Ontology, natural language, and information systems: Implications of cross-linguistic studies of geographic terms

In 6th Annual Conference of the Association of Geographic Information Laboratories for Europe (AGILE). pp. 45-50 (2003)
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Ontology has been proposed as a solution to the 'Tower of Babel' problem that threatens the semantic interoperability of information systems constructed independently for the same domain. In information systems research and applications, ontologies are often implemented by formalizing the meanings of words from natural languages. However, words in different natural languages sometimes subdivide the same domain of reality in terms of different conceptual categories. If the words and their associated concepts in two natural languages, or even in two terminological traditions within the same language, do not have common referents in the real world, an ontology based on word meanings will inherit the 'Tower of Babel' problem from the languages involved, rather than solve it. In this paper we present evidence from a preliminary comparison of landscape terms in English with those in the Yindjibarndi language of northwestern Australia demonstrating that this problem is not just hypothetical. Some possible solutions are suggested.
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