Saturday, May 3, 2014

Crowdsourcing Linguistic Improvements

Calling all wordsmiths!  There's a new subreddit...Linvoid...dedicated to solving people's word problems.  

Here's how it works...

  1. A "client" posts their word problem  
  2. The crowd suggests better/new words
  3. The crowd upvotes the best solutions
  4. The winner gets a million dollars

I'm just kidding about the last one.  Too bad huh?

The conceptual foundation is that there's always room for improvement.  This is true whether we're talking about biology...or economics...or politics...or linguistics.

Let's take biology for example...specifically...orchids.  The orchid family is definitely my favorite plant family.  It's fascinating for several reasons...here are a few of them...

  1. Orchids are the largest plant family.  There are around 30,000 different species.  
  2. Orchids have more species of epiphytes than any other family.  In other words...most orchids grow on trees
  3. A single seed pod can contain a million seeds.  That's a lot of seeds!  The seeds, which are like dust, are disseminated by the wind.  
  4. In order to germinate...orchid seeds have developed a symbiotic relationship with microscopic fungus

Each seed is a unique combination of traits.  A unique combination of traits is a unique strategy.  So one orchid seed pod can contain a million different strategies.  This greatly increases the orchid's chances of success.

Now on to economics...
When a great company, or even a great merchant, has twenty or thirty ships at sea, they may, as it were, insure one another. The premium saved upon them all, may more than compensate such losses as they are likely to meet with in the common course of chances. - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
Now on to space exploration...
Luckily, tens of thousands of pioneers wouldn't have to be housed all in one starship. Spreading people out among multiple ships also spreads out the risk. Modular ships could dock together for trade and social gatherings, but travel separately so that disaster for one wouldn't spell disaster for all, says Smith. 
When 10,000 people are housed in one starship, there's a potential for a giant catastrophe to wipe out almost everyone onboard. But when 10,000 people are spread out over five ships of 2000 apiece, the damage is limited. - Sarah Fecht, How Many People Does It Take to Colonize Another Star System?
Now on to political parties (religion)...
The interested and active zeal of religious teachers can be dangerous and troublesome only where there is either but one sect tolerated in the society, or where the whole of a large society is divided into two or three great sects; the teachers of each acting by concert, and under a regular discipline and subordination. But that zeal must be altogether innocent where the society is divided into two or three hundred, or perhaps into as many thousand small sects, of which no one could be considerable enough to disturb the public tranquility. - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
Now back to economics...
It is sufficient if all firms are slightly different so that in the new environmental situation those who have their fixed internal conditions closer to the new, but unknown, optimum position now have a greater probability of survival and growth.  They will grow relative to other firms and become the prevailing type, since survival conditions may push the observed characteristics of the set of survivors toward the unknowable optimum by either (1) repeated trials or (2) survival of more of those who happened to be near the optimum - determined ex post.  If these new conditions last "very long," the dominant firms will be different ones from those which prevailed or would have prevailed under other conditions. - Armen Alchian, Uncertainty, Evolution, and Economic Theory
Now back to orchids...
One would think that man could find enough variation in the orchid family, as it occurs in nature, to more than satiate his taste for variety.  Yet man's appetite for variety is never appeased.  He has produced over two times as many hybrids, in the past 100 years that he has been engaged in orchid breeding, as nature has created species in her eons of evolutionary effort. - Calaway H. Dodson, Robert J. Gillespie, The Botany of Orchids
Now back to economics...
More heads are occupied in inventing the most proper machinery for executing the work of each, and it is, therefore, more likely to be invented. - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
Do we need more varieties of orchids?  Do we need more varieties of words?

Should there be an orchid that can grow on trees in New York?  Should there be a word for organisms that can tolerate a wide range of temperatures?  We already have the latter..."eurythermal"...but not the former.

Is "eurythermal" better than "temperature tolerant"?   Is one word always better than two?  Is efficiency as important for linguistics as it is for epiphytes and economics?  Should we want to the most bang for our buck...the most magic for our moment...the most epiphany for our epiphyte...and the most wow for our word?

The more unique a term is...the more relevant the search results.  A perfect example is fhqwhgads.  On one hand...you really don't have to use quotes when you Google for fhqwhgads.  But on the other hand, good luck trying to remember how to spell it.  

It's easy enough to remember how to spell "hedge"...but a Google search will provide two very different results.  Adding the word "bets" will help eliminate shrubbery related results.

You can also search for the expression..."don't put all your eggs in one basket".  But simply searching for "eggs basket" will serve you a surplus of superfluous shrubbery.

Searching for "diversify" is probably the most efficient approach.  But is it possible to create a better word?  Is it possible to create a better orchid?  Of course!  There's always room for improvement.

Look around...do you see orchids growing on any trees?  Language has just as much room for improvement as the trees around you.  Now there's a place dedicated to finding and making linguistic improvements... Linvoid.  If we want to have a bounty of better words tomorrow...we'll have to throw a lot of words at today.  So start disseminating new words like an orchid disseminates seeds.

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Discussion on Reddit: Can orchids provide a new model for language? Space exploration says yes!

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