A stunning bit of writing from William Gass, by way of his essay “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence” from his collection Life Sentences:
“The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman.” The rhythm of the sentence not only propels the sentence forward, it helps to organize its significant units — its phrases and clauses. The reader is made, not merely to see the sentence, but to sound it, because it is now a small mouthful. These sounds are not those of ordinary speech, but the spectral mimicry of things said to the mind, heard only by the mind, in the arena of the mind — in the subvocal consciousness that exists during reading.
The saleman’s sentence seems quite sure of itself. It is direct; it is definite; it has no room for reservations. Yet without altering a word, its epistemological and ontological status can be radically altered. That is why I called these verbal instruments, transformative operators. For instances, we could lower the sentence’s degree of assurance. “[I thought that] the fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman.” “[I guessed that] the fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [but Gertrude was of quite a different opinion].” Amphibolously: “[Harold said that if] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [he was a monkey’s uncle].” Or change tone and attitude: “[I certainly hoped] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [otherwise I’ve just now bought a cat’s brush to comb my beard].” “The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [but what if he were also the exhibitionist who has been frightening the neighborhood?]” More radically, we can put it in another realm of Being. “[While seated before the fire in my dressing gown reading Descartes’s Meditations, I dreamed I heard a knocking. Then a cuckoo popped out of its clockhouse to announce that] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman. [I realized, when I was awakened by my desire to answer his knocking, that I had been dreaming inside a dream not altogether mine.]”
Layers of reality, degrees of uncertainty, ranges of attitude, levels of society, depth of contextual connection, modulations of tone, the ramifications and complexities of concept, and, above all, the vocabulary of the denoted world, must be taken into account, managed, and made the best of.
Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories about how words are defined by context.
Being reasonably acquainted with Wittgenstein, I found myself wondering which of his ideas came so integrally into play in solving this problem. The Wired article only links to Wittgenstein’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, which includes a survey of all his major concepts and works. Was it his distinction between sense and nonsense? His arguments against a private language? His work on the connection between seeing and saying and his example of the “duckrabbit”? Or perhaps it was something he didn’t discover but simply weighed in on, like ostensive definitions or contextualism?
The strongest candidate, though, might be his concepts of language games and family resemblance. Wittgenstein’s best-known example of a language game is the “builder’s language.” Here’s how he describes it:
The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “pillar” “slab”, “beam”. A calls them out; — B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call.
This is a very small kit of parts; a lexicon of just four elements, combined in a certain way. But by uttering these words in the right context, a building gets built. The meaning these words have comes from their ability to activate the builder’s assistant to do what the master builder is asking. And their family resemblance has to do with this limited language, in which these words’ meaning is defined by their context and shared by the two builders. After the workday is through, the builder might look forward to how his children “beam” at him when he arrives home, and the context is entirely different.
The Wired article continues,
As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant.
A rock is a rock. It’s also a stone, and it could be a boulder. Spell it “rokc” and it’s still a rock. But put “little” in front of it and it’s the capital of Arkansas. Which is not an ark. Unless Noah is around.
Oh, and on the headline above — just my humble attempt to confuse the hell out of Google.
My friend Graham Meyer has done a nice post on his blog The Other Tiger about the increased usage of the word “sectarian.” He writes, “President Bush used it 9 times in his address of January 10, modifying ‘violence’ 5 times, ‘interference’ twice, and ‘affiliation’ and ‘enclaves’ once each.”
The weird, wonderful, and somewhat creepy world of Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), which may or may not be practiced (and mastered) by foxy bloggerina Arianna Huffington, to wit: “I have a handful of best friends, girls and boys, men and women. Some you would know, like Larry David’s wife, Laurie, and Bill Maher, and some you would not know. I call them my tribe. And when you are in the tribe, you are not judged. You are just loved.”