If a word falls in the woods...The interactional nature of meaning

It seems the Oxford dictionary has inadvertenly posed a rather serious challenge to the semanticians of the world. They launch a fun little website asking the net to save individual words reminiscent of the parrot Gerald Durrell's "Talking Parcel". Lifehacker immediately recognized the utility of such a project for party entertainment:

Language: Adopt a Word to Save it From Extinction "I hereby promise to use this word, in conversation and correspondence, as frequently as possible to the best of my ability." Thanks to Save the Words I finally have a proper adjective for a co-worker I had named Shrub Head: frutescent. Need to find companion words for your new vocabulary buddy? Check out our compendium of the best online language tools for word nerds.
And indeed, it is good fun. The website just makes you want to pick a word to save. But is it more than that? Does it rest on solid linguistic foundations? Or any at all? Is it worth the time? The answers respectively are no, no, no, and probably, if entertainment is all you're looking for. It's the FAQ section that gives it away. It starts seemingly noncontroversially by saying "Words are the cornerstone of language" but immediately descends into a strange tautology: "The more words we have, the richer our vocabulary." This is like saying, "The more soldiers we have, the bigger our army." True but pointless. But worse is to come in the next sentence: "Without the right word to describe something, well...we'd be speechless." I know this is supposed to be lighthearted but does it have to be simpleminded? This is obviously not the case. We are often (as individuals and linguistic communities) at a loss for words and we have developed a number of tools for dealing with that from loans, through standins like 'thingy' to circumlocutions. In fact, devices for dealing with a lack of a word are just as much a part of a language as words. I'd even go as far as to say that 'words' are not really 'a cornerstone' of language at all. They're just a concept most readily accessible to folk theories of language. We couldn't really have a language without word-like things but those things are really radically different things than the OED would have us believe. In construction grammar, words are just special kinds of constructions and they only exist in use, blended with their context and meanings of other words. A dictionary is just one kind of text in which they get used (I like Michael Hoey's notion of text colony here) and they have a special meaning there. And it's not the kind of meaning the OED claims:

 "Do lost words have meaning? Just because society has neglected them doesn't make them any less of a word. They continue to have the same meaning they've always had and as with all living language, they could develop new meanings more relevant to life today."

This is an interesting blend of lexicographic wisdom and semantic naïveté. The last bit is absolutely true. Words do develop new meanings as a matter of course. But the first two claims are absolute nonsense that raise interesting dilemmas for modern lexicography.

If a society has neglected a word, it absolutely makes it less of a word (even if we don't subscribe to prototype theory of meaning). How are 'frutescent', 'jungible' or 'mulomedic' any more of a word than 'lessulant' or 'shupranflim' both of which I made up? They are 'more of a word' only to people who use them but not to the vast majority of the speakers of the English language. 'Krk' is a word in Czech but not a word in English and 'shupranflim' (as far as I know) is not a word in any language. Obviously, it matters to whom a word is a word.

And the second statement: "They continue to have the same meaning they've always had" is simply contradictory with the last: "they could develop new meanings". The question of whence meaning derives comes up again. If we get on board with the lexicographers' conceit that meaning equals the right side of a dictionary entry, then that statement might make a modicum of sense, but I can't imagine a linguist who would seriously claim that. The 'explanation' in the dictionary is its own beast and it is at best a distillation of usage and at worst a 'political' statement. Even Samuel Johnson knew that. The problem is that meaning is not a static thing. When looked at closely enough it's probably not even a thing at all. That means that even starting a phrase "meaning is ..." can only lead down the path or reification of something that has no business being reified in the first place. Even saying that 'a word has a meaning' is only a useful shortcut to the inexpressible. To borrow from the NRA, "words don't have meaning, people have meaning". Meaning arises out of particular interactions of word-like things, social and textual contexts, and internal mental states. And because of the interactional nature of all situations in which meaning arises, the individual and situational 'meanings' tend to converge into consistency and persist over time through a variety of processes. Simple repetition and mimicry are among them, and lexicography and language mavenry also play a role. No uses of language are neutral and without contribution to the inventory of possible units that is language.

In conclusion, a word that nobody uses any more is not a word nor does it have any meaning. It was a word and had a meaning - that can be observed in the textual artefacts. In fact, a modern speaker of English will have less trouble ascribing a meaning to a made up (nonce) word when used in an appropriate context like 'He deserves a good shimtrunking on the backside' than a 'real' word with little or no context like 'it was miliaceous'. The only sentence a modern speaker will understand is "Miliaceous means 'like millet'", i.e. a rephrasing of a dictionary entry. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with OED's site. It's entertaining and does no harm. But if it pretends, it's anything other than entertainment, it's dead wrong.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Trackback URL for this post:

http://www.dominiklukes.net/trackback/905