October 17, 2008

Sensical Nonsense

Jessica has a post up at bioephemera about Turing tests and the Mechanical Turk, an eighteenth century hoax automaton. Good stuff. Go read. I'll wait.
And welcome back. If you read all the way into the comments, you'll have noticed that I said that any Turing test I administered would have to involve sensical nonsense. You'll also have noticed that someone had difficulty with the concept. Or maybe only pretended to have a problem. Either way, it's an excuse to talk more about a subject near to my heart.

'I'm sure I'll take you with pleasure!' the Queen said. 'Twopence a week, and jam every other day.'

Alice couldn't help laughing, as she said, 'I don't want you to hire ME -- and I don't care for jam.'

'It's very good jam,' said the Queen.

'Well, I don't want any TO-DAY, at any rate.'

'You couldn't have it if you DID want it,' the Queen said. 'The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday -- but never jam to-day.'

'It MUST come sometimes to "jam to-day,"' Alice objected.

'No, it can't,' said the Queen. 'It's jam every OTHER day: to-day isn't any OTHER day, you know.'

Lewis Carroll's work is perhaps the pinnacle of sensical nonsense, but we all do it. It certainly doesn't require a Humanities degree.

Think British rhyming slang. Think highly creative swearing. Think about the ability of any noun to stand in for XX in the statement, "Did you see the XXes on that one?" Think about teenagers. Have you seen the House outtakes where Jennifer Morrison and Lisa Edelstein deliver their lines in Valley speak?

To some extent, all communication relies on the willingness of both parties to understand and be understood. There's enough flexibility in language that even the most careful communications can be misinterpreted, not just deliberately, but also through the writer and the reader not working to reach the same place.

Sensical nonsense requires a commitment to understand each other that goes beyond regular verbal communication. It requires a certain shared culture, so that the shape and direction of a conversation don't have to be carried by the words. Instead, they can carry the words, so the words can be almost anything. For example:

Alternately, sensical nonsense can require the willingness to carry an extended metaphor beyond any reasonable limit and the trust that both parties are still talking about the same subject. It can require the tenacity to follow a conversation that takes sharp turns over the multiple meanings of a word, when a statement uses one meaning and the reply uses another. It can require the patience to filter through a stream of verbiage that does nothing more than express the identity of the speaker.

In short, sensical nonsense can be a lot of fun, but it's a lot of work. And it depends on so much beyond mere language that I have no idea how one would ever teach a computer to do it.


Anonymous said...

Light tires laugh loudly. Friendly leaves cook frantically. Jumpy sodas burn sympathetically. Smart apples snore patiently. But colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Indeed, if not in deed.

bioephemera said...

Oh, that was fabulous! (Anyone who didn't watch that video past the first minute, you underestimate the power of Stephanie's point.)

Reading sensical nonsense on the page is interesting - if I read silently, I have trouble, but if I read aloud, I'm able to understand it with no difficulty. Perhaps because we're used to construing what others say despite gaps and mumblings and misstatements and accents, we're just incredibly efficient at seizing on the most likely interpretation. I enjoyed listening to the comedy bit and seeing which interpretation - the obvious or the humorous - kicked in first.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Jessica, I have more trouble getting all the meanings in the spoken than the written. When I'm reading, I'm usually pulling up everything at once and waiting until the end to sort out which meanings were intended.

With spoken words, when I'm interacting with a person, I do a lot more work to understand what they mean, as you suggest. Unless I'm very comfortable with someone, the social demands override the desire for nonsense. There are words in this video that I'm still not able to understand because I'm hearing what is meant instead. I had to look at a transcript to get it all.