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Thu, 30 Jun 2005 13:00:00 GMT

Notice! This blog is no longer updated as such, and the new spot to point your feedreaders and blurry eyes are https://shelter.nu/blog/

This also means no more comments here, and especially not you spammers, you filthy floatsam of the internet!

What me and the wife did in bed last night : horsing around!

It all started with the innocent bedtime slurry conversation that our daughter Grace of 5 had asked her friend Celia (also 5) what the opposite of a 'cow' was, and her answer had been 'horse'. Now, the initial reaction my wife had was that of a laugh, because obviously a 'cow' didn't have an opposite per say, and she was referring to antonyms, and lingustically speaking she was right. But it got me thinking as to why Grace would answer horse. Here's what I think;

Everything has an 'opposite', but it certainly is easier for concepts (high/low, black/white, over/under, here/there, etc) than it is for objects (cow, horse, me, computer, car, etc). For opposites in objects we need to traverse the context of the word itself. Lately on the SIGIA-L mailing-list there's been lots of discussion about the difference between data and information and about what words mean with and without context (start roughly about here and read the follow-ups )

What is the context of 'cow'? Well, it depends on the context of the medium, which in this case is Grace, and her context with 'cow' is that it is a farm animal; she's learnt about them through songs and rhyme and in songs they are often grouped, such as ;

All around the barnyard

The animals are fast asleep.

Sleeping cows and horses,

Sleeping pigs and sheep.

She has also seen the pictures in books about 'tracy goes to grandmas farm' and similar. She knows it is a big animal, lives on a farm, eats grass, and gives us milk.

I guess here is where we get to semantically dangerous waters; if you look at farm animals per se, what animals do you usually group together? The paddock usually contain cows, sheep and horses. The pen has chicken and ducks. Pigs are on their own, albeit in our song above grouped with sheep. We know a lot about goats through folklore, so they must be around somewhere (and here is where it gets interesting!), and they are almost like sheep, more so than cows, and certainly more so than pigs who'll eat anything and has no fur. Cows and horses are roughly the same size and eat grass, unlike sheep and goats who are smaller. Our groups are now 'cows and horses', 'sheep and goats', 'chickens and ducks', and possibly 'pigs and sheep'.

So, here's the theory: When Grace talks about opposites, she means intergrouped opposites, literary a physical opposite where 'in the paddock' cows are at the one end and horses are in the other end. They are opposites.

This same kind of semantic grouping is found everywhere, and me and the wife at this point started to come up with different opposites to things (often while laughing). Here's some of the highlights;

  • Opposite of bed is chair; bed is for having a rest, and lying down. Chair is also resting (which becomes the group), but sitting. As far as we could tell, there were no other basic resting categories, so chair it is.
  • Opposite of window is door (Julie:grouped by physical aspect 'hole in a wall') or a wall (Alex: grouped by visual penetration)
  • Opposite of food is drink (Julie: grouped by energy-source consumption) and feces (Alex: grouped by his filthy mind)

Funny how it just makes sense to me. Heh. If only every night could be as fun as this; mostly it's just exciting. :)

Permalink (Thu, 30 Jun 2005 13:00:00 GMT)| Comments (1) | Information architecture
LinguisticsLen ( Mon, Jul 4 2005 - 06:07:42 )
Fascinating concept ... so long as you don't take it too seriously.
In English only adjectives (words that describe nouns) and some verbs, but not nouns (objects), have semantic-pair opposites. Nouns just don't have the diametrically opposed relationships that opposites by definition require. Even for verbs the meaning of the bipolar relationship is often subjective.
If anything, this is a good anecdote about the developmental issues children face when learning about learning language – that there are rules to learn about some concepts, like opposites, that take time to comprehend.