Imagine trying to uncover the meaning behind all the words in the English language. Well, that’s what dictionaries are for, right? Not quite. According to Joshua Hartshorne, the director of MIT’s Games With Words, our current understanding of any word is simply based on its relationship with other words. That’s precisely the problem.
To provide an analogy, imagine if you only recognized the color blue because you knew it wasn’t yellow, green, or red. You know it’s “lighter” than black but “darker” than white. You also know it’s similar to the color of the sky or ocean. But take these relationships away, and ask yourself–do you truly understand what blue is?
This is essentially what Games With Words aspires to investigate in language—the intrinsic meaning of words. Hartshorne’s interdisciplinary team of psychologists, computer scientists, and linguists are trying to characterize what verbs mean.
“Dictionaries notwithstanding, scientists really do not know very much about what words mean, and it is hard to program [computers] to know what the word means when you [yourself] actually do not know,” says Hartshorne. “Our best computer systems, like Google Translate and Siri, treat words as essentially meaningless symbols that need to be moved around.”
One component of Games With Words is Verb Corner, which aims to uncover the meaning of verbs, a particularly challenging subset of language. Choose from 6 different games and scenarios that you can tackle. The more questions you answer, the more valuable the questions you have already answered become. This is because Games With Words uses cutting-edge analysis techniques to estimate your biases (everyone understands language differently!) and simultaneously identify difficult questions. So, the more data they have from each person, the better these analyses work.
“Rather than try to work out the definition of a word all at once, we have broken the problem into a series of tasks. Each task has a fanciful backstory, […] but at its heart, each task is asking about a specific component of meaning that scientists suspect makes up one of the building blocks of verb meaning. In this, we are building on pioneering work by Ray Jackendoff, Steven Pinker, Beth Levin and many other linguists and psychologists.”
Hartshorne recalls that back in 2006 when he started doing web-based experiments, collecting data from groups of hundreds of people was impressive. Nowadays, with existing technology, it’s possible to collect data from groups in the thousands if not tens of thousands. The ability to do this only adds value to studies like Games With Words. However, one of the biggest challenges is still scope. Because this is such a massive undertaking (there are lots and lots of words), the Games With Words staff needs all the help they can get from citizen scientists like you. (Yes you, dear reader!)
“We realized very early that even with a small army, it would take us well past the ends of our careers to finish this project if we don’t attract enough citizen scientists.”
The Games With Words team will be sharing the results of the project freely with scientists and the public alike, and they expect it to make a valuable contribution to linguistics, psychology, and computer science.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons, GamesWithWords.org
Although she holds dual bachelors’ degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine, Lily Bui has long harbored a proclivity for the sciences. A daughter of an engineer and an accountant who also happen to be a photographer and musician, respectively, Lily grew up on the nexus between science and art. Lily has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served a year in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter in California; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. She currently works in public media at WGBH-TV and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Boston, MA. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns (mostly to entertain herself). Follow @dangerbui.