Alex Wright

Folksonomies and language

January 18, 2005

Languages are much on my mind these days in light of some work I've been doing with the Rosetta Project. While I won't pretend to be any kind of linguist, it does seem that open Web-based systems are contributing to an ongoing commingling of languages: a phenomenon in ample evidence across burgeoning folksonomies like Flickr. While this blending of tongues invites all kinds of Global Village fantasies, I think it's also worth considering the philosophical downsides.

In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco creates the cautionary figure of Salvatore, a fallen monk who "spoke all languages and no languages." When the young novice Adso encounters Salvatore's strange speech - a chaotic glom of Latin, Greek, Italian, French, English and who knows what else - he tries to make sense of the monk's strange tongue:

I thought that his was, not the Adamic language that a happy mankind had spoken, all unified by a single tongue from the origin of the world to the tower of Babel... but precisely the Babelish language of the first day after the divine chastisement, the language of primal confusion. Peter van Dijk has penned a few thoughts on folksonomies and language, exploring how distributed freetagging systems allow users to mix and match language terms. Considering whether these implicit language namespaces might reflect actual usage patterns, Peter writes: Many user populations around the world incorporate words in multiple languages in their vocabulary. The language namespaces I am talking about might not map perfectly to a specific language, but include words in other languages, and slang and such, and in this way be a much better representation of the real language of a certain user population than if we were to just use one language. Inter-language tagging seems to present a quandary: does it move us towards a new Adamic ideal, or is it a slippery slope to Babel? At a more practical level, the question might come down to whether folksonomy systems should try to mitigate the risk of "primal confusion" by introducing formal language filtering mechanisms? Or, do they put their faith in power laws and the emergent properties of self-organizing systems? I suspect (as I often seem to do) that the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

> Peter van Dijk, Emergent i18n effects in folksonomies (via atomiq)

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File under: Semantic Web

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