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Re: [ontolog-forum] Practical Semantic Primitives

To: ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
From: John F Sowa <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sat, 10 Aug 2013 10:52:34 -0400
Message-id: <520653B2.804@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Leo, Gary, and Bruce,    (01)

I agree that the search for good distinctions and defining terms is
useful.  But the world is a continuum, and the range of "games" that
people play with words is open ended and constantly varying.  The
common features among the games are fuzzy, rough, and squishy
approximations, not primitives in a mathematical sense.    (02)

> I think it is a lost cause when considered as a reduction to semantic
> primitives, but there may be some merit in looking for a set of common
> words in many languages.    (03)

I agree.  But the words with similar meanings are the result of common
aspects of human experience.  Chimpanzees don't have the vocal ability
of humans, but they can learn and use signs for experiences that are
common to humans and chimps.    (04)

> There is also Swadesh’s list of core words for historical linguistics,
> with many variations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swadesh_list.    (05)

That list illustrates the point.  Note the words that are the most
stable -- i.e., words whose forms remain recognizable over centuries.
Surprisingly, the most stable of all is 'louse'.  At the end of this
note is a copy of the top 20 most stable words.  The only one that
a chimp would have difficulty in learning is 'liver' -- and that's
because they don't have the experience of eating or preparing liver.    (06)

> You can think of what happens as some signal that activates portions
> of a  semantic net…    (07)

Yes.  The brain recognizes perceptible patterns that are associated
with significant aspects of human experience.  Words are perceptible
patterns with connections to patterns of perception and action.    (08)

> On this view the meaning is not in, or embodied in, the word symbol.
> Rather the personal meaning of a word-symbol is the totality of what
> gets activated in a cognitive agent.    (09)

I agree.  As Wittgenstein said, the meaning of a word is its use.
The multiple word senses are the result of the many ways that a word
is used.  For each individual, each word is linked to a growing and
changing network of experiences.  Word senses are classifications
that some lexicographer derived from citations of word uses.    (010)

> For me – the word-symbol is a label for a composite and implicit block
> of distinctions and “meanings”.  For reasons of psychological economy,
> people use brief word-labels for complex ideas – leaving out many specific
> details and implications because we don’t have time for the details
> (“the weeds”), and we hope we can get away with skipping over them.    (011)

The stable words on the Swadesh list are good examples.  They're
easy to recognize, they're associated with a frequently occurring
experience, and they're islands of stability in the growing and
changing network of associations.    (012)

Nouns dominate the list of stable words on the Swadesh list.  The verb
'drink' is the most stable verb, but it's 38th in relative stability.    (013)

But note that emotional terms are absent from that list.  The word
'good' is the only evaluative term, and it's 79th in stability. People
certainly use emotional and evaluative terms, but their meanings are
not stable -- i.e., the ways they are used tend to change, and the
word forms aren't preserved over the long term.    (014)

The word 'louse' is so stable because it refers to a fixed species,
and it is only used in a limited number of language games.    (015)

John    (016)

__________________________________________________________________    (017)

 From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swadesh_list    (018)

Following are the top 20 words ranked according to their relative
stability.  A higher number in parentheses means that the word forms
are more likely to be preserved as languages evolve over the centuries.    (019)

  1. louse (42.8)
  2. two (39.8)
  3. water (37.4)
  4. ear (37.2)
  5. die (36.3)
  6. I (35.9)
  7. liver (35.7)
  8. eye (35.4)
  9. hand (34.9)
10. hear (33.8)
11. tree (33.6)
12. fish (33.4)
13. name (32.4)
14. tone (32.1)
15. tooth (30.7)
16. breasts (30.7)
17. you (30.6)
18. path (30.2)
19. bone (30.1)
20. tongue (30.1)    (020)

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