Tag Archives: dynamic

Language as a Fluid Construct

Peter Ludlow, professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, has authored a number of fascinating articles on the philosophy of language and linguistics. Here he discusses his view of language as a dynamic, living organism. Literalists take note.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

There is a standard view about language that one finds among philosophers, language departments, pundits and politicians.  It is the idea that a language like English is a semi-stable abstract object that we learn to some degree or other and then use in order to communicate or express ideas and perform certain tasks.  I call this the static picture of language, because, even though it acknowledges some language change, the pace of change is thought to be slow, and what change there is, is thought to be the hard fought product of conflict.  Thus, even the “revisionist” picture of language sketched by Gary Gutting in a recent Stone column counts as static on my view, because the change is slow and it must overcome resistance.

Recent work in philosophy, psychology and artificial intelligence has suggested an alternative picture that rejects the idea that languages are stable abstract objects that we learn and then use.  According to the alternative “dynamic” picture, human languages are one-off things that we build “on the fly” on a conversation-by-conversation basis; we can call these one-off fleeting languages microlanguages.  Importantly, this picture rejects the idea that words are relatively stable things with fixed meanings that we come to learn. Rather, word meanings themselves are dynamic — they shift from microlanguage to microlanguage.

Shifts of meaning do not merely occur between conversations; they also occur within conversations — in fact conversations are often designed to help this shifting take place.  That is, when we engage in conversation, much of what we say does not involve making claims about the world but involves instructing our communicative partners how to adjust word meanings for the purposes of our conversation.

I’d I tell my friend that I don’t care where I teach so long as the school is in a city.  My friend suggests that I apply to the University of Michigan and I reply “Ann Arbor is not a city.”  In doing this, I am not making a claim about the world so much as instructing my friend (for the purposes of our conversation) to adjust the meaning of “city” from official definitions to one in which places like Ann Arbor do not count as a cities.

Word meanings are dynamic, but they are also underdetermined.  What this means is that there is no complete answer to what does and doesn’t fall within the range of a term like “red” or “city” or “hexagonal.”  We may sharpen the meaning and we may get clearer on what falls in the range of these terms, but we never completely sharpen the meaning.

This isn’t just the case for words like “city” but, for all words, ranging from words for things, like “person” and “tree,” words for abstract ideas, like “art” and “freedom,” and words for crimes, like “rape” and “murder.” Indeed, I would argue that this is also the case with mathematical and logical terms like “parallel line” and “entailment.”  The meanings of these terms remain open to some degree or other, and are sharpened as needed when we make advances in mathematics and logic.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Leif Parsons / New York Times.[end-div]