The cat ate the keat
April 18, 2011 6:10 PM Subscribe
What term describes this property of human language?
posted by molybdenum to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ok, maybe this is Linguistics 101, but I can't think of a term for it.
Consider this example: If you change one pixel in a digital picture, you've made a very small change in the overall image: the change in the message is proportional to the change in the medium. If you change one note in a song, you've made a very small change in the song. But if you change one letter in a string of text, you've potentially totally changed (or destroyed) its meaning ("The cat ate the meat" / "The cat ate the seat" / *"The cat ate the keat"). The change in the medium is small, but leads to a large change in the message. What term describes that property of text?
I realize that human readers can gloss over typos, and reconstruct intended meaning when errors are present. And I realize that certain letters within text "matter" more than others ("The cat ate tha meat" is still readable). But it still seems like there's something qualitatively different between certain classes of information (e.g. human-generated text; computer binaries; DNA sequences) and other types (like images, sounds, gestures, etc.), related to their sensitivity to change. Intuitively, that difference appears categorical to me, not merely a matter of degree. But maybe I'm wrong.
There must be a term for that, right? Maybe something from information theory or signal processing?