Ontologies: FAQ

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What does this mean for how linguists work?

Obviously, for an ontology to function in the manner outlined above, search engines have to find exactly the terms that the ontology tells them it should find. But many different terminology sets are in use by different linguists. Different linguistic traditions, for example, use not only different terms for the same concept (e.g. "obviative" and "fourth person"), but the same term for different concepts (e.g., "absolutive" doesn't mean the same thing for Australian languages as it does for Uto-Aztecan).

Do linguists have to use only the terms someone has chosen to put in the ontology?

The answer is no. All that is required for the ontology to work properly is for whatever term the linguist uses to be related to the correct ontological term. So, for example, suppose the term used in the ontology is "Fourth Person", and a linguist has used "Obviative" in his/her description. All that is needed is for the terms to be appropriately related, so that the system, when it encounters "Obviative", interprets it in terms of the ontological term. As far as the search engine is concerned, this is essentially a synonym of "Fourth Person", and anyone searching for "Fourth Person" is going to find data where the term used is "Obviative".

What if a morphosyntactic category in a language doesn't really match anything in the ontology?

Does this mean you can't map it? No, because an ontology has hierarchy. This means that even if a category doesn't yet exist in an ontology, it's usually possible to place it roughly where it would be found in terms of the hierarchy. So even though the actual term is missing in the ontology, you can map it it where it would be if it were there, and the ontology can interpret it in those terms.

What if a morphosyntactic category in a language doesn't fit?

What if a morphosyntactic category in a language doesn't fit any place in the hierarchy? What if it has characteristics that make it share the characteristcs of more than one node in the hierarchy? An ontology does not just have hierarchy, it is also a directed graph. That is, unlike in a tree, a node can have more than one parent. Thus you can add a category to an ontology that inherits the characteristics of more than one parent.

Do we need new tools to work with ontologies?

Yes. To make all this work requires the existence of tools that are ontology-aware, so that terms used by the linguist can be related to ontological terms as a linguist works. Such tools also have to be able to relate terms which have no ontological equivalent to appropriate places in the ontological graph so that searching will proceed intelligently even if something genuinely new appears in a language. One such tool now being built is the FIELD linguistic analysis tool-set.

User Contributed Notes
E-MELD School of Best Practice: Ontology FAQ
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