File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 116

Date: Sat, 12 Jul 2008 12:29:36 +0100
From: "Humanist Discussion Group \(by way of Willard McCarty              <>\)" <willard-AT-LISTS.VILLAGE.VIRGINIA.EDU>
Subject: 22.114 understanding language (in the right way)?
To: <humanist-AT-Princeton.EDU>

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 114.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to:

         Date: Sat, 12 Jul 2008 12:23:00 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <>
         Subject: understanding language (in the right way)

At the end of their letter to the Editor of the 
Times Literary Supplement for 4 May 1962, 
commenting on an article by Yehoshua Bar-Hillel, 
"The future of machine translation", Karen Spärk 
Jones and T. R. McKinnon Wood of the Cambridge 
Language Unit,  write as follows about machine translation:

>Digital computers with fixed programmes cannot, 
>[Bar-Hillel] asserts, simulate human procedures 
>based on an information structure which is 
>continually changing. The only hope might be to 
>construct machines which are specifically 
>adapted to handling self-organizing systems of 
>this kind. Technological research on such 
>machines would, however, we maintain, have to be 
>prefaced by theoretical investigations of 
>language as a self-organizing system. In most 
>fields of research theoretical developments have 
>outstripped technological ones: in this field, 
>in contrast, this is not the case; technological 
>backwardness cannot be taken as a reason, or 
>excuse, for the lack of a general theory of 
>language…. it might on the contrary be said that 
>the main reason for the excessive cost of the 
>machine translation research programmes is that 
>the use of machines is substituted for thought...
>The point is that it is not that machines can’t 
>do it but that we can’t understand it 
>sufficiently to programme machines to do it.
>Any work in this field must start from an 
>analysis and understanding of language use; and… 
>anyone starting work in this field almost 
>immediately comes up against the fact that we 
>know virtually nothing helpful about it. In 
>particular, it becomes clear that the results of 
>traditional linguistic studies, which are 
>essentially descriptive, are unsuited to our 
>purpose, and, moreover, that they are often 
>incomplete even on their own ground. For the 
>primary requirement, which the analysis of 
>language use must fulfil, is that it must be 
>interpretable in terms of mechanizable 
>operations. This means that it must be concerned 
>with the way language works and not with a set 
>of comments on the results of the working. It is 
>this attempt to obtain a deeper understanding of 
>the way language works which makes the field 
>interesting for those doing research in it. 
>Their approaches may be completely different; 
>they may be concerned with translation, 
>abstracting, or retrieval, with the construction 
>of simplified model languages, or pidgin 
>languages, or meta-languages, with the analysis 
>of given texts, or the production of random 
>texts, with language games, or with learning 
>programmes; but the understanding of the way in 
>which we use language is their common aim.

My question is this: how well does their 
statement stand up to what has been accomplished 
in the last 46 years? Are we any closer to being 
able to model language as a self-organizing 
system? It does seem to me that the undimmed 
lesson is the poverty of our theoretical 
undestanding of language -- or, to put the matter 
more generously and accurately, that the main 
benefit for us in all this is the drive to 
further and better questioning. But, then, I'm an old-fashioned humanist.


Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities 
Computing | Centre for Computing in the 
Humanities | King's College London | Et sic in 
infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).  


Humanist Main Page


Display software: ArchTracker © Malgosia Askanas, 2000-2005