What’s wrong with terminology?

General semantics is a study of what words mean. This attempt to start from a smaller amount of data (words) and obtain a larger amount (meanings) is an impossible task of creating something out of nothing. Terminology approaches the same relation from the opposite direction – how are things called. The process goes from the larger dataset to the smaller one, which is not outright impossible. Could terminology’s description of communication be more plausible then?

I’ve long been a believer of onomasiological (concept-based) data structures, mapping from thoughts (meanings, concepts, whatever you call them) to expressions (words, terms, expressions, whatever). The official stance in terminology is to first harmonise the concepts and then standardise the terms referring to them. Each concept can have many terms, while each term can only refer to one concept. If it happens that the same character sequence is used for more than one concept, then this is considered homonymy as opposed to polysemy: log in the timber sense and log in the logbook sense are two words with coinciding linguistic form, rather than one word with two senses.

This works like a charm when the concepts are known. Unfortunately, that can be the case in only two situations.

1. We are only considering the speaker as an individual. The speaker wishes to express something, the nature of the wish is known to the speaker, and only then does the speaker choose the linguistic devices to express the thought with. Now, if the speaker has a nomenclature of thoughts that is smaller than the speaker’s vocabulary, then it really is possible to map univocally from thoughts to words. The speaker will be satisfied that the thoughts were expressed precisely, without any ambiguity. The problem with this is that even if the speaker successfully restricts his nomenclature of thoughts, potential hearers are capable of many more thoughts in addition to these. Even if the speaking was precise, it can never be understood precisely.

2. The concepts have been explicitly agreed between the speaker and the hearer. Usually they aren’t, the communicators just assume them to be (and this is a classic example of “making an ASS of U and ME”). But even worse, what even could be the method of agreeing concepts? Only verbal communication. Back to square one, verbal encoding of thoughts is unavoidably lossy, even if you increase expression length by an order of magnitude or two, using definitions instead of terms. There are still many more possible thoughts than there are possible definitions.

Semantics is a fundamentally flawed attempt of describing communication as an encoding and decoding process. Terminology does the description part right, but relies on radically simplifying the object of study, reducing the number of possible thoughts that could be communicated, which is neither doable nor desirable in practice.

So, semantics simply fails to explain how the amount of information can increase in the comprehension process. Terminology avoids this explanatory failure by refusing to admit that it increases, which is not really useful either. This is why it now seems to me that describing communication as a process of uncertainty reduction works better than not only semantics, but also terminology.

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