Wednesday, June 14, 2023

The Real Bard, Tis a Pity

 There are many things that bother me about the recently released chatbots, one of which is their a-historical nature. This lack of attention to any time other than today is a fault in much of technology thinking, but in the chatbots it is not difficult to demonstrate. And such a demonstration came about in an email exchange on a list of folks who are usually quite critical of technology developments as they affect society.

I expressed my concern:

I'm particularly bothered by the proposal that there is one giant language that is the sum of a mass of written expressions. First, written language and spoken language have differences. Second, there are language subsets, like medicine or law or any other specialty, and you can't just mix those in with a huge database of web documents; you can't mix blog posts and post-modern academic writing as if they were the same language. Topicality is important, as is context.

The other thing that bothers me, and has bothered me with other tech developments, is that the approach is a-historical, as if today is the only time that has ever existed. Language notoriously changes over time. Can chatGPT do Shakespeare? Bronte? Dante? Is it ok to lose those because they aren't "now"?

Someone then ran the query "Please write the story of Little Red Riding Hood using Shakespearean English" with the bots ChatGPT and Bard. Here are excerpts from the responses:

ChatGPT: Once upon a time, in a land far from mine own,

There lived a maiden fair, of beauty and grace, She was called Little Red Riding Hood, yon tale to unfold, Whose journey through the woods led her to a dire chase.

Her mother beseeched her, with love and concern, "Take this basket, dear child, and tread with care, For the woods be fraught with danger untold, Beware the wolf that lurks in shadows there."

Little Red Riding Hood, in her scarlet cloak, Embarked on her path, with naught but innocence, Through verdant glades and whispering leaves, She ventured forth, sans any recompense.

BARD: In a village, there dwelt a maid, With a cloak of red so bright, She was known by all as Little Red Riding Hood. One day, her mother bade her go To her grandmother's house, With a basket of food to cheer her up. Along the way, Little Red Riding Hood met A big, bad wolf, Who asked her where she was going. "To my grandmother's house," she said, "To take her some food."
These look rather impressive, coming from a bot. They are written as poetry, sometimes rhyming, although in some cases the rhymed words are nonsense (see "recompense" in the ChatGPT version). There is some attempt to use Elizabethan language, throwing in a "dwelt" and a "doth". But nothing about this gets even close to the poetry and language of Shakespeare. I don't have a true Shakespearean version of Little Red Riding Hood, but here is some actual Shakespeare:

In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
Th’ ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. ’Twas pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour, to sit and draw
His archèd brows, his hawking eye, his curls
In our heart’s table—heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favor.
But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics. Who comes here?


There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebelled against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I’ th’ midst o’ th’ body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labor with the rest, where th’ other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body. The belly answered 
The bots return a weak sauce, using a few old-sounding words in a mostly modern text. The results are more modern Red Riding Hood than Shakespeare. Red Riding Hood has its own history, some of which actually pre-dates the Bard of Avon. The algorithmic prediction applied here seems to be based on a database that readily mixes modern language and that of the 16th century, languages that should be seen as distinct. The one thing the bots seem to have "learned" is that Shakespeare means "written like poetry," which ChatGPT used to create rhyming text and Bard simply used to make short line lengths, usually at logical points in the sentence.

Language is and has been ever-changing for all of the years of human existence. It simply cannot be taken out of context. John McWhorter, in his The Power of Babel*, gives examples of how language changes with "He blew up the post office" of 1830 and "He made love to me" of 1935. Those are both from recent years compared to the 1600 of Shakespeare, yet they did not mean then what they mean today.** We can be dismissive of "wrong" use of words in teenage slang, but that slang is language with a context. It is a fast-changing language, but an easily observable example of the fact that language is in constant change.

That change has a history, and its future is not predictable. Bots can calculate the next likely word based on a very large database, but we should turn to teenagers for the future of language, and to past writers in their context to learn where we've been.

* McWhorter John. The Power of Babel a Natural History of Language. Perennial 2001.

** "Blew up" in 1830 means that you gave them a piece of your mind; "made love to" in 1935 meant to woo or court.



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