By now, everyone knows the rags to riches (and back to rags) story of Visicalc, a couple of guys with an idea who revolutionized the computer market. And everyone with some spare time and a garage is trying to figure out the gimmick that will spark the next revolution. Like most revolutionary sparks, the next one will probably come from a direction where nobody is looking.
One such unlikely direction is The Wordtree, “the word system for solving physical and social problems branch by branch,” the brainchild of Henry Burger, a professor of anthropology and altogether extraordinary person. Henry died this October. I will miss him dearly, and I want writers to know about him.
The Wordtree is the product of many decades of single-minded dedication by Henry. In its present form, The Wordtree is roughly 400 dense computer-set pages full of words, words, and more words. Yet a bound book doesn’t do it justice, because language grows. Every year. Every day. Henry knew more about this growth than anybody, and throughout his life, he continually updated his work. Now that he is gone, I fear no equal genius can be found to carry on his life’s work
Unlike a dictionary or a thesaurus, The Wordtree’s words are linked together in a huge binary tree, each word being the combination of two other words. It is this binary tree structure that creates the revolutionary potential of The Wordtree.
To begin to illustrate its potential, here’s just one example of how I used The Wordtree. While I was writing my mystery, Freshman Murders, one of the villains said something that made my hero, Josh Rosemont, want to clobber him. But Josh is supposed to be a cool, careful, thinking man, so clobbering was not the correct action.
As usual, I identified so strongly with my protagonist that I was in an empathetic rage–a state not highly conducive to constructive thinking. The Wordtree lay near at hand, so to calm myself, I picked it up to ?nd an idea of how to clobber him without physical violence.
Under CLOBBER, I found HIT & CRUSH, a refinement of my idea.
Under HIT, I found STRIKE & FORCE. Looking at this pair, I realized that I didn’t really want Josh to strike him, so I pursued the other main branch, finding CRUSH refined to PRESS & HOMOGENATE. Josh certainly didn’t want literally to homogenate the villain, so I pursued PRESS, which resolved in CONTACT & FORCE.
The reappearance of FORCE suggested that this was a critical element in what I wanted Josh to do, which resolved into OVERCOME & LIMIT. When I saw LIMIT, I knew that was the essential result Josh was seeking to limit the villain’s behavior so as to avoid additional killings.
But how to accomplish this limiting? CONTACT may have suggested something, so I re?ned it into MEET & RELATE. At that point, I realized that Josh must meet the villain, face-to-face. But that wasn’t enough, because in most mystery/thrillers, the ultimate meeting between protagonist and antagonist must result in a violent scene, where the hero wins a fight. That wouldn’t do for Josh, who has suffered from a crippling disease all his life.
So, Josh had to convince the villain to meeting him, then relate to him in some non-violent way so as to limit his behavior. My initial rage had been reduced to an action plan that ultimately allowed Josh to resolve the problem in a way consistent with his physical strength, character, and values.
The Wordtree contains a great deal of supplementary material on the underlying psycholinguistic theory. More important for most authors, though, it also contains many suggested operations for their characters and plots, including:
• Ways to accomplish a given goal.
• The opposite of an idea.
• How to prevent an action or cure a problem.
• Synonyms for a word.
• Alternatives for an action.
• Possible analogies.
• Simpler ideas than a given one.
• Potential causes of a given situation.
• A more complex idea than, or summary words for, a given action.
• Potential effects of a given action.
Combining these functions in various ways permits The Wordtree to be a tool for all writers. As with a spreadsheet, few people will see more than a few of the many tools combined into one. I have already used The Wordtree in the following ways:
• A link between substance and process.
• A synonymy.
• A symbol-decoder.
• An antonym dictionary.
• A semantic theorizer.
• A non-circular simplifier.
• A non-circular complexifier.
• An evolutionary history.
• An alphabetic history.
• An oral dictionary.
• A reverse dictionary.
• A random-access concept finder.
• A nuance distinguisher.
• A thesaurus.
• A vocabulary builder.
• A word game.
• A physical-science bridge to social science.
• An interdisciplinary engineering manual.
• A menu for invention.
There are many other uses suggested in The Wordtree, but I suspect that hundreds of uses will remain undiscovered until The Wordtree reaches a wider audience. These days, as a novelist, my most frequent use of The Wordtree is sharpening my verbs. No two verbs mean exactly the same thing. For instance, at FASTEN, the reader sees precise differentiations (nuances) among RACKING, NAILING, BRADDING, WEDGING, SUTURING, and numerous others.
The Wordtree cross-references each verb, so that on the M pages, you would see, MUSIC & CAJOLE = TWEEDLE. Looking up CAJOLE, you find it is equal to FLATTER & DECEIVE. Pursuing one side of this verbal equation, I find FLATTER = COURT & SUPERORDINATE. SUPERORDINATE = ORDINATE & GREATEN. And so forth. One problem with The Wordtree is my tendency to squander hours exploring our magnificent language–but not really squander, because I always learn something new.
In using The Wordtree, though, my principal problem has been one of human factors. For simple uses, a single entry may be sufficient, but generally I found myself wanting to explore The Wordtree as if I were some sort of word-monkey, swinging from branch to branch. But it’s a huge book, with hundreds of thousands of words squeezed into its 8.5″ x 11″ pages. It’s a hardback book, with sewn-in high-quality paper, but after more than thirty years of use, it shows its wear. Also after thirty years, my old eyes are having trouble seeing the entries.
Because it is organized as a hardback book, an essentially linear form, The Wordtree book is a structural mismatch between its physical and logical structure. After I’ve turned pages for a while, I find myself yearning for an online version, so I can access its extraordinary content the way Henry truly meant it to be accessed.
I know that computer manufacturers and software houses have been competing to sign up the publishers of other reference works so that they can create applications, but none of them yet seems to have signed up The Wordtree.
Like more familiar reference works, The Wordtree represents an enormous investment of scholarship, just waiting for the opportunity to be tapped for online processing. Unlike the others, however, The Wordtree is the first such work with an internal structure ideally suited for computerization.
For over forty years, I have been urging Henry to make The Wordtree available as a computer application. In the early days, before personal computers, I wanted him to make The Wordtree into an online application on time-sharing systems. Then, later, I urged him to make a personal computer application. But Henry never trusted computer and software companies with his life’s work. Like so many writers (and not without cause), he also feared that once the work was available in digital form, it would be plagiarized and corrupted.
Henry never finished The Wordtree–because he left us, and because no reference about language will ever be finished. But, the first organization that signs up and implements The Wordtree application will already possess 99% of the work necessary to produce a thinking tool of unsurpassed usefulness to all of us writers.
See Henry’s obituary at http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/kansascity/obituary.aspx?n=henry-g-burger&pid=145999249
Gerald M. Weinberg is a member of Book View Café and blogs here more or less regularly. His science fiction novel First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See by Gerald M. Weinberg is serialized for free on the front page rotation.
For more about him and his fiction please visit his bookshelf here on BVC: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Gerald-M.-Weinberg/ Or, visit his personal web page, http://geraldmweinberg.com
Freshman Murders may be found on Amazon.com, in eBook or paperback format, and will soon be available in Book View Café’s bookstore.