It’s Only Words

Words. That is how we communicate our thoughts with each other. Words are powerful. They can convey the secrets of achieving grand goals cleverly. They can express complex relationships both real and imagined. They are, at one and the same time, our salvation and our downfall. They can teach and comfort, uplift and bind together. Or, they can attack and vilify, embarrass and alienate. The choice is yours.

Language sets mankind apart from most other animals. It allows us to share experiences and pass knowledge from one person to another. It can reduce someone to tears or move them to action. It can educate and inform, often at the same time.

Writing is language made concrete. It is as permanent as the medium that you choose to write upon. There are clay tablets from Babylon that contain some of the first written language. They are over four thousand years old. Archeologists believe that they were used to tally grain. It seems that innovations like that seem to always attract business men.

Words are also used to pursue our romantic interests. What woman doesn’t long to hear her lover’s catalog of her virtues. It is even more effective if he has taken the trouble to write poetry extolling them.

Words are used to plead our cases in the court house, champion legislation in the halls of government, and record the brave deeds of one generation that they will not be forgotten by future generations.

But words have their problems as well. They are not always universally understood to mean the same thing by all people. Their meaning is constantly changing from time to time and group to group. For instance, one generation may use the term hot as an adjective implying extreme desirability or beauty. The next generation may use the term cool to mean the same thing.

Even when you are trying to make yourself understood, meanings drift with time. A succinct treatise written in one time will have lost most of its clarity in ten or fifty or a hundred years.  Almost anyone can listen to Shakespeare and hear the beauty of the language but to understand the meaning of much of that language you must study it word by word and line by line often with an annotated text that can help clue you in to the linguistic and cultural references hidden in the text.

And now, we are about to open up yet another technological Pandora’s box. We are teaching computers to parse and understand human language. And we are doing it not by encoding fixed meanings in the programs that do the interpretation but rather we are teaching them language the way children learn it. By example and context and giving them feedback.

I hope they hurry up and develop the direct mind machine interfaces so that I can have my mental prosthesis installed. I struggle to write these five hundred words a day for your edification. I don’t think I’m quite ready to compete with a computer.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.