Monday, April 6, 2009

A rose is a rose is (not) a rose

In several of my earlier blog entries, there was discussion as to whether words like "rose" have meanings, or are only references to things. Shakespeare thought they were only references to things when he wrote "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet". My conclusion to the contrary (based on "salt") has been given empirical evidence, as described in a story on National Public Radio[1].
Lera Boroditsky, an assistant psychology professor at Stanford University, had conducted experiments in which people were shown to be unconsciously affected by the language they spoke when they described things. In languages like German and Spanish that have "gender", each noun (unlike English) is either male, female, or neuter. However, languages aren't consistent with regard to the gender of any particular word. In German, the word for bridge is feminine, and in Spanish it is masculine. When test subjects were asked to provide words describing a picture of a bridge, the Germans came up with fragile, elegant, beautiful, peaceful, slender, and pretty, whereas the Spaniards came up with strong, dangerous, long, sturdy, big, and towering. Even when the test subjects were taught a completely made up language that had gender, they chose descriptions of things that matched the gender of the made up word for that thing.

So, when doing the business and technical analysis of systems, be aware of attached connotations and concept interrelationships before translating rich natural language words like Salary into antiseptic variable names like Foo.

[1] "Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong", Robert Krulwich