Monday, November 3, 2014

How dynamic is word meaning?

3:AM: In your forthcoming book Living Words: Meaning Underdetermination and the Dynamic Lexicon you’re interested in how elements of meaning that can change radically on a conversation-by-conversation basis. Meanings are dynamic. This is not how language is traditionally thought about is it. To see how different your view is could you say something about the view your arguments challenge?

PL: ... The traditional view is that languages are fairly stable objects that we learn with varying degrees of success and that we then deploy for expressing thoughts and performing certain tasks (by giving orders, instructions, etc). Sometimes the traditional view uses the metaphor of language as a widely shared common currency that agents use to communicate, with individuals words being the common coins of the realm. These common coins are supposed to be more or less fixed; as Locke argued, even Augustus, though he ruled the world, was unable to coin new Latin words.

On my view we are coining new terms all the time – if only for a limited run – and more importantly we are also working together modulating word meanings so as to build microlanguages. These are possibly one-off languages that we construct based on communicative needs. So there is no language that is given to us or that is stable. Languages are things we are constantly building and modifying.

3:AM: I guess the traditional view accommodates some degrees of flex. You’re arguing for a flex that destroys that position though aren’t you?

PL: Yes that’s right. Many people believe that language is context sensitive and somewhat dynamic but I think that even Wittgensteinians failed to appreciate the full nature of the context sensitivity. I argue that word meanings are radically dynamic and that a large part of the conversations we enter into involve the modulations of word meaning. So, to use an example from the linguist Chris Barker, when I say “Smith is tall” I may not be making a claim about the world or even trying to do something in the world, but rather I am trying to modulate the meaning of ‘tall’. If I fix Smith as a safe case of a tall person I’ve possibly broadened the meaning or at least firmed it up for us.

3:AM: So are you saying there are no absolute meanings, just different modulations? I guess this is linked to meaning negotiation isn’t it. How does it work?

PL: Yes, that’s right. Some people think that with terms like ‘flat’ or ‘knows’ there is an absolute meaning, which is the core meaning – absolutely flat or knows with Cartesian certainty – and that we get away with using these terms (calling Kansas flat or saying I know I have hands) because we are always speaking loosely. I don’t think that is right. I think the “absolutely flat” meaning (if it is coherent) is just one modulation among many. There is no privileged modulation.

And yes, it is connected to meaning negotiation. The dynamic nature of language requires that we sync up with each other to effectively communicate. In doing so we form passing microlanguages with each other. Sometimes we sync up on word meanings without much reflection, but other times we litigate the meanings of terms. You hear this on sports talk radio a lot. Who get’s to be labeled ‘athlete’? Golphers? Bowlers? Formula 1 drivers? My view is that this is going on all the time. ...
3:AM: So you are arguing that language is dynamic but also underdetermined. What do you mean by that?

PL: This is an idea that has also been explored recently by Stewart Shapiro who in turn makes a nod to Friedrich Waismann’s idea that language is “open textured.” The idea is that meanings are not precise objects and indeed have no precise core. We get tricked into thinking they must be precise because we use precise mathematical objects to model meanings. When we conclude that meanings (or semantic values) are precise we are confusedly taking an artifact of the model to be a property of the thing modeled. It is like using wooden tinker toys to model atoms and then concluding that all atomic elements must be combustible because their models are.

My idea is that we need to “lift meaning underdetermination into the metalanguage.” This raises a lot of interesting technical questions that I can’t address here, but I can say that the pull to think the metalanguage of semantics must be precise is the product of two philosophical hangovers – one from Quine and one from Plato. The Quinean hangover is the idea that our theorizing must take place in a first order language. The Platonic hangover is the idea that the meanings (semantic values) must be in some sense perfect – completely determinate is one way to put it. I see no reason why the theory of meaning needs to adopt these assumptions, and in the book I try to argue that those assumptions only lead to woe.
At least some linguists already know this, or something very much like it – here I'm thinking of William Croft, Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary Approach (2000). This is also consistent with the view taken by Peter Gärdenfors in The Geometry of Meaning (2014, pp. 91 ff). I've taken this position as well: The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Section 8.

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