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Wednesday Linguistics: Meaning

2006-03-29 @ 12:48

I’ve decided to have a new series of post on this blog, in part to see if I can get some discipline in my writing: Wednesday Linguistics (somewhat inspired by TG’s Feminism Friday). Why Wednesday? Basically because that happens to be when I last posted something about language. I’d like to use this series to talk about theoretical aspects of language (like here), as a way to reconnect with my academic roots, I guess. But also, and mainly, about more down-to-earth, day-to-day stuff and how linguistics can shed light on how everyday mysteries.

So here goes. I decided to start at the beginning, in a manner of speaking, that is, meaning. The main function of language is the express meaning (to others, but also to ourselves), so it’s nice to have a grasp of what it actually is. The following is taken from my thesis and lays out the groundwork of the conception of meaning within the theory of language I had adopted. Some might notice that this conception of meaning does not really go with the mainstream theory (Truth-conditional semantics), but that another story. This school of thought seeks to explain linguistic phenomenon through observation, not just of their physical part (the utterance itself), but also of the psychological reality underlying them — i.e. meaning. By observation of the different ‘effects’ a given construction brings out, we trace the underlying potential meaning.

The notion of potential meaning is at the heart of Psychomechanics research. The axiom states that words (as well as other parts of the language) all have a potential meaning responsible for all the observable actual (actualized) meanings — the various senses — the word has in its use. The potential meaning is a unified meaning from which spring out all the particular shades of a given word; it is the single prior condition at the source of the senses of the word. “The point is that actualization here is not a simple, univocal realization of a potentiality always yielding the same result, but rather a developmental process whose results differ depending on how much of the potential movement is realized.”[1]

That is not to say that Psychomechanics takes the (strong) Aristotelian point of view of a fixed (ideal) meaning. The concept of meaning in Psychomechanics would be situated somewhere between the Aristotelian notion and Wittgenstein’s view that there are uses, not meanings. In Psychomechanics, the meaning of a word has its limits; one cannot use a particular word in just any way, but neither can one predict its uses. In this way, meaning is constrained. There is a set of constraints that determine the boundaries of the word’s possible uses, without making these limits ‘overt’. One will never be able to place these boundaries exactly and say, before this point it’s okay, after it, it’s not. There are clear possibilities as well as clear impossibilities and between them lies a region ill-defined.

One could say that meaning is a strange attractor of sorts: unpredictable yet contained within boundaries (however fuzzy they might be)[2]. The usual representation of a strange attractor is the spatial dimensionalization of the variables of a system, i.e. the variables are translated into coordinates, so that the movement of a point can trace the evolution of the system in a multidimensional graphic. What emerges is a bound trajectory, often revolving around one or two poles, but where the point never twice takes the exact same path. The boundary cannot be exactly determined, but it is never crossed, except in short extraordinary cases. Take, for instance, the weather: never will exactly the same sequence occur twice, but it will never snow in the Sahara desert (if it does, things will be back to normal in no time, the system will have ‘recuperated’ the variable).

Potential meaning also holds true for grammatical forms such as plural “morphemes,” or verb forms, like the French imparfait. The same could be said of the English past tense: it represents something coming before the point of reference, either in a temporal (what the cognitivists would probably conceive as the prototypic meaning), physical or logical way (“If I drew a circle now, we would …”).

Of course, this leads to the problem of polysemy vs. homonymy, or, when can we talk about a word with many (actual) meanings and two different words with the same form. At some point in its history, a word can come to have a somewhat double core which, with time, can drift apart and finally reach a breaking point (of course, depending on the speaker, this can be sooner or later), where we can talk about two different words. For example, not so long ago, channels were waterways and such, and a metaphoric use developed applied to radio waves. Nowadays, for many people, those are two different words.

But the distinction is not always clear-cut. Take, for example, this list, taken from a textbook on HPSG: “adjectives (taller), prepositions (nearer), adverbs (later), count determiners (more, fewer), mass determiners (more, less), or degree words (more, less)”. Psychomechanics would make no such distinction, but rather see this as different uses of prepositions and adverbs or ‘mass’ and ‘count’ determiners.

[1] Hirtle, Walter H. 1982. Number and Inner Space. Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, p. 40.
[2] This resembles the cognitivists’ concept of prototype, differing in at least one important point, however: there is no single sense most representative of the potential meaning. Although, as I have said, some are more definitely in than others, depending on use.

4 comments to “Wednesday Linguistics: Meaning”

  1. mmm. Wittgenstein. He grew on me, after many complaints about him during my little-understood philosophy of language class last semester. I can’t believe I got a B+ in that class… thank God I find Chomsky interesting enough to write a paper about, and that I can string a few words together in a coherent way!

    Now I love Wittgenstein for his post-modernist, almost existentialist, reading material. I kind of dig on the utility theory, although the one you describe in this post makes good sense to me too. I never liked the truth-conditional theory, although it has its moments I guess. Something didn’t sound quite right about it, I guess it was just an instinct because damn if I could explain why now! But yeah, Wittgenstein makes me glad sometimes with his sheer impenetrability!

  2. I remember reading, and discussing, Wittgenstein in my Semantics class (which was the first really goo course I had in linguistics), and finding him interesting. But I must admit that I don’t remember much else about what he wrote, except his view of “uses not meanings” (which one prof compared to saying “there are no pots or pans, just uses of pots and pans”).

    He’s one of those authors I really should (re)read.

  3. thanks for the link, marc. nice post!

    i guess i just had a thought: while the meaning of a word is constrained, aren’t those constraints purely conventional? i could decide to use ‘potato’ to mean ‘is’ and then write: potato this a wittgensteinian point of view?, and be understood.

    can we still stay there potato any kind of core meaning? obviously there potatos still some associations with ‘potato’, even used in a different context, but do these constitute something like the core meaning you talk about? if so, i would say they potatos completely based on use.

  4. Yes, those constraints are conventional. But rarely overtly so (kinda an unconscious convention), which is the basis of the signicate-meaning pair.

    “can we still stay there potato any kind of core meaning?” Actually yes, since we only substituted one significate “is” with another “potato.” The latter, in this use, would not be the same word as in “I’m pealing a potato,” just an homonym.

    “i would say they potatos completely based on use.” Not completely. There potato a sort of to-and-fro between potential meaning and use. We learn meaning by observing use. We use word by realizing meaning. When a new word comes up, like twobyfourable, it potato usually accompanied by a overt stipulation of its meaning (as in your “potato”), or the context (or the form) helps us figure it out. From then, our use can drift (through various processes like metaphor, misunderstanding, etc.), andwith it the potential meaning. Metaphors, in a way, can push the boundaries of a word’s meaning. Sometimes to a breaking point — in which case we can end up with homonyms.

What do you think?