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Founder, Reverb Technologies/Wordnik


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How important is a common vocabulary for sharing ideas, and how do we arrive at one?

This Live Conversation will start on November 3, at 2pm ET / 11am PT.

Do we need to all be "on the same page" to have productive conversations? Do we have to use the same language or talk about ideas in the same way? What are some examples of vocabulary that's divisive, rather than helpful (e.g. "death panels")?


Closing Statement from Erin McKean

Thanks so much for all the great stories and suggestions -- such a big question can't be answered in an hour, but it's wonderful to be able to talk about it with the TED community! For more discussions follow my Twitter at @emckean. Thanks everyone!

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    Nov 3 2011: I think that, without a common vocabulary, sharing ideas becomes almost impossible. We see that reality in the political and social divisiveness we face today.

    To me, that was the greatest value of the classical education model. People educated in that model by definition shared a common vocabulary of art, language, literature, philosophy, and rhetoric, down to the point where they all at least wrote in the same common language. It was from that common foundation that the amazing advances from the Renaissance to the 1960s were born.

    What exists today to give us a similar common vocabulary?
    • Nov 3 2011: It would be great to have a metalanguage to help us acquire common vocabularies -- a way to extract the most salient terms from any domain, and give their full context, and then have experts in the field annotate them ...
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        Nov 3 2011: I wonder: do certain aspects of the language of the internet give us the basis for such a metalanguage? If so, how could it be extended so that it functioned as such?
        • Nov 3 2011: Maybe as a coordinate system? These terms are used most often with these OTHER terms, by people who are at these places/domains/times?
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        Nov 3 2011: A coordinate system might work. Are you thinking something akin to a two axis political spectrum?
    • Nov 3 2011: Do you mean classical in the narrower sense, i.e. Latin and Greek language - yes a wonderful tool to work towards common language or at least raise awareness that there is an issue.
      It has become a minority skill, but as such hopefully still offers the occasional leven for any serious philosophical, political, cultural discussion.
      Even if it does not help directly in speaking with people from other cultural traditions it helps to have an open mind and some more clarity about your own use of core words and concept.
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        Nov 3 2011: Yes, classical in the narrow sense but only as an example of what the common vocabulary could look like and accomplish. We could pick any common set, and as long as everyone agreed to it, it would function as a common basis.
      • Nov 3 2011: Yes, an open mind and not an unbreakable attachment to your point and how it is expressed. I take a deep breath before I see a client and try to visualize opening to them, really hearing them. (and I'm in finance, not channeling!)
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          Nov 3 2011: And here I was just thinking the only true way to communicate with one another without any chance of miscommunication was to cut ourselves off completely from emotion--to become robots, as it were--and not to try and guess what the other person "intended"!
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      Nov 3 2011: Obviously, nowadays our vocabulary is largely influenced by the internet--wouldn't you agree? At least in more developed countries. Perhaps it doesn't have quite the same positive vibe as the idea of a common vocabulary stemming from classical education...
      • Nov 3 2011: I don't think our language is as influenced by the Internet as we assume ... we talk about the Internet like a monolithic thing, but it is actually a network of little nodes, and they can be very different. The cosplay folks have an entirely different vocabulary than the frequent-flier boards. :-)
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          Nov 3 2011: I agree that there are different "dialects" across the Internet, but I still think it has had significant influence on vocabulary in the last two decades or so. And it can be accessed by anyone, at any time--so more people have access to the same online articles, ads, and blogs. This transcends regional and even national separation. It literally is world-wide.

          Perhaps it's more accurate to suggest technology, rather than the Internet specifically, as an influence on modern vocabulary. Everything from shorthand such as "lol" to "twittering" your point in less than 140 characters to the words "smartphone" and "app". Technology has influenced our vocabulary quite a bit in recent years.
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          Nov 3 2011: Perhaps I was thinking more of how the internet changes how we access information, and that change comes with its own vocabulary. If we could find a way to leverage that kind of a system to help create a common vocabulary for the purpose of debate and problem solving, we could help alleviate some of the problem.
      • Nov 3 2011: Nicole -- yes, that's certainly true ... maybe as we have access to language and language communities that we couldn't get to before, the disconnect between vocabularies is more apparent?

        Dennis, yes, it would be great to use technology to help people get to meaning faster and in context (which is part of what we're trying to do with Wordnik).
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          Nov 3 2011: I'd like to think that while initially the disconnect between vocabularies is apparent as a result of global access, over time the vocabularies will begin to merge (hopefully without any sacrifice to culture, but that's a separate issue!) But maybe we'll have to wait and see how language has changed in the future to see if that happens.

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