Natural Language and Sub-Languages with Controlled Vocabularies

Natural Language and Sub-Languages with Controlled Vocabularies

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2176-1.ch002


This chapter describe differences between natural languages and special-purpose languages, where certain words used to describe observed regularities and patterns, acquire over time specific meanings that differ from their ‘ordinary' meanings in the language. Folk taxonomies, encoded in languages of peoples who occupy narrow ecological niches, serve an existential need of encoding knowledge important for survival. While folk biology developed taxonomies based on the human sensory system, modern biology evolves by including observational data from molecular biology collected with modern bio-chemical tools – scientific ‘extensions' of the human sensory system. In contrast to general language, the controlled vocabulary in ‘specialist discourse', also referred to by linguists as ‘sublanguage' and ‘Language for Special Purposes' (LSP) allows specialists to communicate in precisely defined terms and to avoid ambiguity in discussing specific conceptual situations
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In addition to the common use of language for everyday communications, a group of specialists can use the same language to encode and to communicate the encoded knowledge. As traced by Bloomfield (1938) the development and use of encoded language goes back to early division of labor and development of specializations in practical occupations such as carpentry, fishing, etc. The very nature of such specializations was rooted in careful observations of made by early humans that eventually resulted in awareness and recognition of certain patterns in the environment: Some fish travel in schools; follow certain weather patterns; certain fish are prone to be caught with certain bait.

Let us tell you a story that illustrates the difference in conceptual comprehension between two competent users of natural language. Imagine an expert in discipline X –name him EX, who invites his friend, a competent user of their common language – name him CU, to attend a lecture given by a colleague who happens to be a famous scholar in knowledge domain X. As the two leave the room following the lecture, EX asks CU “Did you get what he was talking about? I found his ideas exciting!” To which CU replies “Oh yes, I got it! I actually understood every word he said.”

We can imagine the concluding episode to this story. Upon quick questioning by EX it turned out that his friend CU did not really follow the speaker’s ideas; furthermore, he did not understand that certain expressions – word sequences – used by the speaker, carried meanings that were significantly different from the literal meaning of those same expressions in the common use of the language.

  • What are we to make of this story?

  • Should we really be surprised that CU did not get the meaning of the talk?

After all, scholars often communicate complex theories through the use of common language (this is true not only in social sciences, but also in mathematics and exact science); CU’s remark that he “understood every word” should not be surprising. On the other hand, we should also not be surprised that he failed to provide satisfactory answers to EX’s probing questions: unlike his friend, CU is just a competent user of the language, not an expert in the discipline X. CU understood the words, but missed the ideas communicated in the talk.

Our story highlights a phenomenon familiar to many language users, namely, the coding of discipline-specific knowledge under the guise of lexical labels that are familiar words borrowed from natural common language. When used as lexical label for a specialized term, a familiar word changes its meaning, turns into a symbol of different connotation, and becomes a part of different semiotic system.

All disciplines use ‘secret codes’ to communicate meaning; this is what scientists and other professionals mean by ‘shop talk’: common construction of meaning by initiates who share the discipline’s ‘secret code’. It is easy to verify that such codes exist both in scientific disciplines as well as in the professions. Certain words, used to describe such regularities, acquire over time specific meanings that differ from their ‘ordinary’ meanings in the language. These ‘code words’ are like secret passages that lead to hidden stores of organized information: ways of conceptualizing an otherwise chaotic avalanche of undifferentiated facts. These words do not comprise a new language; rather, they are ordinary words used within a particular framework of the language to communicate special meanings: specific conceptual content in the context of the body of knowledge of a discipline, a profession, or a specialization. They originate from the common need to eliminate – at least reduce – ambiguity, and to define conceptual content in precise terms that allow clear demarcation between the known and the unknown.


Main Focus Of The Chapter

Issues, Controversies, Problems

'…There's glory for you!'

'I don't know what you mean by “glory,”' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't - till I tell you. I mean “there's a nice knock-down argument for you!”'

'But “glory” doesn't mean “a nice knock-down argument,”' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

…'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'

(Lewis Carroll, 1982, pp. 190-191)

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