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Sunday, November 16, 2008

colorless green ideas sleep furiously; a critique of the text-to-form editor

By Wendy Spacek

People say a picture is worth a thousand words. But what about words? What kind of pictures to words create? Language is composed firstly of sound. Phonetic sounds evolve naturally, and written language is constructed as a series of characters to represent those sounds. (2) The combination of these letters form words of different kinds. There are verbs, adjectives, adverbs, nouns, pronouns, and proper nouns. These words have meanings which in turn have varying linguistic theories as to their lexicology and semantics. (2) These sounds, characters, words, and meanings, combine with grammar, syntax, and sequence to form logical sense o a reader. With the addition of punctuation, one can know where pauses, breaks, and inquisitions or exclamations lie. Each attribute contribute to the others and combines to form language. Deeper even then the physical, grammatical, and semantic composition of language, are the stylistic and literary function of language. The rich mathematics of formulated images combined with prosody, poetics, and plot create whole new worlds from text on the page. 

According to “VERBARIUM and LIFE SPACIES: Creating a Visual Language by Transcoding Text into Form on the Internetby Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, their text-to-form editor was inspired by Nome Chomsky’s theory of language that states “human language acquisition is based on a universal grammar that is genetically embedded within the human mind of all normal children, allowing them to learn their native languages naturally and seemingly effortlessly”(1).

Although it may be true that logical grammar is something inherit to humans, lexicology and semantics I would argue are learned, experience-based concepts, based in the emotional, physical, sensational, sensible, or even in a mysterious mystical realm.

For the purpose of this essay I will focus on the piece “Verbarium” which can be found and used on-line at This piece, although operating on a slightly different text-to-form editor system, relies on the theory of Generative Grammar by Nome Chomsky.  According to Wikipedia, “generative grammar refers to a particular approach to the study of syntax … In most approaches to generative grammar, the rules will also predict the morphology of a sentence” (2). Morphology is the study of the internal structure of words, these word units then culminate to the subject matter and lexicology and semantics of written words. Sommerer and Mignonneau posit in their essay that they were inspired by Chomsky’s sentence "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" which according to their essay is “an expression that might not make much logical sense to a more scientifically oriented person, but does have quite a lot of meaning for a more visual or art minded person. Though this sentence, as Chomsky has shown, is grammatically correct, its meaning cannot be grasped through logic alone. When we hear this sentence for the first time we see pictures or forms or shapes appearing in our minds. These forms are vague, yet they are defined to a certain degree and can certainly create visual sensations and emotions” (1).

Although Sommerer and Mignonneau acknowledge the mind-pictures, and vague yet rich images and meaning that language can produce, their text-to-form editor functions alone by linking “the characters and syntax of a text message to specific parameters in the forms’ design” (1). These physical and grammatical attributes of the text are translated through a mathematical system for formulate a visual image. The image is supposed to, I believe, be a representation of the words themselves, and I assume, their meaning. In this aspect I believe the text-to-form editor could be improved. Or should be improved. It does not take into account what I would argue are the most important aspects of language.

Text in itself, the characters or symbols used in language are simply arbitrary compositions that serve only to represent phonetic sounds and commonly accepted meaning for formed words. The words themselves, the letters they use, the sound combinations, do not hold any inherent meaning, but are given meaning through collective agreement of those who use the language. (2)

The “text” being interpreted into “form” in Mignonneau and Sommerer's “text-to-form editor” is a translator of incomplete information. It only focuses on three aspects of text, and only those that are obvious in its physical make-up. The symbols used, the syntax that occurs, and sequencing. It does not take into account the many components and complexity of the written language, which is also inseparable from its phonetic counterparts.

The Text-to-form editor  Completely removes the “reader” of the text. The text-to-form editor as a reader cannot interpret on a human level. It cannot understand natural cognitive language as we do, or as Chomsky, Sommerer, or Mignonneau do. Its mathematical base and simply its inhumanness is what make it so inept to interpretation of the written word.

The following attributes and subtleties of language are not understood or ignored by the text-to-form editor: 

Lexicology, semantics, denotations, connotations, style, form, homonymy, synonymy, antonymy, polysemy, paronyms, hypernymy, hyponymy, meronymy, metonymy, holonymy, literary tone, context, allegory, allusion, dramatic irony, figurative language, situational irony, mood, paradox, point-of-view, setting, plot, metaphor, simile, symbol, phonetics, etc. 

I would challenge Sommerer and Mignonneau to try creating a text-to-form editor that could interpret even half of the aforementioned complexities.


A note on sequence and organization interpritation in the Text-to-form editor:


“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”


When the punctuation is altered (a “sequence” element) the sentence’s meaning, which is altered greatly, translates into an image whose physical property is only changed in shape.

Punctuation: Punctuation marks are symbols that correspond to neither phonemes (sounds) of a language nor to lexemes (words and phrases), but which serve to indicate the structure and organization of writing, as well as intonation and pauses to be observed when reading it aloud. (2)

To a Question. (?)

To an exclamation. (!)

Lets say discursive, didactic, language was inputted into the text-to-form editor. 

When a paragraph of acedimic text on Organic Chemistry describing Bimolecular Nucleophilic Substitution is inputted into the text-to-form editior the result was a simple, monochromatic form:

Paragraph on Bimolecular Nucleophilic Substitution. (3)

Similarly, a paragraph text inputted about the properties of addition yielded a simlar object, varying in form and slightly in color:

Paragraph about The Properties of Addition (4)

I would venture that the reason for this similarity is the nature of the text. Being didactic, it is written in an unadorned way, with simple syntax and logical sequencing. Again this is an example of the text-to-form editors ignorance toward meaning. Elementary addition and Bimolecular Nucleophilic Substitution are widely different concepts on opposite ends of complexity. The text-to-form editor however, shows no discrepancy. 

In contrast, observe the text-to-form editors translation of literary texts of varying complexity:

Children's Nursery Rhyme: Birds of A Feather (5)

Dejection: An Ode by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (6)

"Dejection: An Ode" is certainly more complex than "Bird's of A Feather", both in terms of prosody, word choice, and meaning, yet there forms, although varying greatly in color, have similar shapes. 

Also, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “Dejection; An Ode” is far more complicated, phonetically, grammatically, metrically, and in meaning than Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”, yet the pictures created by the Text-to-form editior on the Verbarium website were the opposite. 

Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare (7)


In addition, Gerald Manley Hopkins is known for both his complex metrical prosody and his original use of language; including words he made up. (8)

This is an example a text which is grammatically complicated but simple in meaning, the picture created by Verbarium reflects the complicated and wide variation of characters.

Spring and Fall by Gerald Manley Hopkins (9)

It is pretty clear through trial and error inputs of varying literary texts of varying complexity and simplicity, which the text-to-form editor does not operate on complexities of meaning, phonetics, composition, or meter. Meaning being perhaps the most important function and feature of language, in all its vagueness, is in no way addressed by the editor. I believe this is because of the inhumanity of the machine. Its lack of consciousness, empathy, understanding, something…

The text-to-form editor lacks what a good interpreter possesses:

Language is something conveyed on a speaker-to-speaker level. Two humans, phonetically pronouncing words attached to arbitrary symbol, and each interpreting and communicating. Building meaning through context, past conversations, base knowledge. The machine has none of these abilities. It does not understand the words you are typing to it. It does not understand the meaning, only the composition of the arbitrary symbols. In my opinion, the text-to-form editor only translates the most arbitrary aspects of written language. 


1 comment:

Wendy Spacek said...

Sorry for the formating mistakes. This program is confuses the hell out of me.