2015-02-23

Common names, proper usage

What follows might be, as previous posts, relevant to the raging debate in and around the W3C Shapes Working Group. If you don't care too much about Latin, Greek, French, German, etymology, translation and languages at large, you can go straight to the last paragraph. But I trust my faithful readers (whoever they are) to follow me through the long preliminary linguistic meanders.

I had a while ago pointed at the enclosure of common names as trademarks. Maybe I should have written common nouns. But in French (my native language), there is a single word nom to translate both noun and name, all being cognates to Latin nomen, Greek ὄνομα, and many more avatars of the same Indo-European root. In French grammar you will say "nom commun" for "common noun" and "nom propre" for "proper noun", and a French native speaker is likely to translate in English "common name" and "proper name", both ambiguous out of context. And my purpose today is indeed to look at what it can mean for names to be common or proper beyond what it means for grammatical nouns.
Let's look into Latin again, where communis and proprius, as well as their ancient Greek equivalents κοινός and ἴδιος have roughly the semantic scope they have kept in French and English. Together they split the world into what belongs to the commons and what is proprietary or private. Beyond and before use in grammar to denote universals and particulars, further meanings have built upon good or bad characteristics associated with each term. Typically, "common" will be used as a derogatory qualifier for whatever belongs to the vulgum pecus, those common people which do not behave, think or speak properly.  The French "propre" even goes further down this derogatory path to mean "clean", with disambiguation by position ("c'est ma propre maison" = "it's my own house" vs "sa maison est propre" = "her house is clean"). Such extensions seem indeed characteristic of a language controlled by some aristocracy. It's worth noticing that the English "own" and its German cognate "Eigen" do not seem to have suffered similar semantic drifts. 
Sticking to the original meaning and forgetting the interpretations of either grammar or aristocracy, common names would be simply names belonging to the commons. Which is true, if you think about it, for just any name. A name with no community (or communality) would be useless, and actually barely a name, just a string with no shared usage and agreed-upon denotation. Under such a definition, even proper nouns are common names. From a grammatical viewpoint, "Roma" is a proper noun, but it's common to all people using it to denote the capital of Italy. To make it short, all names belong to the commons, otherwise they don't name anything at all.
The above analysis does not apply only to natural languages names (aka nouns), but also to all those technical names handled in our information system internal languages, the names used by machines to call each other in the dark (see previous post) and take actions. URIs, addresses, objects and classes names ... if those were not common names, we would have no open Web, and no open source code with reusable libraries.
But those common names, when used and interpreted by software, behave internally at run time as proper names, by all means of "proper". They each call a well defined individual object, method or whatever piece of executable code. A URI sent through the HTTP protocol is eventually calling by their internal names specific pieces of data on one or more servers, all of them running by their own, proper, often proprietary code with its idiosyncratic functional semantics.
Otherwise said, if the declarative semantics of a technical name (description of what it denotes) belongs to the commons, its performative semantics (what it does when called) is proper to the system in which it is used, and conditions at run time.

How is that relevant to the W3C Shapes debate? What this group is (maybe) seeking (or should seek) is actually a (standard) way to describe proper performative semantics for systems using RDF data. On the DC-Architecture list, +Holger Knublauch is complaining a few days ago.
Yet, there used to be a notion of a Semantic Web, in which people were able to publish ontologies together with shared semantics. On this list and also the WG it seems that this has come out of fashion, and everyone seems "obsessed" with the ability to violate the published semantics.
Violate the published semantics? Well, no, it's just about describing how the common semantics behave properly in my system. But whether that can be achieved through yet another declarative language or some interpretation of existing ones without blurring the RDF landscape a bit more, is another story.