Information and Meaning

What would you think if you received a text message that said;

  1. taH pagh taHbe

You would probably suspect that someone ‘butt dialed” that message by mistake.  However, it might amuse to know that message #1 is one of the most recognized lines from Shakespeare written in Klingon.  The line is from Hamlet’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.   (Yes there is an actual language called Klingon developed by people related to the production of the well known StarTrek movies.)   The well known line in English is:

  1. To be, or not to be

This line is spoken by Hamlet himself in Act III, scene as he ponders one of life’s deepest questions about the meaning of life.  The full context of the line is:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?—To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.

The Ultimate Meaning

For Hamlet the question of being or not being is one of life or death, because the answer he is getting is that life itself does not have enough meaning to outweigh the inevitable misery, suffering, and injustice accompanies it. Hamlet is considering suicide. Through his plays, Shakespeare seemed to be able to open a window into the human condition, bringing out every facet of it at a time when the study of the human heart through psychology was hundreds of years away.  If ever there was literature with meaning, this scene from Hamlet is heavy with it, where the meaning of the scene is all about the meaning of life.

Unless you were raised by wolves and had never heard of Shakespeare, the moment you hear that first line of Scene III there is no confusion about what he is talking about.  The meaning is perfectly clear. If you received text message #2 from a thespian friend suffering from depression, you would immediately get on the phone or rush over to their house to perhaps avert a tragedy. But if message #2 is perfectly clear and laden with life and death meaning, why would message #1 be just nonsense to you? If either of the messages are equivalent in regard to Shakespeare’s profound meaning, why doesn’t message #2 invoke in you the same response?

The Ultimate Meaning in 19 Bytes

The answer is obvious, of course.  You don’t speak Klingon.  But beneath that obvious answer there is more interesting question.  If that line of Shakespeare is heavy with meaning, where did the meaning go in message #1? You might answer that the meaning is still there, but without a knowledge of Klingon, we don’t recognize it. But let me propose to you that neither message #1 nor message #2 actually contains any meaning.  That might sound outrageous, but let me ask you how you think that all that anguish about the human condition and the question of whether life is worth living be contained in a set of about 12 little marks on a piece of paper or a computer screen?  Consider that the characters in message #2 that come to you from the web server were stored in 19 bytes of memory (if you include the spaces).  How much information about the meaning of life can be stored in 19 bytes of computer memory?

Meaning As Shared Context

The answer to that question is that message #2 does not so much ‘contain’ meaning as it does ‘select’ meaning. Each of the six words in that message are part of a vocabulary shared by you, me, and Shakespeare.  When Shakespeare sat down to write that line, he had profound meaning in mind.  His goal was to transmit that meaning to his audience.  In order to do that, he selected words from our shared vocabulary knowing that you and I and the rest of his audience already know the meaning of “to be”, and the meaning of “not to be”.  When you or I hear or read the words “to be”, we associate those words with meaning that is already in our heads.  If you are still uncertain about this, consider a line a bit further in Scene III where Shakespeare writes,

who would fardels bear

Shakespeare didn’t write that line to make English class difficult for high school students, but in good faith that his audience knew what fardels are.  The problem is that although Shakespeare and his audience shared a certain English vocabulary at the time of his writing, here in the present day our vocabulary does not completely overlap with the 16th century Elizabethan audience’s. So when we read or hear the word “fardels”, it doesn’t compute.  We are unable to match it up with a meaning in our own minds.   The word “fardels” means “burdens”, which highlights the fact that its not the meaning of the word that confused us but our lack of that word in our vocabulary.  We know what burdens are, but we just didn’t recognize the word itself.

Words Are Symbols For Shared Meaning

Now we can safely say that the words in message #2 and their meaning are separate concerns.  The words don’t contain meaning but merely symbolize meaning.  The words are symbols.  And given that the words and the meaning are separate, any set of symbols will do for me to send information to you as long as both the meaning and the set of symbols I use are part of a context that we share between us.  In other words, we need to share the same set of meanings and an agreement on which symbols will represent which meaning.  For example, if you and I had troubled to learn Klingon, I could recite Hamlet to you in Klingon and it might rock your soul as much as it might in English.

In the case of English and many other languages, words are symbols made up of symbols.  English words are made up of symbols from a set of 26 letters, ten numbers, spaces, and punctuation. But in other languages words themselves are discrete symbols, such as Chinese or Japanese ideograms.  In either case, most adult humans have a vocabulary of about 25,000 words.   If I am to communicate meaning to you effectively, I need to choose wisely from my set of 25,000 word symbols based on what they mean to me and send them to you hoping that you know each of the symbols and will associate approximately the same meaning in your mind to each of them when you receive them.  I can form them out of English letters or I could number the words from 0 to 25,000, send you a string of numbers, and you can look up the words from a chart  (which is partly what zipping up a text file does).

Human Communication Is Always Symbolic

There is nothing unique about Shakespeare communicating to us symbolically.  All of us do the same thing when we send or speak words to each other.  But there is nothing unique about the written word as symbol, either.  We create and use all kinds of symbols besides written words to communicate with each other.  In fact, since we cannot read each other’s minds, we have no choice but to communicate symbolically in all of our communications.  Written and spoken words, gestures, dance, music, visual arts, touch, and so forth are no exception to the rule.   All human communication takes place by humans sending symbols to other humans.

Symbols and Information Theory

If all human communication takes place through symbols that means that the way we are informed about something is through the receiving of symbols. If those symbols come from a finite set of symbols (e. g. 20,000 word vocabulary, or the three colors of a traffic light) it should be possible to quantify information by quantifying symbols.  We can ask questions such as “what is the smallest set of symbols I would need to inform you about someone’s age in years?”  Or, “how many symbols would I need to store on a computer disk if I wanted to store certain information (e. g.  a zipped version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet) ?”

As it turns out, the recognition that information is carried by symbols led to the establishment of the science of Information Theory by a Bell Labs mathematician named Claude Shannon in the late 1940s.  In the process he discovered that the flow of information is not just an engineering problem but something that is as fundamental in the universe as matter or energy.


I have been involved in science and engineering since probably before you were born. I am interested in writing about science, its conceptions and misconceptions.

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