Tag Archives: language

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What Greek Teachers Won’t Tell You

When it comes to the Greek Language (at QTC at least) David Allen Black wrote the book. Literally. We use his introduction to Biblical Greek as our textbook. So I enjoyed this post of things your Greek teacher won’t tell you. If you haven’t got a Greek teacher then they’re still interesting. Sort of.

I think there’s some sort of double negative going on here. The list is a mix of Greek fallacies, and truths that you might not have heard. Anyway.

Here’s one of my favourite things from Greek (and Hebrew) this year.

“Greek words do not have one meaning. Yet how many times do we hear in a sermon, “The word in the Greek means…”? Most Greek words are polysemous, that is, they have many possible meanings, only one of which is its semantic contribution to any passage in which it occurs. (In case you were wondering: Reading all of the meanings of a Greek word into any particular passage in which it occurs is called “illegitimate totality transfer” by linguists.)”

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Why speech recognition will (probably) never work

Speech to text recognition software is one of personal computing’s final frontiers. The dream of sitting in a room and talking to your computer (and having it understand, compute, and respond accordingly) is, apparently, unlikely to ever become an actual reality. The problems are manifold – the biggest problems being that words are aurally ambiguous and we instinctively translate them based on context and expression, and that certain words have an array of meanings.

Here are a couple of snippets from this fascinating article, that ends up being more about language than voice recognition (you might also notice a couple of things I’ve posted recently in that article).

In 2001 recognition accuracy topped out at 80%, far short of HAL-like levels of comprehension. Adding data or computing power made no difference. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University checked again in 2006 and found the situation unchanged. With human discrimination as high as 98%, the unclosed gap left little basis for conversation. But sticking to a few topics, like numbers, helped. Saying “one” into the phone works about as well as pressing a button, approaching 100% accuracy. But loosen the vocabulary constraint and recognition begins to drift, turning to vertigo in the wide-open vastness of linguistic space…

Many spoken words sound the same. Saying “recognize speech” makes a sound that can be indistinguishable from “wreck a nice beach.” Other laughers include “wreck an eyes peach” and “recondite speech.” But with a little knowledge of word meaning and grammar, it seems like a computer ought to be able to puzzle it out. Ironically, however, much of the progress in speech recognition came from a conscious rejection of the deeper dimensions of language. As an IBM researcher famously put it: “Every time I fire a linguist my system improves.” But pink-slipping all the linguistics PhDs only gets you 80% accuracy, at best…

Researchers have also tried to endow computers with knowledge of word meanings. Words are defined by other words, to state the seemingly obvious. And definitions, of course, live in a dictionary. In the early 1990s, Microsoft Research developed a system called MindNet which “read” the dictionary and traced out a network from each word out to every mention of it in the definitions of other words.

Words have multiple definitions until they are used in a sentence which narrows the possibilities. MindNet deduced the intended definition of a word by combing through the networks of the other words in the sentence, looking for overlap. Consider the sentence, “The driver struck the ball.” To figure out the intended meaning of “driver,” MindNet followed the network to the definition for “golf” which includes the word “ball.” So driver means a kind of golf club. Or does it? Maybe the sentence means a car crashed into a group of people at a party.

To guess meanings more accurately, MindNet expanded the data on which it based its statistics much as speech recognizers did. The program ingested encyclopedias and other online texts, carefully assigning probabilistic weights based on what it learned. But that wasn’t enough. MindNet’s goal of “resolving semantic ambiguities in text,” remains unattained. The project, the first undertaken by Microsoft Research after it was founded in 1991, was shelved in 2005.

Infinite monkey theorem meets infinite sentence theorem

You’ve no doubt heard the theory that if you gave a monkey a typewriter and infinite time he would eventually compose, in order, the complete works of Shakespeare. This may take him a very, very long time, but it possibly, if this other theory is correct, would not require infinite time.

The number of possible sentences in the English language is apparently finite. Indeed, the Macquarie University has calculated that there are 10570 possible sentences in English. They used these suppositions:

  • that English has about 500,000 words (there are about 450,000 in the 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary, but this excludes many colloquial forms – although it does include many obsolete forms),
  • that English sentences can be up to 100 words in length (a fairly reasonable working assumption)
  • that any individual word can occur 0 to 100 times in a single sentence (an unrealistic assumption)
  • that words can be combined in any order (a false assumption)

Now, they even acknowledge that some of their assumptions are unrealistic and false – but using these assumptions they’ve given us a pretty reasonable guess at the number of permutations available in English. I guess you could go a step further and introduce “texts” to the equation – if each text is assumed to be 100,000 sentences long, or something unreasonably high, we’re still in the realm of calculable numbers.

Then we could figure out how fast a monkey produces a sentence, and get an upper limit for how long a monkey would take to produce every possible combination of words within those parameters to figure out the maximum amount of time required for a monkey to produce the works of Shakespeare. Simple.

The Macquarie University used the calculations above to demonstrate that English is an open language – full of unique sentences that have never been written before. My aim when I write, is to produce as many unique sentences as possible. To claim my place in the lexicon of life. I am pretty sure that at the point of writing, those two sentences are unique and have not been read by imaginary dinosaurs before. This process of trying to achieve the maximum number of unique sentences may lead me to introducing an odd adjective, and a MacGuffin, in every tremendously Jurassic sentence. Then I could rewrite the same sentence over and over again in order to claim maximum mileage from the one creative work (ie the writing of a unique sentence).

Lets try.

  • As I wrote this, sitting next to a coffee pot plant, with my hot wife, I produced a uniquely blue sentence.
  • As I wrote this, sitting next to a ceramic pot plant, with my hot wife, I produced a uniquely green sentence.
  • As I wrote this, sitting next to a yellow dinosaur, with my hot wife, I produced a uniquely green sentence…

Producing unique sentences in an open language is relatively easy. Here’s what the Macquarie researcher had to say:

Grammatical rules would greatly reduce this number of sentences, as would the requirement that all sentences be meaningful, but the resulting number of possibilities would still be extremely large (more than could ever be spoken in the entire history of human languages let alone during the much shorter life span of an individual language). So for all practical, non-mathematical, purposes we can say that the English language, or any other living language (1), is an open system. It’s actually quite easy to come up with a unique, never before produced, sentence. To do so, for example, combine an unlikely (or impossible, or meaningless) event with a particular named person on a particular date. For example: “On 31st October 1999, whilst writing a lecture on animal communication, Robert had a colourless green idea.” (2) Once this sentence has been written or spoken, subsequent productions of this same sentence are not unique, but unique sentences may potentially be generated from it by making slight changes to it (eg. change “green” to “red”).

Got any unique sentences? Care to claim your place in history?

And perhaps a mathematically minded commenter might like to resolve this infinite monkey conundrum for me – if I have an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters will one monkey come up with the works of Shakespeare on his first go?

Ministers, ministry, and semantics

Stuart doesn’t think paid ministers are anything special. I agree. Though “special” is as “special” does. Stuart commented on, and linked to, my post about raising non bitter ministry children. He didn’t like that I used the word “ministry” because we’re all meant to be ministers. Well, yes. But at that point it’s a matter of semantic differences, not theological. I don’t think you’ll find anybody linked to in Stuart’s post who disagrees with him on the fundamental point that those in paid ministry positions have a responsibility to be training and equipping the church to bring the gospel to those they are in relationship with.

What this all boils down to, and I’ve been looking forward to using this phrase here, is an illegitimate totality transfer.

Ministry might be the task of all Christians, but it is only the paid vocation for some. This is the problem with the Presbyterian church and the word worship – worship has a broad semantic range. It’s meaning is dynamic, though each meaning is linked an fundamentally the same. This is true too for the word “ministry” – it’s the best word we have to describe the role of Christians and the job for those we pay to work for the body. A payment that Paul encourages and even mandates (for all but himself).

English words have pretty wide ranges of meanings (I recommend reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue for an exploration of just how English functions, and our church “jargon” (complete with Biblical terminology) is the same. Language is tricky to pin down, and pinning down one word with one specific (minority) definition makes for problematic discussions.

I’ve been reflecting lately on whether Paul’s ministry approach is normative – either for the Christian, or for the paid worker. I think it’s clearly not the case for either. Paul is an apostle, he’s single, he’s schooled in the law, he’s a Jew, he’s different to the other apostles (who have wives, and are paid). He calls the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ – but he doesn’t call them all to do ministry the way he does, he seems to see his own ministry as a special case. I certainly don’t think we should be expecting everybody within the church to minister in an apostolic fashion. We are (1 Peter 3:15) to be prepared to give an account for our hope, but we’re also a body of Christ with diverse roles and giftings, called to love and serve one another.

Stuart frames the purposes of his posts in the comments on the current one:

Precisely what I want to do in this series is to ask, “Given that paid pastors exist, how can we think of their work (and help them think of their work) in a way that avoids some current problems?”

I have three pastoral concerns here:
1. for pastors, many of whom (at least anecdotally) struggle with overwork and consequent neglect of their wife and children;
2. for church members, who rely too much on paid pastors to do the ministry;
3. for the world, whom the church cannot bless if it is too reliant on paid pastors.

Worthy concerns, and I’m interested to see where Stuart goes while I try to build my own framework and philosophy for ministry (though it’s been pretty heavily influenced by those who came before me…).

I get the feeling that some of this helpful conversation gets bogged down in semantics – we spend so much time defining, or redefining, our terminology in order to engage with one another’s ideas. Izaac reflected on a conversation with one of his fellow students (who is part of the Joshua Tree church plant) mentioning similar issues:

One of our problems was that we were using the same words to describe very different things. When I said church it was not what Danny was thinking when he said church. I wanted to talk to Danny about his role as a student minister – but I prefaced the statement with “For lack of a better word…” and many other things like that.

This has highlighted for me part of the great thing that Stuart, Danny and others involved are trying to do. That is, groups such as these of which they are a part, which seek for radical rethinks of what we are doing, could easily define themselves by what they aren’t. Instead they are working hard to define what they are.

It’s a great conversation, but we need to make sure we aren’t (or are) at cross purposes on the basis of language.

How to really mess up your kid

d’Armond Speers is obviously a bit angry at the name his parents gave him. So he decided to seriously mess up his son’s life by speaking to him exclusively in Klingon for the first three years of his life.

“I was interested in the question of whether my son, going through his first language acquisition process, would acquire it like any human language,” Speers told the Minnesota Daily. “He was definitely starting to learn it.”

Luckily for the kid, it seems is all turned out ok…

As for Speers, who still gets nostalgic when he recalls singing the Klingon lullaby “May the Empire Endure” with his son at bedtime, the experiment was a dud. His son is now in high school and doesn’t speak a word of Klingon.

Although some of the things he’s done lead people to believe he’s a “Star Trek” fanatic, Speers said it’s actually a passion for language that attracts him to Klingon.

Acronyms v Initialisms

Just so you know… if you reduce a series of words to initials and pronounce them as a word it’s an acronym, and if you pronounce each letter individually it’s an initialism.

So when I write a headline using an acronym it’s your job to read it as a word so that you get the pun.

Ironically, TLA the popular “acronym” for three letter acronyms isn’t an acronym, it’s an initialism. 

Thanks. That is all.

On Swearing

I don’t often swear, nor am I offended by it. Simone’s latest post has some choice words in it (choice not in the New Zealand sense but in the “offensive to people who don’t like swearing” sense).
She speculatively mused on Twitter that this might offend some people. It probably will. And using such language will always do so. My thoughts on swearing are probably best expressed in list form…

  1. Swearing is not always “unwholesome talk”
    Language changes with time. “Bugger” would have been incredibly offensive 50 years ago, it’s not now. But saying inappropriate things about one’s mother will always be “unwholesome”. Language moves and evolves. It’s stupid to have hang ups about particular words.
  2. Swearing is about intention, not about content
    One thing I’ve never really understood is people who take a moral stand against swearing but use a substitue word like “sugar”. The intention is exactly the same. Who cares if one word means faeces and the other is a product of refined cane – swearing is about intent. You’re just as guilty either way, you may as well not look like a self righteous prude while being guilty.
  3. Swearing is usually grammatically and contextually innappropriate
    Honestly, the words that we most commonly “swear by” are pretty lame and can only be applied appropriately in limited circumstances – they describe body parts, bodily functions, excrement, and the act of procreation – there are only limited circumstances where these words can be used appropriately. There is an interesting, but highly offensive, documentary cartoon floating around detailing the myriad uses of the “f” word – that show that its definition has been allowed to creep too far. I’m all for swearing – provided the usage is justified both situationally (for shock value/catharsis) and the word usage is correct
  4. Swearing for the purpose of offense is wrong
  5. Swearing for the purpose of expression is lazy
    There are better words available. Use them.
  6. Swearing in the presence of those offended by swearing is wrong
    For Christians swearing is a food sacrificed to idols deal – it’s not wrong in and of itself but it’s wrong because people think it’s wrong