Monday, March 13, 2006

Tim from SansBlogue left a comment about my post on a Semantic Web lexicon for the New Testament. Comments unfortunately don't work so well on my blog (in particular, the notification mechanism doesn't work, so i don't always know about them), so i wanted to repeat his comment and respond to it more directly, because it raises an important point.

Tim said (in part):

... I wonder if the biggest job, creating a concordance of senses is unnecessary and / or undesirable. Surely one of the key exegetical decisions in such cases is which sense is intended in THIS use. To predetermine this is surely to restrict exegesis unnecessarily, a straight concordance of the Greek and a cross link to the other sense(s) would suffice!

Tim's question is a relevant one, and if the goal were exegesis in the normal sense, i think our current approaches might be good enough for the most part. By "current approaches", i mean something like:

  1. scratch your head over a passage you're reading
  2. go back to the Greek (except for those of you erudites who were already reading Greek in step 1) and identify the lemma in question
  3. go to some reference lexicon and survey the range of meanings for the lemaa, consider the context and other translations, scratch your head some more, and repeat until satisfied

Electronic references and hyperlinks make this process much more convenient: convenience and search alone are enough to keep me using Scripture software rather than the dead tree kind. But the process above is little different from consulting printed works: it's just easier to click a hyperlink than to pull a volume off the bookshelf and thumb through the pages.

My goals are somewhat different, though: i'd like to be able to index content semantically. The glosses that represent the senses for a given word in shorthand can never express the full range of possible meaning, of course, or the actual meaning in a particular context (which ultimately is the critical thing). But they still provide ways to organize content, or facilitate search, that go beyond words alone. As a simple example, i can create a search application that groups all the verses that talk about "light" in the sense of electromagnetic radiation, versus other senses. Perhaps more relevant, i can organize verse content semantically, and find e.g. verses discussing humility, without having to think of all the ways this concept is expressed (humble, lowly, etc.)

By the way, there's some discussion related to this at the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, where David Weinberger thinks 2006 will be the year of the Unique ID. We already have a pretty clear standard for uniquely identifying Greek words from the New Testament: the one created by Strong (though only web-enabled in limited ways). I'm not yet aware of one for senses (WordNet would be the closest for English, and Louw-Nida are most of the way there).

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