Natural Language

If words were nuts and bolts, people could make any bolt fit into any nut: they’d just squish the one into the other, as in some surrealistic painting, where everything goes soft. Language in human hands becomes more like a fluid despite the course grain of its components. Douglas Hofstadter:

Natural language with its extensions in domain specific vocabularies is the cornerstone of human interaction. Due to contextual harmonization – our shared knowledge of people and things and the contextual frameworks we live in, we are able to reuse natural language for an enormous spectrum of human endeavour – the same language is used for poetry, gossip and dirty jokes, as is used in the discourse of science, technology, politics and not least the law. As David Mellinkoff wrote in 1963, in his book on The Language & the Law :”The law is a profession of words”.

The success of language lies with its fungibility and ambiguity. All natural language is ambiguous.

When one person uses a word, he does not mean by it the same thing as another person means by it. I have often heard it said that that is a misfortune. That is a mistake. It would be absolutely fatal if people meant the same things by their words. It would make all intercourse impossible, and language the most hopeless and useless thing imaginable, because the meaning you attach to your words must depend on the nature of the objects you are acquainted with, and since different people are acquainted with different objects, they would not be able to talk to each other unless they attached quite different meanings to their words.

The preceding Bertrand Russell’s quote flies in the face of how we would normally like to look at law. If words are ambiguous, then what is the worth of written law, legal documentation, or case history? Of course students of jurisprudence know that things are not this simple. The Post World War I Freirechtschule movement in Germany was a reaction to literal and sometimes absurd adherence to the letter of the codified law. There target was Begriffsjuriprudenz, the jurisprudence of concepts, which imagined it had constructed a seamless network of rules which answered all problems scientifically, and excluded all extraneous values.

Unfortunately, under the National Socialist regime the idea of departing from the strict language of statute and looking instead at values (which were likely to be subjectively and unpredictably appraised) like the the “spirit” of the law [...] was taken to sinister extremes. [...] An amendment of the German Criminal Code on June 1935 imported a new § 2 which read as follows:1

Punishment is to be inflicted on any person who commits an act declared by the law to be punishable, or which, in the light of the basic purpose of criminal law, and according to healthy popular feeling, deserves to be punished. If no specific criminal law applies directly to such an act, it is to be punished according to whatever law, in its basic purpose, best applies to it2

In science, we use numbers, symbols and formalized logic to obviate ambiguity, and all fields of human endeavour create domain specific taxonomies to the same ends. We look for exactitude, but exactitude comes at a cost. In artistic or cultural or social intercourse we try to avoid exactitude – it is tedious, we cultivate vagueness in its place. The interface between exactitude and vagueness is always problematic. Think of a trial in where the court attempts to create ex post facto exactitude in the carryings on of people who were only carrying on quite vaguely. Our creative use of ambiguity and vagueness is the greatest problem of all in our interaction with machines who don’t really know what to make of it.

Here is an interesting problem. Almanacs and appointment books are great tools, in the form of dW3 they are even better when we wish to synchronize our activities with others. If you are invited to someone’s house for dinner the time of your arrival will normally be stipulated and you will be expected to come roughly at this moment, but very rarely will a host tell you in advance that you must leave at certain time: that would be considered almost rude. If you want to enter this dinner date in your dW3 appointment book, it will invariably ask you to enter a time when the party is over, which you don’t know and don’t usually want to think about unless perhaps you have a baby sitter. Computerized almanacs that organize our appointments always want to know when we are going home even when we don’t want to tell them.

Machines are, at least theoretically, unambiguous. Once correctly constructed and in the absence of material failure, they are expected to act uniformly when given uniform input or instructions. The various parts of a machine communicate with each other, again in theory, unambiguously and machines in concert – machines that interwork, are expected to continue this unambiguous chain of communication. There is no parallel in natural language. The famous game of Grapevine whereas a circle of players will gradually garble a message as it is passed between them, won’t be as fun if machines are invited to the party. Machines are built not to garble messages.

1J.M. Kelly A short history of Western Legal Theory Oxford University Press 1992


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