Pointing is rude, but necessary

Unless term definitions in your business glossary point to something concrete, the definitions are no good.


There have been quite a lot of new discoveries made in the field of linguistics recently and one of them provides a great lesson for the creators of enterprise business glossaries.

For a long time, one of the dominating theories about the origins of language, "where it comes from", was Chomsky’s theory that language is hard-wired into our brains. We are born with a grammar structure and we just fill in a vocabulary as we go. However, by the end of the twentieth century this theory was being challenged by Pinker and others who proposed an evolutionary approach - language as an natural instinct humans nourish to give them an evolutionary advantage. There is a lot of empirical research that supports these claims. One of the most interesting has been the identification of a connection between language and motor control (people displaying Parkinsons-like tremors have problems with their syntax and grammar similar in kind to those they experience with their motor reflexes).

Keeping in mind the above observations, it's interesting to consider a toddler who's learning his/ her first words. The baby crawls around, points at things and babbles sounds or inquisitively looks at adults for inspiration. Luc Steels, a Belgian AI researcher, tried to replicate the mechanism by placing remote-controlled robots that could hear and produce sounds in laboratories around the world and allowing real human agents to take control of them. The operators saw and heard everything that the robot experienced and were able to move them around the labs. No predefined rules for communication between the robots was agreed. Steel made an interesting discovery - pointing was a crucial enabler for language to develop. It turned out that pointing is critical for word-object relationships and the creation of the mutual consensus about the meaning of a word.

So what lesson can we learn from this to help our enterprise business glossary endeavours? Unless a term definition points to something concrete e.g. a report, a column in a table, a physical thing, a concrete location … the definition is no good, because there is no way for the meaning of the word to be communicated between two people and verified that their understanding is identical (!)

For further reading I suggest, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language by Christine Kenneally.