Thoughts on the Growth of Language 1: Meaning

An issue raised in an earlier blog (see reply to Jeff Berg) needs an additional comment, namely, what aspect of the meaning of a term which has been borrowed from a foreign language and was then introduced into a home-language, is actually transferred. The assumption is that the borrowed term has more than one meaning in the original language whereas only one of its meanings was transferred. Which of its several meanings was transferred?

The answer lies in discovering what the recipient of the message understood by the original. The recipient may have misunderstood the message, as when he interprets someone who says “o.k.” that the recipient also agreed with the message. This “o.k.” may only imply that the recipient had heard, but had not understood the message and therefore had not “correctly understood” what message. If this is so the recipient cannot “interpret” the message correctly, or he may doubt that what he (thought) he had heard is what was said. As a result the recipient may have understood the contrary of what was said!

Now the term *meaning* itself is not clear to me, that is, the term seems ambiguous, has more than one interpretation. One can interpret *meaning* as a way of speaking about the relation of the words used and what these refers, i.e. it is used referentially. But it can also be a way or a manner of speaking about intentions, that is not what the words refer to literarily but what these intend when they are uttered by a particular person. *Intention* therefore refers to what a person wishes to say, not what was said when interpreted literally, as illustrated by the reprimand, “You did not mean what you said.” It does not necessary state that what he/she referred to, is what they want to happen. There is a mismatch therefore between what was said and what someone intends to convey!

An example of the latter is when a guest spills a glass of red wine over an immaculately laid table during the speech of another, perhaps even a person he/she is already known to dislike! Psychoanalytic thinkers have made much of this and have explained such happenings, which may look perfectly innocent and accidental to the “normal” person, as an unconscious expression of hostility towards the speaker, perhaps towards the host, or to other guests attending this festive occasion! Or examine the expression, “What Joan intended to say when she remarked that Maude was suitably dressed for the occasion was that Maude was a person who was sensitive to social demands and public opinion.” Maude, in other words, is a person who knows how to fit in well, and furthermore is socially sensitive and adept. Again, the comments from Joan were intentional in nature and are not necessarily complimentary.

We are correct when we distrust that words carry only their literal meaning: few of us use words in that manner. However, we do not get reliable signals on what occasions we should distrust a speaker’s words and intentions.

One thought on “Thoughts on the Growth of Language 1: Meaning

  1. The effect you describe is further complicated by the possibility of the meaning of a word changing or taking on additional interpretations. I have been struck by this in recent years by the use in American English of the suffix “-gate” to mean scandal, a reference to the burglary instigated by Republicans of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office building in Washington, DC in 1972. The original meaning comes from the circumstance of the nearby confluence of the C&O Canal and the Potomac River, where there is indeed a water gate to mediate the differences in current and water level between the two. The association of place and event has evolved to suggest a meaning unlike the original one. Something similar has happened to the word “marathon”, originally a place in Greece, now a kind of road race, somewhat understandably, but metamorphosed into the suffix “-thon” for any long strenuous effort (geeks have “hackathons”, for instance). Maybe that’s just America, playing fast and loose with language.

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