5/29/11

Words don't mean things


Words don't mean anything. Get over it.

There are two ways to look at this: an old, outdated, wrong, one, and mine. Hey, it's my blog.

(1) the Telementation Model
(the O,O,W way of looking at it)

Everyone who speaks the same language has the same words stored in their brains. They're stored as couples —{sound + meaning}— one part is the meaning and the other part is the sound

Person A speaks the sound part, it reaches the ears of person B and activates the meaning-part stored in their brain, which is exactly the same meaning-part stored in person A's brain. Communication is only a matter of picking the right words, and the only way to miscommunicate is to select the wrong word from your mental warehouse.

You should be able to see problems with this model if you've ever dated. It assumes everyone shares the same meanings for any given word. FAIL!

For example, I grew up in in the Pacific Northwest where the trees are evergreens, like Cedars, big at the bottom and taper to a point at the top. Now I live in the South, where the trees are are upside down—tiny at the bottom and big at the top. When I hear “tree” I don't think of a ball on a string, and the people I talk to don't think of a triangle.


If we can't even communicate something as simple as a tree, how do you suppose we do talking about politics, or love, or bad haircuts, not to mention “freedom” or “god”. There's gotta be a better explanation of what goes on, and there is.


(2) Constructionist model (the up-to-date, accurate one)

Words are {sound+meaning} still, but they're stored in complex, interconnected networks. When your brain hears a sound-part it activates all the things connected to it: other words, situations when where we've heard that word before, other past experiences, old songs from your childhood. Also, these connections are stronger or weaker depending on our unique personal experiences, which are different for everybody. Choosing a word involves predicting what it will evoke in the other person, and the choices will be different for every listener.

This model does not assume everyone shares the same meanings for any given word, in fact it assumes all talkees have different associations. You don't know exactly what any word will activate, you can only guess. Communication is a matter of knowing your audience, as well as select the right words, and you have to consider the context.

This model recognizes that 'absolute synonymy' does not exist. You can't just use a different word to mean the same thing, because not only do two words not mean the same thing, the same word doesn't always mean the same thing. A word means different things to different people, and even at different times with the same person. Hearing something from the Pope and hearing it from Richard Dawkins are different.

This helps explain sets of words like leave and depart, help and assist. One is Latin and the other is Anglo-Saxon. Latinate words evoke officialdom and authority, along with your particular attitudes toward those things. Anglo Saxon words are more down-to-earth, friendly and honest sounding—to most people, but you can't simply swap in the Anglo-Saxon equivalents of excrement, urinate, intercourse, or vagina whenever you feel like it.

They may 'mean the same thing', but they activate very different mental connections, and the associations they evoke are entirely different.

As you can see, the Constructionist model of language, besides being up to date and scientifically accurate, is more people-oriented, allowing for human variation, and suits the language to the person rather than demanding the person adapt to the language.

Summary
In the telementation model, words “mean” things. And we choose the right word to satisfy some mathematical algorithm.
telementation → select the word you use to evoke a thought

In the constructionist model, words “evoke” things, and we choose the right word to satisfy our conversation partner.
constructionist→ guess what word others will use to evoke a thought
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Words don't mean, they evoke.

3 comments:

Andy said...

I tried to tweet this, but I get the message that this page doesn't exixt - odd.

uzza said...

Try it again. Not sure, but I think I exist now.

margaritadelnorte said...

That thing about Latin and Anglo-Saxon? It's why lawyers talk in sets of triple words ("give, demise and bequeath") After William the Conqueror conquered, he made the common law - not common-as-opposed-to-royal, but everywhere-the-same) and he brought Norman (French) jurists with him. So there were three languages being used: Anglo-Saxon, Latin and Norman French. To make sure everybody understood it all, everything important had to be said three times, once in each language. Wherever lawyers use two words ("null and void") it's because the Norman French was the same as the Latin from which it derived. Lawyers: brining you the best from the twelfth century.