November 28, 2018
We will talk about languages, their importance and motivation in a human perspective today. This is the first in a series of posts around knowledge organization, communication and vocabularies.
According to wiktionary, language is:
(countable) A body of words, and set of methods of combining them (called a grammar), understood by a community and used as a form of communication.
(uncountable) The ability to communicate using words.
At the outset, a language is used for communication. What does communication entail? Exchange of information between an Individual and one or more Individuals, we may say. So everything else that comprises a language just aids to that end? Let’s enquire further.
A language comprises a set of words. What are words?
The smallest unit of language that has a particular meaning and can be expressed by itself; the smallest discrete, meaningful unit of language.
I love this definition. Word is the building block which aids communication. It cannot be further broken. Each word carries a notion, a meaning with itself. To share an information, first we have to decompose it to a set of words, and then combine them together using something called a grammar.
A grammar is defined as
A system of rules and principles for speaking and writing a language.
Why is a grammar required? Go back to the definition of communication - it is exchange of information between two different sets of people. Source of information could be an Individual, and the Receiver end could be an Individual or a group. A set of rules forces both ends of the communication to interpret the spoken/written idea in the same manner.
Summary so far.
- What is communication? Exchange of information between one/more Individuals
- How to communicate? Use a Language. A set of words, rules for exchanging ideas
- What is a word? Smallest unit of language, carries meaning with itself
- How to compose words? Use a grammar. A set of rules which provides a single interpretation to a sequence of words
Let’s take a slight detour here and introduce Vocabulary.
Vocabulary is often defined as the set of words in a language. Creating another abstraction on top of the fundamental unit (Word) allows us to bring a notion of context into this discussion. For example,
- Vocabulary can be defined in the context of a specific field of study. E.g. Medicine Vocabulary or Legal Vocabulary etc..
- Guess what, someone thought we could further slice and dice sets of words into themes, frequency etc. to help mastering a language.
Vocabulary is controlled. Any random person cannot introduce a new Word into the English Vocabulary, or the Medicine Vocabulary for that matter. It represents the sum total of concepts in a domain.
Vocabulary doesn’t change everyday. Knowledge (or concepts there of) evolves with radical changes in thinking, it takes years for a new branch of science to emerge. In our times, we have noticed a few of them in Computer Science, e.g. data science, artificial intelligence etc.
How does learning work in real world?
- We take a source of knowledge (a book for example) at the start.
- We use our understanding of grammar (e.g. English Grammar) to start interpretation
- Interpretation of Words is aided by the Vocabulary (e.g. English Vocabulary, or a domain specific one like Medicine Vocabulary)
Learning uses the unchanging (the domain concepts, grammar) to describe the changing (state of affairs in the domain)
Books, reference works in a Domain are numerous and they are ever growing. Vocabulary and Grammar on the other hand are relatively constant and controlled. So learning a few concepts, aids in understanding significant aspects of the domain.
How do machines learn? Do they use a similar principle to interpret?
We will answer these questions and understand Vocabularies from a machine perspective in the next post.