Living in Montreal means I am trying to improve my very limited French and in trying to communicate with my Francophone neighbours I have become aware of a process of attempting to simplify my thoughts and express them using the limited vocabulary and grammar that I have available. I only have a few nouns, fewer verbs, and a couple of conjunctions that I can use so far and so trying to talk to people is not so much a process of thinking in English and translating that into French, as considering the basic core concepts that I need to convey and finding the simplest ways of expressing relationships. So I will say something like “The sun shone. It was big. People were happy” because I can’t properly translate “We all loved the great weather today”.

This made me realise how similar this is to the process of breaking down content into key concepts for indexing. My limited vocabulary is much like the controlled vocabulary of an indexing system, forcing me to analyse and decompose my ideas into simple components and basic relationships. This means I am doing quite well at fact-based communication, but my storytelling has suffered as I have only one very simple emotional register to work with. The best I can offer is a rather laconic style with some simple metaphors: “It was like a horror movie.”

It is regularly noted that ontology work in the sciences has forged ahead of that in the humanities, and the parallel with my ability to express facts but not tell stories struck me. When I tell my simplified stories I rely on shared understanding of a broad cultural context that provides the emotional aspect – I can use the simple expression “horror movie” because the concept has rich emotional associations, connotations, and resonances for people. The concept itself is rather vague, broad, and open to interpretation, so the shared understanding is rather thin. The opposite is true of scientific concepts, which are honed into precision and a very constrained definitive shared understanding. So, I wonder how much of sense that I can express facts well is actually an illusion, and it is just that those factual concepts have few emotional resonances.

A major aspect of poetry is about extending the meanings of words to their limits, to allow for the maximum emotional resonance and personal interpretation. Perhaps poetry speaks to individuals precisely because it doesn’t evoke a shared understanding but calls out new meanings and challenges the reader to think differently, to find new meanings? This is the opposite of indexing, which is about simplifying and constraining to the point at which all the fuzziness is driven away and you are left with nothing but “dead metaphors”. The only reason indexing the sciences seems easier is because so many scientific concepts have been analyzed and defined to this point already, doing much of the indexer’s work for them.

I am not sure if these musings have any practical applications. People sometimes ask me if I think my previous studies of languages and literature have helped in my current work. I have known many excellent monolingual indexers but am also aware that many people who are good at semantics speak more than one language. However, I am sure it is helpful to think of the process of indexing as a form of translation, albeit if the idea of removing all the poetry from language in order to create a usable, useful index is not at all romantic!