Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Drum: "Change, Meaning, and Information" (1957)

This 1957 article is one of those countless papers by people in linguistics trying helplessly to say something non-trivial about the relationship between information theory and linguistics. The central claim of the paper is that there are several kinds of predictability or redundancy at play in language, and that "meaning" should be seen as one of them.

More precisely, certain sentences are predictable on account of their content, so that
the "meaning"—the "what we know about it"–in a message has some direct effect upon the amount of information transmitted. (p. 166)
However, this notion is dangerously confused and conflated with the idea that more predictability equals more meaning at several points in the paper.

At any rate, Dale places semantics among several "levels" of redundancy, including a historically interesting division between "formal" and "contextual" syntax:
In the sentence, "The chair is __________," many words could be correctly used in terms of grammar; but in terms of the context of the sentence, only a very few apply. "The chair is clock" is correct grammatically, though it is nonsense in even the broadest contexts. (p. 167)
A person knowing English grammar but not word meanings, might very well write "The chair is clock," but would never do so if he knew the meanings involved. (The relationship of syntactic to contextual redundancy is much that of validity in logic to truth, incidentally). (p. 168)
A strange counterfactual, but quite revealing.

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