People sometimes play games with words. People may also recite or memorise lists of words, for example when trying to learn the words of another language or to remember technical terms. And they may occasionally leaf through a dictionary looking at words more or less randomly. These are legitimate activities, enjoyable or useful as they may be. But they are not typical uses of words. Typically, human beings use words for their meaning, in context, as part of communicative discourse. As Halliday has made clear (see especially 1.6 above), vocabulary can be seen as part of lexicogrammar, a lexicogrammar that represents the choices which users of a language make, a lexicogrammar that represents our ability to mean. For, ultimately, language is about meaning. The main function of language – and hence of words used in language – is to mean.
This part of the book is particularly concerned with exploring the semantics of words. Section 2.2 offers some comments on meanings as presented in dictionaries. This is followed by brief discussion of potentially misleading notions about ‘original meaning’ (2.3) and ‘correct meaning’ (2.4).
In 2.5 we try to explain what we mean by a social perspective on language and meaning, followed by some background on the theorising of Saussure and Firth (2.6) and Chomsky
and cognitive linguists (2.7).
We then look at the implications of our theorising for language and reality (section 2.8) and, to open up a multilingual perspective, we talk about the diversity of languages in the world (section 2.9) and about the process of translating from one language to another (2.10).
Language is a nuisance. It can humiliate, irritate, aggravate, frustrate, and manipulate. Language is a friend. It can advocate, accommodate, cooperate, alleviate, and mitigate. Language is clarification. It can illustrate, demonstrate, elucidate, illuminate, and commentate. Language is an arbiter. It can mediate, consummate, consulate, adjudicate, and negotiate. Language is strong, influential, ...
2.2 Words and meaning
A dictionary seems the obvious place to find a record of the meanings of words. In many parts of the English-speaking world, dictionaries 24 COLIN YALLOP have achieved such prestige that people can mention ‘the dictionary’ as one of their institutional texts, rather in the same way that they might refer to Shakespeare or the Bible. Such status means that a printed dictionary may easily be seen as the model of word-meanings. We may then, uncritically, assume that a dictionary in book form is the appropriate model of words as a component of language or of wordmeanings stored as an inventory in the human brain or mind.
In fact a dictionary is a highly abstract construct. To do the job of presenting words more or less individually, in an accessible list, the dictionary takes words away from their common use in their customary settings. While this is in many respects a useful job, the listing of words as a set of isolated items can be highly misleading if used as a basis of theorising about what words and their meanings are.
There is of course no such thing as ‘the dictionary’. For a language such as English there are many dictionaries, published in various editions in various countries to suit various markets. The definitions or explanations of meaning in a dictionary have been drawn up by particular lexicographers and editors and are consequently subject to a number of limitations. Even with the benefit of access to corpora, to large quantities of text in electronic form, lexicographers cannot know the full usage of most words across a large community, and may tend to bring individual or even idiosyncratic perspectives to their work. In the past, dictionaries were quite often obviously stamped by the perspective of an individual. We have already mentioned Samuel Johnson’s definition of excise as ‘a hateful tax’ (1.7 above), and, as another example, here is Johnson’s definition of patron:
patron, one who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery. Modern lexicographers generally aim to avoid this kind of tendentiousness. Certainly today’s dictionaries tend to be promoted as useful or reliable rather than as personal or provocative. Nevertheless, despite the obvious drawbacks of a dictionary that represents an individual editor’s view of the world, it is regrettable that dictionary users are not reminded more often of the extent to which dictionary definitions are distilled from discourse, and often from shifting, contentious discourse. In any event, lexicographers can never claim to give a complete and accurate record of meaning. A team of expert lexicographers may by their very age and experience tend to overlook recent changes in meaning; or they may tend to write definitions which are elegant rather than accurate or simple; or they may follow conventions of definition WORDS AND MEANING 25 which are just that – lexicographical conventions – rather than semantic principles.
The intensification of some features of the concept in question is realized in a device called simile. S. must not be confused with ordinary comparison. They represent two diverse processes. C.means weighing two objects belonging to one class of things with the purpose of establishing the degree of their sameness or difference. To use S. is to characterize one object by bringing it into contact ...
Dictionaries often tend to favour certain kinds of technical identification, definitions that describe dog as Cam’s familiaris, or vinegar as ‘dilute and impure acetic acid’. While this kind of information may sometimes be precisely what the dictionary-user is looking for, it is debatable whether it constitutes a realistic account of meaning. Many of us communicate easily and happily about many topics, including domestic animals, food, cooking, and so on, without knowing the zoological classification of animals or the chemical composition of things we keep in the kitchen. Perhaps people ought to know information like the technical names of animals or the chemical composition of things they buy and consume, whether as general knowledge or for their health or safety. But it would be a bold move, and a semantic distortion, to claim that people who don’t know such information don’t know the meaning of the words they use.
In general, it is unwise to assume that meaning is captured in dictionary entries, in the definitions or explanations given against the words. Dictionary definitions can and should be informative and helpful, and, when well written, they provide a paraphrase or explanation of meaning. But the meaning is not necessarily fully contained or exhaustively captured within such a definition. This is not to say that meanings are vague or ethereal. Within the conventions of a particular language, meanings contrast with each other in established and often precise ways. Speakers of the same language can convey meanings to each other with considerable precision. Words do not mean whatever we want them to mean, but are governed by social convention. Nonetheless, we cannot assume, without qualification, that the wording of a dictionary definition is an ideal representation of what a word means.
What Trojan hero did the Romans considered themselves descended from? – Aeneas. What Greek historian described and explained Rome’s rise to power? – Polybius Who were the legendary twin brothers who founded Rome in 753 B.C.? – Romulus and Remus What three things did Polybius consider the main causes of Rome’s greatness? Which Hellenistic philosophy taught that we should strive for “ ...
Extending this point, we normally use and respond to meanings in context. As users of language we know that someone’s mention of a recent television programme about big cats in Africa implies a different meaning of cat from a reference to the number of stray cats in the city of New York. And if someone talks about ‘letting the cat out of the bag’ or ‘setting the cat among the pigeons’, we know that the meaning has to be taken from the whole expression, not from a word-by-word reading of Felis catus jumping out of a bag or chasing Columbidae. Any good dictionary recognises this by such strategies as listing different senses of a word, giving examples of usage, and treating certain combinations of words (such as idioms) as lexical units. But it is important to recognise that this contextualisation of meaning is in the very nature 26 COLIN YALLOP
of language and not some unfortunate deviation from an ideal situation in which every word of the language always makes exactly the same semantic contribution to any utterance or discourse. For reasons such as these, we should be cautious about the view that words have a basic or core meaning, surrounded by peripheral or subsidiary meaning(s).
For example, the very ordering of different definitions or senses in a dictionary may imply that the first sense is the most central or important. In fact there are several reasons for the sequence in which different senses are presented. Some dictionaries, especially modern ones intended for learners of the language, may use a corpus to establish which are the most frequent uses of a word in a large quantity of text, and may list senses of a word in order of frequency. Some lexicographers follow a historical order, giving the oldest recorded senses first (even if these are now obsolete and largely unknown).
Erudite is a misunderstood word. Several adult, when asked to define erudite were found to be sadly misinformed. One adult answered that erudite was like, " Fred Astaire, with a top hat." Another misinformed adult said that an erudite man is one that, "thinks he is better than everyone else." Answers such as these are most obviously wrong. One fifth of the adults surveyed answer with a resounding, ...
Or a compiler may order the senses in a way that makes the defining easier and more concise (which is probably of help to the reader, even though it intends no claim about the centrality of the first sense listed).
For instance, the word season is commonly used in phrases like the football season, the rainy season, the tourist season, the silly season, a season ticket, in season, out of season. These uses taken together probably outnumber what many people may think of as the fundamental meaning
of season as ‘one of the four seasons, spring, summer, autumn and winter’. But the lexicographer may judge it sensible to begin the entry with the ‘four seasons of the year’ sense, not only because this is perhaps what most readers expect, but also because the subsequent definitions of season as ‘a period of the year marked by certain conditions’ or ‘a period of the year when a particular activity takes place’, and so on, may seem easier to grasp if preceded by the supposedly basic sense. To take another example, consider the first four senses listed for the noun rose in the Macquarie Concise Dictionary (1998).
Some of the definitions have been abbreviated for this example:
1. any of the wild or cultivated, usually prickly-stemmed, showy-flowered shrubs constituting the genus Rosa …
2. any of various related or similar plants.
3. the flower of any such shrubs …
4. an ornament shaped like or suggesting a rose …
The sequence of these senses is not random and the entry has been written or edited as a whole. The second sense, using the words ‘related’ and ‘similar’, assumes the reader has read the first definition; WORDS AND MEANING 27
the third (‘any such shrubs’) presupposes the first and second; and so on. The Macquarie Concise entry for rose also demonstrates that dictionaries are obliged to order items at more than one level. There are of course two quite distinct roses, the one we have just been talking about, and the one which is the past tense of rise. The Macquarie numbers these distinct meanings, as many dictionaries do, with a superscriptl and2, giving all the senses of the flower or bush (and the rose-like objects) under the first rose, and then simply indicating that the second rose is the past tense of rise. Probably most dictionary users find this the sensible order.
"The man himself lay in the bed" Reading this atypical piece of work entitled "A Rose for Emily", written by William Faulkner encourages a sense of thrill and stimulation within. Since Mr. Faulkner resided in Mississippi most of his writings reflect his home state, as does "A Rose for Emily". The first person minor point of view is being told by the townspeople. The main character, Miss Emily, in ...
Perhaps nouns seem more important, especially ones which have several different senses. Perhaps the second rose seems as though it is here accidentally – it really belongs under rise. Evidence from corpora suggests that the verb form rose (as in ‘the sea level rose by 120 metres’ or ‘exports rose 2 per cent’ or ‘the evil genie rose from the jar’) is used far more frequently than the noun; but this greater frequency does not seem to give priority to the verb in the minds of dictionary compilers and users.
It sometimes seems to be mere convention to list certain meanings first. Definitions of the word have often begin with the sense of ‘possess’ or ‘own’, and many people may indeed think of this as the fundamental or ordinary meaning of the word. In fact, corpus evidence
indicates that the uses of have as an auxiliary verb (as in ‘they have shown little interest’) and in combinations like have to (as in ‘we have to do better next time’) are more frequent than uses like ‘they have two cars’ or ‘we have a small house’.
Notions of what is a basic or central meaning of a word may thus be encouraged and perpetuated in a variety of ways, including common beliefs about words (which may or may not match actual usage) as well as lexicographical tradition. Sometimes such notions may be given formal recognition. For example, it is common to distinguish denotation from connotation. If taken as a serious semantic or philosophical claim, the distinction tends to separate what a word refers to from the associations that the word conjures up in the mind. More popularly, and sometimes simplistically, the distinction becomes a way of separating a core meaning from peripheral or variable aspects of meaning. But the distinction is by no means straightforward. It is complicated by the fact that what a word refers to in a particular context (as when talking to you I mention ‘your cat’) is not what is usually intended by denotation (which is more like ‘any cat’ or ‘the class of cats’).
There are not that many words in English that can, without any change in their grammar structure, be both a verb, a noun, several slang nouns, and a transitive verb (that is the one that derived from the noun). The verbal meaning of can came to our language from either Old High German kan (in modern German it is kann and has the same meaning as English can) or from Old Englishs cunnan which meant ...
The notion of denotation also runs the risk of identifying meaning with a class of objects or some idealised version thereof, as if meaning can be 28 COLIN YALLOP
anchored in a world of concrete objects. This is clearly not very helpful in the case of many words, such as abstract nouns in general or verbs like believe, dream, think, worry or epithets like good, kind, mysterious, poor. And even where a denotation can be satisfactorily identified, it is not self-evident that this is an appropriate way of characterising meaning. The term connotation tends to slip awkwardly between something like ‘peripheral meaning’ and ’emotive meaning’ and ‘personal associations’. The notion of peripheral meaning simply raises the question of what is central or core meaning and why it should be so. It is clear from examples already given that the most frequently used sense of a word is not always the one that strikes most people as the core meaning. And it is equally clear that the older senses of a word are often neither the most frequent in current usage, nor the most basic by any other conceivable criterion.
Even ’emotive meaning’, which might seem a good candidate for the margins of meaning, cannot always be considered peripheral. If I say to you ‘Did you hear what happened to poor Sid?’, the semantic contribution of poor must surely be ’emotive’: the word says nothing about Sid’s lack of wealth, but seeks to establish and elicit sympathy towards Sid. And this is hardly peripheral, since my question to you is most probably intended to introduce, and engage your interest in, a story of Sid’s misfortune. Similar things can be said about the use of adjectives like lucky and unfashionable, which commonly serve to signal the speaker’s attitude, and even about the verb think when used in utterances like ‘I think the meeting starts at noon’ (in which the words ‘I think’ serve to make the message less authoritative or dogmatic) or ‘I think these are your keys’ (as a polite way of telling someone they are about to leave their keys behind).
Thus what might be termed ’emotive meaning’ or ‘attitudinal’ meaning may sometimes be an integral part of discourse.
On the other hand, if ‘associations’ really are personal or idiosyncratic, then they hardly qualify as meaning at all, since they cannot contribute to regular meaningful exchanges. Suppose, for example, I have a fondness for a particular kind of flower, say, carnations, perhaps because of some valued childhood memory of them or other such personal experience. This may well have some consequences in my behaviour, including my discourse: I may often buy carnations, whereas you never do, I may mention carnations more than you do, and so on. But does it follow from any of this that you and I have a different meaning of the word carnation? Both of us, if we speak English, understand what is meant when someone says ‘carnations are beautiful flowers’, ‘carnations are good value for money’ and ‘most people like WORDS AND MEANING 29 carnations’, whether we agree with the truth of these claims or not. Indeed, to disagree with these statements requires an understanding of what they mean, just as much as agreeing with them does.
Of course to the extent that an association is shared throughout a community, it does contribute to discourse and becomes part of meaning. If a name like Hitler or Stalin is not only widely known but widely associated with certain kinds of evil behaviour, then it becomes possible for people to say things like ‘what a tragedy the country is being run by such a Hitler’ or ‘the new boss is a real Stalin’. And if people do say things like this, the names are on their way to becoming meaningful words of the language, along a similar path to that followed by words like boycott and sandwich, which had their origins in names of people associated with particular events or objects. (Note how boycott and sandwich are now written with initial lower-case letters rather than the capitals which would mark them as names. We might similarly expect to see the forms hitler and stalin appearing in print, if these names were to become genuine lexical items describing kinds of people.)
There may also be differences of experience and associations within a community which have systematic linguistic consequences. If, for example, some speakers of English love domestic cats while others detest them, this may well remain marginal to linguistic systems. But there may be small but regular linguistic differences between the speakers: for example some people may always refer to a cat as ‘he’ or ‘she’ while for others a cat is always ‘it’, and some people may use cat as the actor of processes like tell and think (as in ‘my cat tells me when it’s time for bed’ or ‘the cat thinks this is the best room in the flat’) whereas others would never use this kind of construction. To that extent we may have (slightly) different linguistic systems, say one in which a cat is quasi-human in contrast to one in which a cat is firmly non-human. In that case, it is legitimate to recognise two somewhat different meanings of cat and two minor variants of English lexicogrammar.
For meaning is ultimately shaped and determined by communal usage. A dictionary definition of a word’s meaning has authority only in so far as it reflects the way in which those who speak and write the language use that word in genuine communication. In this sense, meaning has a social quality, and while it is sometimes convenient to think of the meaning of a word as a concept, as ‘something stored in the human mind’, this is legitimate only to the extent that the concept is seen as an abstraction out of observable social behaviour. An overview of issues to do with word meaning, and references to classic discussions such as Lyons (1977), can be found in the first two 30 COLIN YALLOP sections of Chapter 3 of Jackson and Ze Amvela (1999).
We will return to the issues in the following sections of this chapter, both to elaborate our own views of language as social behaviour and of meaning as a social phenomenon, and to contrast our views with others.
In this section we look briefly at the relevance of historical development. Changes in language – specifically changes in meaning – are inevitable, but they are sometimes decried, as if language ought to be fixed at some period in time. In fact, attempts to fix meanings or to tie words to their ‘original’ meanings deny the social reality of linguistic usage. (In the following section, 2.4, we will look more generally at attempts to prescribe and regulate meaning.)
Warburg tells the story of a lawyer who disputed a witness’s use of the word hysterical (Warburg 1968, pp. 351-2).
The witness had described a young man’s condition as ‘hysterical’. But, the lawyer pointed out, this word was derived from the Greek hystera, meaning ‘uterus’ or ‘womb’. The young man didn’t have a uterus, so he couldn’t possibly be ‘hysterical’. Would a good lawyer really expect to score a point by this kind of appeal to etymology? Few of us are likely to be persuaded to change our view of the current meaning of the word hysterical It is true that the word is based on the Greek for ‘uterus’ (and the Greek element appears in that sense in English medical terms such as hysterectomy and hysteroscopy).
But it is also true that words may change their meaning and that the modern meaning of hysterical has more to do with uncontrolled emotional behaviour, by men or women, than with the uterus as a bodily organ.
Sometimes an older sense of a word survives in limited contexts, while the most frequent meaning has changed. The word meat, for example, now has the common meaning of ‘animal flesh used as food’, but its Old English antecedent was a word that had the more general meaning of ‘food’. Traces of the older more general meaning can be seen in phrases and sayings like meat and drink (i.e. ‘food and drink’) and one man’s meat is another man’s poison (i.e. ‘one man’s food is another man’s poison’).
The word sweetmeat also demonstrates the older sense. Other than in these restricted contexts, the older meaning of the word has become not only obsolete but irrelevant to modern usage. If you ask today whether a certain supermarket sells meat, or talk about the amount of meat consumed in Western Europe, or have an argument about what kind of meat is in a meat pie, no WORDS AND MEANING 31 one who speaks English pauses to wonder whether you really intend meat to mean ‘food in general’ rather than ‘animal flesh’.
Indeed, older meanings become lost from view, and phrases and sayings may even be reinterpreted to suit the new meaning.
The word silly had an older sense of ‘happy’ (compare German selig, ‘blessed’) but this sense has been ousted by the current meaning of ‘foolish’ or ‘absurd’. A phrase sometimes applied to the county of Suffolk in eastern England, silly Suffolk,dates from the days when Suffolk was one of the wealthier counties, and therefore ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’. But if the saying is quoted at all these days, either it has to be explained, as we have just done here, or it is taken to be an allegation of foolishness or backwardness.
The word prove once had the sense of ‘try’ or ‘test’ but the most common modern meanings are of course ‘show beyond doubt’ (as in ‘we all suspect him of corruption but no one has been able to prove it’) and ‘turn out’ (as in ‘the book proved to have lots of useful information in it’).
The saying that the exception proves the rule shows the older sense – an exception indeed ‘tests’ whether a rule is really valid or needs to be reformulated. But the saying is often reinterpreted, with prove taken in its modern sense, to mean that an odd exception actually confirms a rule. This is clearly not true – an exception doesn’t support a rule, it challenges it – but such is the power of current meaning to efface the old.
There is a long history of interest in etymology, in ‘where words have come from’, and many large dictionaries of English include etymological information (see McArthur 1992, pp. 384-6, Landau 1989, pp.
98-104, Green 1996, esp. pp. 337-48).
Unfortunately, until the development of methodical historical linguistics in the nineteenth century, much etymology was highly speculative and often erroneous. Misguided guesswork about the origins of words can be found in ancient Europe, for example in the work of Varro, a Roman grammarian active in the first century BC (Green 1996, p. 41), and the practice of trying to relate as many words as possible to a relatively small number of allegedly simple or basic words was common until the mid-nineteenth century. Green cites a classic example from the late eighteenth century, in which a whole array of English words were claimed to be derived from or based on the word bar: thus a bar is a kind of defence or strengthening, and a barn is a covered enclosure to protect or defend what is stored in it, a barge is a strong boat, the bark of a tree is its protection, the bark of a dog is its defence, and so on (Green 1996, p. 353).
In fact, careful historical research indicates that the word bar, as in the bars in a fence or across a window, came into English 32 COLIN YALLOP
from Old French, while barn is from an Old English compound meaning ‘barley store’, barge is related to an Old French word for a kind of boat, the bark of a tree is a word of Scandinavian origin, and the bark of a dog goes back to the Old English verb beorcan, ‘to bark’, which is not related to the other bark. These various words are of different origins, there is no evidence that they are all based on bar, and the idea that they are all clustered around the notion of defence is pure speculation. Occasionally, an erroneous origin has become enshrined in the language by a process of ‘folk etymology’, in which the pronunciation or spelling of a word is modified on a false analogy. The word bridegroom, for example, has no historical connection with the groom
employed to tend horses. The Old English antecedent of bridegroom is brydguma, where guma is a word for ‘man’. The word ought to have become bridegoom in modern English, but as the word guma fell out of use, the form goom was popularly reinterpreted (with a change in pronunciation and spelling) as groom. A similar process of trying to make the odd seem familiar sometimes applies to words adapted from other languages. The woodchuck, or ‘ground hog’, has a name taken from a North American Algonquian word which, in its nearest anglicised pronunciation, might be something like otchek or odjik. The word has nothing to do with either wood or chuck, but was adapted to seem as if it did.
There is nothing wrong with being interested in where a word has come from, and many people who use modern dictionaries expect historical or etymological information to be included. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most dictionaries gave considerable prominence to historical information. The first complete edition of what is now commonly referred to as the ‘Oxford dictionary’ was entitled A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, and it set out to record the history of words, not just their current meanings (see 1.5 above; but not all subsequent Oxford dictionaries, including various abridged editions and dictionaries for learners, have had the same historical priority).
It hardly needs to be said that modern professional lexicographers try to avoid speculation and guesswork and to give only information based on good research.
It is indeed often interesting to know something of a word’s history and its cognates in other languages, and many (though not all) modern dictionaries still include etymological information. English happens to share with most European languages a reasonably welldocumented Indo-European heritage.
Languages like Greek, Latin