Margaret Masterman by @SebastianNavasF

Margaret Masterman — Ahead of Her Time

Margaret Masterman was a pioneer in the field of computational linguistics. As a linguist and philosopher she was aware that language shapes the way we think and can tell us about the nature of mind and reasoning. For her work in language processing by computers in 1950' she was said to be way ahead of her time. Plenty of her ideas have now become fundamental insights in the fields of the artificial intelligence and machine translation.

As a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, she was profoundly concerned about the foundations of theoretical linguistics. When Noam Chomsky was developing his syntactic theories and Richard Montague was supporting a logic-based alternative, she was proposing a “neo-Wittgensteinian” view, to focus on semantics and not syntax, as the foundation for language.

Masterman believed that it was meaning and not grammar, the key to understanding languages. She recognized that natural languages were highly ambiguous as a consequence of their flexibility and extensibility, and that only a criteria based on the meaning of words could hope to reduce such usage to any underlying machine usable notation.

“I want to pick up the relevant basic-situation-referring habits of a language in preference to its grammar”

Margaret thought that ambiguity was not a defect that could be eliminated by switching to a purified language of logic. So, this became one of her major concerns, how to transform or parse written English into machine representation for machine translation.

Masterman’s Thesaurus Model

Her lattice-theoretical thesaurus notions were described mostly in prose and exemplified by descriptions of computer algorithm, as it was thought that no computer could hold a coded thesaurus because of the storage space required. It is known that raw and uncoded thesaurus data was stored on punched cards, however, it is not clear how did the thesaurus-based calculations were executed. Actually until recently, it was quite difficult to access Masterman’s research because she never published documents and only internal working papers can be found.

“We are not ladies who lunch!”

Women working on research and teaching in Cambridge were unable to hold fellowships under the rules of the University, so they didn’t get to enjoy the intellectual environment and advantages of a collegiate community. But, after a series of meetings, in November 1964, the Dining Group successfully applied to the University for recognition as the Lucy Cavendish Collegiate Society.

‘So it is without towers or turrets, without a chaplain or Porters, without a building of its own or even a foundation grant, Britain’s first graduate college for women has quietly come into being’ — The Times, 11 October 1965.

Margaret Masterman not only opened doors for women’s education and intellectual life in England, but left us with a legacy of ideas for understanding language that only just recently we have come to appreciate.

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  • Masterman, M. (2005). Language, cohesion and form. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hutchins, W. J. (Ed.). (2000). Early years in machine translation: memoirs and biographies of pioneers (Vol. 97). John Benjamins Publishing.
  • Williams, W., & Knowles, F. (1987). Margaret Masterman: In Memoriam. Computers and Translation, 2(4), 197–203. Retrieved from
  • History of Lucy Cavendish College (
  • Wikipedia Profile (

A Computer of One’s Own

Pioneers of the Computing Age

Florencia Grattarola

Written by

Uruguayan PhD student in Evolution & Ecology in the UK.

A Computer of One’s Own

Pioneers of the Computing Age

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