Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Names, Territories, Maps, Things

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of a linguistic philosophy called General Semantics (if you haven't figured it out yet, I was an extremely nerdy and strange kid). I dare say I didn't really understand it, but a) it was a key plot device in a science fiction book I liked a lot (The World of Null-A, by A.E. van Vogt), and b) the popularization of the philosophy I read, Language in Thought and Action by S.I. Hayakawa, made it sound cool. (I still have a fond place in my heart for Hayakawa, who in his one term serving as a U.S. Senator from California, remarked during the Panama Canal debate that "we stole it fair and square." There was a man who understand language. And he wore a funny hat.) Now that I think about it, I've always had a weak spot for offbeat linguistic philosophies. Lakoff, Pinker, bring 'em on.

One of the key ideas behind General Semantics is Frege's quote "the name is not the thing," and Bell's more famous quote "the map is not the territory." (Here's an interesting page on General Semantics although the author seems quite negative about some aspects of it.)

Earlier, I took Bell's quote to justify more accurate names for maps, but of course Frege would also tell us that the names aren't the countries either. Of course. We could talk about a number of different kinds of names of countries:
1. The referral name. What the people in a given country A call country B. For example, we call China "China."
2. The orthographic name. What the inhabitants of the country call it, using their own script. I can't easily reproduce China's name here.
3. The phonetic name. How we would pronounce -- or transcribe the pronunciation -- of the local orthographic name. We'd say (or write) "Zhong Guo."
4. The semantic name. What the local name means. Zhong Guo means "Middle Kingdom."

And, to make matters more complicated, there may be any number of each of these. This makes making maps that represent this kind of information tricky. How much information can you pack into a static graphic? How meaningful is the orthographic name to those that can't read the script, much less understand the language? Is "Rossiya" in a Latin alphabet more or less "accurate" or "meaningful" or "useful" than POCC[backwards N][backwards R] in Cyrillic? What about all of the other ethnic groups that live in Russia/Rossiya?

All this mulling -- plus realizing that there's a commercial product called RealMaps -- has made me realize that I've got the name all wrong. I'll take suggestions for a better one, but it occurs to me that these are Name Maps (sort of the ultimate in General Semantics evil); we're making a map of what the names are. The course of study of this field is, of course, cartonomography. Maybe the collection of maps is the Cartonomicon.