. I studied Greek and Hebrew so better understand exactly what the Author intended to communicate. Apart from a few badly translated words of little consequence, most English Bible translations are reasonably accurate. Very little is lost in translation. There is, however, a certain amount of cultural context that the individual writers (Author) assumed, which is not in the text. Most of the imagery in the Apocalypse directly links to Old Testament texts. Thus the "Mark of the Beast" (666) can be easily understood to have commercial implications when you see that same number referring to the amount of gold imported into Solomon's kingdom in one year within a context of runaway inflation. Similarly, much of Jesus' ministry has implicit links to Old Testament prophecies. Sometimes the gospel Authors recognize their Readers' unfamiliarity with those references and directly cite them; other times the Reader is just expected to figure it out. Mostly the Authors knew they were writing to a general audience, so what they left to context is minimal.
I try to do the same with my writing. You need to know I'm a Christian,
so occasionally there will be a covert reference to the Bible in my writing.
Most of the time I eschew unstated context, and it annoys me when people
try to assume I will figure out the context in their cryptic communications.
Thus I tend to favor email over telephone calls, so there is no back-channel
contradicting the intended message. When somebody insistes on verbal communication
with me, it usually tells me that they are not thinking clearly and seek
the protection of "he said, she said" deniability for their blunders.
First draft 2008 October 23