Wednesday, April 30, 2014

More on Metrization

We earlier treated the matter of a metric on a topological space, in a series of essays beginning here:

Now, as lagniappe, we offer a pair of Metrization Epigrams, which the budding mathematician, stuck for an opener with that leotard-clad vision at the espresso bar, can use for a pick-up line:

 A discrete space is like the autistic atomism of the Tractatus, or Leibnizian monads.
An indiscrete space is (as one writer charmingly put it), “really quite crowded:  each point is an accumulation point of every other set.”  (One pictures the Jellyby children in Bleak House, ever tripping over one another’s legs.)

(Believe me, chicks go wild over such things.  Or at least, if you are like most gangly Adam's-apple-challenged graduate-students in math, it’s your last best shot.)


It is by no means only topological spaces that one might wish to subject to a metric: all kinds of things, really:    Which species lie how close to which others (and different metrics -- phenotypic, cladistic, etc. -- yield different results);  which languages are neighbors in linguistic space (again there is a phenotypic/cladistic distinction:  descent vs. Sprachbund); which people have a natural affinity with which other (seating-plans at dinner-parties; blind dates; etc.)  And more generally, what is the curvature tensor of the noösphere?

Here a noted philologian on the notion as applied to languages:

Was nun die Sache selbst anlangt, so meine ich  daß immer Sprache und Sprache, mögen sie auch noch so weit auseinander liegen, in wissenschaftlichem Sinn  enger zusammengehören  als Sprache und Literature, seien es auch die  desselben Volkes.
-- Hugo Schuchardt, “Über die Lautgesetze”  (1885), in Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p. 85

And here, indeed, he polemicizes against the nominalist treatment or ‘indiscrete toplogy” of diachronic linguistics:

Ist es denn nun nicht an sich ganz gleichgültig, ob rom. andare von adnare oder addare oder ambulare oder einem keltischen Verbalstamm herkommt;  ob in diesem Dialecte  l zu r  und in jenem  r zu l  wird usw.?   Welchen Sinn haben alle die Tausende etymologischer und morphologischer Korrespondenzen, die Tausende von Lautgesetzen, solange sie isoliert bleiben, solange sie nicht in höhere Ordnungen aufgelöst werden?
-- Hugo Schuchardt, “Über die Lautgesetze”  (1885), in Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p. 84


This metaphor of ‘metrization’, outside the exact sciences, is very loose, as it is not strictly needed -- for taxonomic purposes, a more approximate neighborhood-system will suffice (a “Uniformity”) so to speak -- and still less is to be obtained.

As, a pair of British linguists comments:

Once recent attempt by French researchers  has given us the term dialectometry, which describes a formula for indexing the dialect ‘distance’ of any two speakers in a survey.  So far, the utility of the index has not been demonstrated.
--J.K. Chambers & Peter Trudgill, Dialectology (1980), p. 112

This, in the synchronic arena, is reminiscent of the glottochronology of Morris Swadesh, who attempted a sort of carbon-dating of linguistic evolution, based on an assumed universal rate of lexical decay, in the absence of direct evidence.

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