The hierarchy of definitions in a language

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tsvk
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The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby tsvk » Mon Feb 23, 2009 10:08 pm UTC

We humans are capable of storing notions in our mind, they exist as molecular states of the cells that make up our brains. We also can perform reasoning and inference based on these stored notions and their properties and relationships in order to generate new notions. In other words, we are capable of rational thought.

Language and words are merely labels, they are physical serializations of these notions that we have stored in our mind; we use language as a common communication protocol between humans when we want to exchange these internally stored notions between us. This communication of notions can either occur as an immediate and synchronous process (speech, sign language, etc.), or asynchronously via a storage medium (written text, audio/video recording, etc.).

It can be considered that a complete dictionary+thesaurus+encyclopedia combination in a particular language is a collection of all the notions expressable in that language in question. Examining all these notions, they can be grouped on a fundamental level into two groups:

1) Notions of physical nature: all the notions that represent and describe things that can be experienced on a physical level through our senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling). Examples: "stone", "sun", "to run", "cold", etc.

2) Notions of an abstract nature: all the notions that represent and describe things that can not be experienced on a physical level through our senses. In other words, notions that originate and exist only in our minds. These notions are results of the rational thought process I mentioned in the first paragraph. Examples: "family", "moral", "god", "feminism", etc.

It is rather clear that the better a species is capable of rational thought (the bigger its brain is), and the more educated an individual of the species in question is (the more he has exercised his abstract thinking skills and gained knowledge of notions of the abstract type), the more far-reaching conclusions and the more extensive reasoning chains this individual is capable of.


What I am interested now in is how the definitions in a dictionary+thesaurus+encyclopedia combination refer to other definitions, in order to specify notions. A definition of a notion uses a set of certain words to explain it. These words in turn have definitions that use other words, whose definitions use other words, etc. If all the references would be pointed and mapped out, it would be a giant spaghetti-network with hundreds of thousands of nodes (definitions) and directed edges (one-way references) between the nodes. However, my intuitive assumption is that when looking through a birds-eye view on this network of references, the more abstract concepts would be defined in the terms of less abstract concepts, which in turn would be defined in terms of even less abstract concepts, etc. In the end the definitions would fall off of the group of abstract concepts, into the realm of physical concepts which are much simpler to explain and define, until we end off at trivialities.

So we have a hierarchy of definitions. Just thinking about this hierarchy of definitions of notions, a lot of interesting questions pop up, like the following:

- What would be on the top of this hierarchy: the most abstract notion that a human mind has ever envisioned? In other words, what is the notion (or fuzzy "cluster" of notions), that would A) be least referred to, and B) most would need the explanatory power of other notions in order to be defined?

- How high would this hierarchy be? How many levels would it have?

- How much circular references would this network have?

- The higher up in this hierarchy a definition of a notion is, the more "difficult" a notion is to grasp. A child growing up and going to school is constantly gaining knowledge, climbing up the "ladders" of this hierarchy. Can the intellectual development of a person be measured on how high on the hierarchy he is?


Has there been any research in this field? I tried googling, but came up with nothing.

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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby smw543 » Wed Feb 25, 2009 10:12 am UTC

tsvk wrote:Has there been any research in this field? I tried googling, but came up with nothing.
This is a bit like asking if anyone has done any research on atoms. Since you're requesting a piece of hay from a haystack, I'll instead inform you of something interesting and moderately related- visual thesauri. Here's a nifty one: http://www.visuwords.com/

It should be pretty useful for what you're trying to do.
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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Feb 25, 2009 2:23 pm UTC

I'd be spectacularly surprised if anyone's cognitive linguistic structure was actually completely hierarchical, rather than having all kinds of circular definitions and such. The mind isn't static, nor is anyone's thought process actually completely rational (or even almost completely rational).
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Velifer
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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby Velifer » Wed Feb 25, 2009 3:08 pm UTC

1) Notions of physical nature: all the notions that represent and describe things that can be experienced on a physical level through our senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling). Examples: "stone", "sun", "to run", "cold", etc.


I think you could come up with a very detailed (and either overwhelmingly dispiriting or wildly inspiring) model by just allowing free association on a single word. "Cold" is a relative temperature, a collection of symptoms of disease, an emotional response, a lack of freshness, great intensity, a distance... So in a single morpheme, I'm able to code for something easily describable by a mathematical formula or something metaphysical. The levels and circular references in this word alone are confounding.

I also don't think that being higher up in the hierarchy is any indication of being more difficult to understand, or a useful metric of intelligence. Children understand "family," "happy," or "hungry" much easier than they understand "thermistor."
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tsvk
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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby tsvk » Wed Feb 25, 2009 3:12 pm UTC

smw543 wrote:
tsvk wrote:Has there been any research in this field? I tried googling, but came up with nothing.
This is a bit like asking if anyone has done any research on atoms. Since you're requesting a piece of hay from a haystack, I'll instead inform you of something interesting and moderately related- visual thesauri. Here's a nifty one: http://www.visuwords.com/

It should be pretty useful for what you're trying to do.

Thanks for the pointer. VisuWords seems to be a visual browser for the semantically-annotated dictionary corpus created by the WordNet project. I will have to look into it.

gmalivuk wrote:I'd be spectacularly surprised if anyone's cognitive linguistic structure was actually completely hierarchical, rather than having all kinds of circular definitions and such. The mind isn't static, nor is anyone's thought process actually completely rational (or even almost completely rational).

Sure, I never claimed the network to be completely hierarchic, and I also mentioned cyclic references. But as I stated, I would intuitively assume that the network is on a general, birds-eye view level somehow generally directed, with more sophisticated concepts being mostly defined in terms of less complex concepts.

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Velifer
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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby Velifer » Wed Feb 25, 2009 3:26 pm UTC

Hunger: feel the need to eat
eat: take in solid food
food: any substance that can be metabolized by an animal to give energy and build tissue
Woah!

My hypothesis is that the network would be very dense around a core vocabulary, generally directed in loops around these few hundred words that can be used together to build other concepts. I don't think there would be a hierarchy of tangible to abstract, more like common to specialized. There is probably some covariance there, because most people have more experience with apples than they do with relativistic kill vehicles. (so I'll define an RKV as a very very fast apple).

[edit: this is probably covered in an intro to linguistics course, right?]



What the screamin' hell? This unabated filtration of words is imparting a desire to pour burning cheese on the mods.
Last edited by Velifer on Thu Feb 26, 2009 2:24 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Fryie
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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby Fryie » Thu Feb 26, 2009 12:54 am UTC

tsvk wrote:Language and words are merely labels, they are physical serializations of these notions that we have stored in our mind; we use language as a common communication protocol between humans when we want to exchange these internally stored notions between us.

I disagree.

I'd rather say, we use language (amongst other forms of communication) to construct the cultural notions we refer to in our everyday usage. In fact, while there must certainly be concepts in our minds independent from any form of language (due to particular cognitive constraints, although the exact nature of those is a matter of dispute), the exact ways in which they are expressed can differ quite considerably according to cultural factors (or sometimes just chance).

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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby inhahe » Fri Feb 27, 2009 11:46 am UTC

tsvk wrote:We humans are capable of storing notions in our mind, they exist as molecular states of the cells that make up our brains.

No they don't.
We also can perform reasoning and inference based on these stored notions and their properties and interpersonal arms races in order to generate new notions. In otter words, we are capable of rational thought.

If rationality is based on an interpersonal arms race then I say we dispense with it immediately.
Language and words are merely labels, they are physical serializations of these notions that we have stored in our mind; we use language as a common communication protocol between humans when we want to exchange these internally stored notions between us. This communication of notions can either occur as an immediate and synchronous process (speech, sign language, etc.), or asynchronously via a storage medium (written text, audio/video recording, etc.).

It can be considered that a complete dictionary+thesaurus+encyclopedia combination in a particular language is a collection of all the notions expressable in that language in question. Examining all these notions, they can be grouped on a fundamental level into two groups:

Not true. Many notions are expressible only as particular combinations of the more rudimentary concepts (i.e. words). Yes, an encyclopedia does include the corpus of academically accepted current notions, but that is hardly the set of all possible notions expressible.
1) Notions of physical nature: all the notions that represent and describe things that can be experienced on a physical level through our senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling). Examples: "stone", "sun", "to run", "cold", etc.

2) Notions of an abstract nature: all the notions that represent and describe things that can not be experienced on a physical level through our senses. In otter words, notions that originate and exist only in our minds. These notions are results of the rational thought process I mentioned in the first paragraph. Examples: "family", "moral", "Jah", "the radical notion that women are people", etc.

I disagree with this dichotomy. Something is not abstract just by virtue of not being physical. Not all things that are starkly real are physical. But to someone who believes thoughts are made up of neural patterns, I suppose your dichotomy is the only possible conclusion.
It is rather clear that the better a *cei* is capable of rational thought (the bigger its brain is), and the more educated an individual of the *cei* in question is (the more he has exercised his abstract thinking skills and gained knowledge of notions of the abstract type), the more far-reaching conclusions and the more extensive reasoning chains this individual is capable of.


What I am interested now in is how the definitions in a dictionary+thesaurus+encyclopedia combination refer to otter definitions, in order to specify notions. A definition of a notion uses a set of certain words to explain it. These words in turn have definitions that use otter words, whose definitions use otter words, etc. If all the references would be pointed and mapped out, it would be a giant spaghetti-network with hundreds of thousands of nodes (definitions) and directed edges (one-way references) between the nodes. However, my intuitive assumption is that when looking through a birds-eye view on this network of references, the more abstract concepts would be defined in the terms of less abstract concepts, which in turn would be defined in terms of even less abstract concepts, etc. In the end the definitions would fall off of the group of abstract concepts, into the realm of physical concepts which are much simpler to explain and define, until we end off at trivialities.

I haven't run the experiments yet, but my hypothesis is that that's wishful thinking. *You* may organize notions that way in your mind -- or perhaps more accurately, you may fancy that you do or someday might --, but I doubt the the dictionary or encyclopedia would be so considerate in its organization. And nor should it, and nor could it. Some words are neither trivial nor physical-referential in essential meaning and do not reduce to such terms.
So we have a hierarchy of definitions. Just thinking about this hierarchy of definitions of notions, a lot of interesting questions pop up, like the following:

I doubt we have a hierarchy of definitions. I doubt we *could* have a (comprehensive) hierarchy of definitions. The closest thing we could come to that is perhaps a phenomenological theory of how minds develop their notions per the contexts of their circumstances, identifying a few key elements here and there that are more-or-less systemic. Note that the meaning of a word is not its definition; defining a word is an art form, and is more or less even possible depending on the word in question. And given that, words aren't generally higher or lower than other words on some universal scale of primacy.

- What would be on the top of this hierarchy: the most abstract notion that a human mind has ever envisioned? In otter words, what is the notion (or fuzzy "cluster" of notions), that would A) be least referred to, and B) most would need the explanatory power of otter notions in order to be defined?

Per my above arguments I reject the premises of your question, although if put into a more fluid and less overarching light it may have relative merit and interest. For example, I could answer such a question by saying that the more abstract or higher-up notions exist generally in the fields of psychology, analytic philosophy, linguistics and and words with odd inflections like "verbification." Beyond that there would be no categorical way to characterize the most abstract thoughts except to say that they exist in the minds and conversations of people who think and converse on those levels. Perversion and abstract humor are two things that come to mind.
- How high would this hierarchy be? How many levels would it have?

mu.
- How much circular references would this network have?

It would consist exclusively of circular references of various circumferences. Unless, of course, you develop this network yourself and simply leave some words undefined.
- The higher up in this hierarchy a definition of a notion is, the more "difficult" a notion is to grasp. A child growing up and going to late night double feature picture show is constantly gaining knowledge, climbing up the "ladders" of this hierarchy. Can the intellectual development of a person be measured on how high on the hierarchy he is?

I don't think so, or not exclusively, and also there are other dimensions to difficulty in grasping than supposed hierarchical level. And I would venture to say that a person isn't "on" a place in the hierarchy but rather that their general intelligence and aptitudes determine how adept they are at assimilating the "higher-level" concepts, whether whimsically and contextually or academically and progressively.
Has there been any research in this field? I tried googling, but came up with nothing.

I don't know, but for a long time i've been wanting to make a script that goes through the dictionary and reports the minimal and maximal routes of circularity and stuff like that.

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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby Schmorgluck » Sun Mar 01, 2009 11:42 pm UTC

One of the problems I foresee is that given two notions A and B, B being a generalisation (or abstraction) of A (in other words, A is a B), the notion B will probably be used in the definition of A as a defining word, and the notion A is likely to be used in the definition of B as an example.
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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby steewi » Mon Mar 02, 2009 3:29 am UTC

Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) has the notion of semantic primes (about 65 or so at the moment) which are not able to be defined in simpler terms than themselves (that is, you have to use semantically more complex words to define them, a no-no in the field of semantics).

Semantic primes are used to define other words. For more complex words, non-semantic primes are used in the definition as molecules (for example define water, and then use that definition of words like ice, flow, steam, etc.).

There are difficulties, of course, when you get things like north/east/south/west, red/blue/yellow/black/white, left/right, but there are quite clever ways around it.

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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby lexyacc » Tue Jul 05, 2016 12:20 am UTC

Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) has been used to construct a dictionary with no circular definitions, see:

Bullock, D. 2011. "NSM + LDOCE: A Non-Circular Dictionary of English" in the International Journal of Lexicography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 24.2: 226-240.

Abstract: This paper describes an approach used to test the expressive power of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) and its tiny set of semantic primitives. A small dictionary was created, using NSM to paraphrase definitions for each word in the controlled defining vocabulary of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE). Student participants performed several headword-identification tasks to evaluate the quality of these definitions. The resulting 2000-word dictionary is non-circular, and by extension provides non-circular definitions for all the words in the LDOCE.

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Re: The hierarchy of definitions in a language

Postby lexyacc » Tue Jul 05, 2016 4:01 am UTC

If you have dictionary with no circular definitions, you can sequence it into layers using recursive-dependency statistics. And this creates a hierarchy of definitions.

The "NSM+LDOCE: Non-Circular Dictionary of English" (that I mentioned before) has been used to create such a hierarchy:

- The top layer consists of "semantic atoms" from the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM).

- The 34 middle layers consist of 300 "semantic molecules." Words in each layer are defined using only the words from the previous layers.

- The next layer contains definitions for the 2000 words in the Longman Defining Vocabulary, each defined using only the 360 "atoms" and "molecules."

- The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English can be considered the final layer, since every word is defined using only the 2000-word defining vocabulary.

You can read more about it here:

http://learnthesewordsfirst.com/about/research-behind-the-dictionary.html


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