Up-goer five semantics

Fri Jan 18, 2013

A couple of months ago, Randall Munroe’s xkcd web comic explained the design of the Saturn V rocket using only the thousand most common words of English: “the Up Goer Five explained using only the ten hundred words people use the most often”.

Explaining hard things in simple language has now become an internet meme. Just this morning, I found Walton Jones explaining his lab’s work on the genetics and neuroscience of olfaction in Drosophila: “We are interested in how little animals with six legs smell things”. There is a tumblr blog with many of these summaries.

The Up-Goer Five Text Editor makes it easy to experiment with writing down your research in the ten hundred most used words. Here’s an attempt at an up-goer five abstract for my upcoming colloquium talk at McGill (“Hedging your ifs and vice versa”, joint work with Thony Gillies):

How does the word “if” help things we say mean what they mean? It can work together with other words like “maybe” and “probably” to make things we say less strong. But how does it do that?

Many people have tried to find out how this works, but we will show that they face a big problem when one looks at people talking to each other and pointing to things the other said.

Can we do better?

There are some obstacles for a linguist. You often need to mention linguistic expressions that you work on. I was lucky that if, maybe, and probably are licit. On the other hand, “sentence” is not allowed.

Related: George Boolos’ classic exploit “Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable”.