Friday, 27 September 2019

What do words mean? - Semantic change and definitions


Phenomenal, Chair, Bebeflapula.

What do these words mean – and – who gets to decide?

This posts serves as an introduction to semantics, the linguistic and philosophical study of meaning in language. It also serves as an introduction to the fresher and more interesting problems in modern philosophy of language.

It’s common for people to sometimes just assume that meanings are these fixed things that never change and hence words are always to be understood in just a certain fixed sense that is dictated by definitions or the origin of a word. We’ll see how that holds up.


Let's try to understand what the following statement conveys:

  1. »That's phenomenal!«

What does the phrase mean? Where exactly could we find the answer to this question? What do we point to, when talking about its meaning?

Well, for one, we could point at the etymology of the word: the origin and historical development of its meaning.

Ultimately, the word comes from the old greek word ˝phenomenon˝, which can be translated as ˝to appear, or happen˝. So, could we just say that the phrase »that's phenomenal!« states nothing more than the mere fact that something happened? Is the phrase completely meaningless, in the sense that it has no purpose or reason?

Of course not.

The meaning of a word is not fixed by how it was used in the past. It is well known that language changes over time, it adapts to suit the needs of its users. Some meanings disappear when no longer useful and others spread if they fit into new enviroments.

We have a term for this - Semantic change. Which is a form of language change regarding the evolution of word usage — usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage.

For example, at some point in the history of the English language,

  • "nice" used to mean silly, foolish, simple
  • "silly" in its earliest uses referred to things worthy or blessed.
  • Awful things used to be the ones inspiring wonder (or fear), such as "the awful majesty of God."
  • »Gay« used to mean »lighthearted and bright«, even »happy«.
  • The word »mouse« used to mean, just mouse, but now it also refers to the handheld device that is attached to a computer.
So, if we want to pin down the meaning of a word, history won’t really help us. Language is alive and organic, and so are the meanings of the words we use. They change. They evolve. They adapt.

If we want to truly grasp the meaning of our statement, we will have to look somewhere else. At this point some of you will probably think about how easy it would be to just look into the dictionary. So, the idea is that we can understand a word if we understand its definition.

Alright, let’s do that. It says there that the word »phenomenal« amongs other things means »remarkable or exceptional, especially exceptionally good” (just like my youtube channel, if you haven’t subscribed yet).

So, this is the answer, right? If we want to know the meaning of a word, we just look at the dictionary? Oh, that seems simple and obvious. And problematic, for several reasons.

Consider the following. For the most part of history, there was no dictionary. If looking into the dictionary was really the way how to understand the meaning of a word, then for the most of history, we would not understand language at all. There's also words that you can't find in the dictionary today, such as philanthropreneur. But, you probably do understand the word anyways.

What a word means is in some sense independent and separated from what it says in the dictionary. Dictionaries are just collections of words, with definitions reconstructed in regards to what the word usually get used like, but as such, dictionaries have to get updated every decade or two, while online dictionaries get updated every day. If you look at the dictionary, for one thing, you might be looking at an outdated definition of the word.

The other thing to consider is the fact that we don’t even need a definition in order to know what a word means. Take the word “chair”, for example. What definition could we offer that would include all the objects we usually call chair, but leave out all the ones that we don’t? We could play around with this idea for a bit, for instance, we could say that a chair is

  • “a piece of furniture with four legs and a back.”
Well, what about stuffed animals? They are furniture with four legs and a back. And, what about chairs with three legs or one? How about:

  • “a chair is something you sit on.” Well, I can sit on a rock or table.
How about:
  • “a chair is something that’s intended to sit on.” Well, what about a couch? That’s intended to sit on, but is not a chair. And, what about a chair that is a piece of art in a museum? That one is definitely not intended to sit on, but we still call it a chair.
The point is, even though we’re struggling to come up with a definition of the word “chair”, we still know what the word “chair” means.

A fun lecture where a philosophy class tries to define the word chair:


So, it would seem, at least in some way, that meanings are separate and independent of how we define the words we are using. And that’s where we really inter the truly interesting part of semantics and philosophy of language.

That is, when we realize that meanings are not just technical and straithforward, but interpreting words includes understanding context and conventions, how the word is used, and so on. This opens up a ton of questions, most famously posed by the late philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein:


For example, one compelling theory about language is that language maps words to ideas, concepts or representations in each person's mind. So, the meanings of words are in this view – mental images. But as such, meanings get flexible and distorted. How do you know that the meaning of my “phenomenal” is the same as your “phenomenal”?

That’s really when we can start to think about philosophical ideas and problems such as:

  • The Private Language Argument,
  • Language games,
  • The Rule-following paradox,
  • Family resembalnces,
  • The role of context,
  • Metaphors,
  • And so on.
But for now, as the crucial starting point, what we need to understand is, interpreting words and statements includes much more than simply regarding its definitions. In this view, semantics – the study of meanings - is complex, but insanely interesting.

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