Monday, 13 April 2009

Dictionary Definition: An Opinion

There are a number of traditional assumptions about language which have new been shown to be mistaken; in particular, criticism has come from Russell and Saussure. Their arguments are well-documented elsewhere, and the reader is referred to their own works for a detailed argument. But what concerns me is the mistaken outlook on language against which their criticism was directed, and the implications of this on linguistic competence, particularly as regards the usage of dictionaries.
The false assumptions that have been made about language are well summarised by Antony Thiselton:
1   that the word, rather than the sentence or speech-act, constitutes the basic unit of meaning to be investigated;
2   that questions about etymology somehow relate to the real or "basic" meaning of a word;
3   that language has a relation to the world which is other than conventional, and that its "rules" may therefore be prescriptive rather than merely descriptive.
It seems that these assumptions are still very widespread. To take but a simple example: it is common practice to take the dictionary definition as the ultimate appeal upon questions of meaning.
Inevitably, this leads to an ignorance of the fact that "language functions on the basis of convention, and is not in fact 'reality"' (Thiselton). In other words, this approach fosters the pernicious idea that there is something absolute about words; that there exists an essential or "real" meaning of a word, and we may find this by appealing to the dictionary.
The dictionary, however, mainly provides synchronic word studies of conventional meanings, although it may contain a proportion of diachronic word studies in so far as the past meaning of words is still important to understanding in contemporary culture.
But all meanings which it gives are conventionally accepted social ones; they only describe usage; they cannot prescribe usage. It can be seen that if dictionary definition was prescriptive, there would be no distinction between diachronic and synchronic studies: words would have the same set of meanings today as over a period of historical change. But words do change in meaning with the passage of time, so this is clearly false.
Obviously it is useful to understand the meaning of an unknown word, but it must be understood contextually. The dictionary may provide a set of possible meanings of a given word, and thereby function as a guide to synchronic meaning - but it is we who must decide which meaning is appropriate to the given context.
It should be explained to the public that the dictionary is no more than a guide to the meaning of words, else, by default, we run the risk of misleading them into the acceptance of some form of methodological essentialism.
There seems to be widespread ignorance of these limitations on dictionary definitions, and I cannot help wondering whether it might be due, in part, to a defect within our educational system. It is all very well to instruct small children to find out meanings by looking in a dictionary, but where in later schooling are they instructed otherwise?


Dave Rotherham said...

Although I agree that definitions can never be definitive, but always lagging behind usage, I don't think the defence of usage makes malapropisms all right. In fact I "refute" it!

Rob Kent said...

I would be surprised whether more than a small minority of people even used a dictionary these days, let alone had an opinion on idealism and referentiality.

In linguistic and language studies some form of relativism has been the norm since the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (1930s, popularized in the 1950s) and has been a pervasive idea since Kant and his followers.

Derrida developed de Saussure's idea that 'language is a system of signs without any positive reference' (from memory) into a general description of language and thought, ergo being. His 'concept' of differance plays on two meanings of the word: signs have meanings because they differ from other signs but also because they defer their meaning and you are always waiting for the full story to unfold.

Because Plato described the soul as a voice speaking to oneself (a tradition inherited by Descartes - 'I think therefore I am'), the 'relativization' of the language which the soul/mind speaks leads to the deconstruction of being, for Derrida.

The problem with that is that it is only true if you believe the soul/mind/self consists entirely of language.

Maybe some readers do think that word meanings are ideal and have never evolved, but I would have thought that it was obvious to at least everyone who has teenagers, that 'gay' didn't always mean 'sad', nor 'sick' mean 'good'.

The dictionary describes common usage, the nuance of current meanings, and the evolution of usage. Etymology is probably its least interesting and useful function.

It's good to have a standard reference otherwise anyone could just use any word however they bloogle it:

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'

TonyTheProf said...

I think the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic determinism, while interesting, is mistaken. Chomsky and Popper both put forward solid arguments against it. Linguistic experimentation of the kind described in Pinker's Words and Rules (1999) or his more popular Language Instinct. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum has also provided an interesting history of the flaws behind some of the data in "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" (1991).

Rob Kent said...

"I think the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic determinism, while interesting, is mistaken."

Yes, it was way too deterministic. Besides which, how many of our mental constructs and impulses are non-linguistic?

Many ideas start as amorphous, amoeba-like shapes germinating in some sensuous corner of the brain long before they emerge (if ever) as language. They are World One, in Popper's schema.

Barthes said 'the self is structured like a language', and I would agree with that, but only with regard to the bits of the self that are structured like a language :)

Pinker's concept of modules is probably more realistic, as far as I know.

Rob Kent said...

And did you know that linguists have twenty-seven words for 'sign'?

TonyTheProf said...

I think Pinker has a lot of good stuff, but I'm still a little wary of just how well his evolutionary explanations fit, like a scientific version of Kipling's Just So stories. I'd like a few more Spandrels and exaption.

Rob Kent said...

Re "Spandrels and exaption"

Hang on, I need a dictionary.

TonyTheProf said...

Spandrel is a term used in evolutionary biology to describe a phenotypic characteristic that is a byproduct of the evolution of some other character, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection. The term was coined by the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and population geneticist Richard Lewontin in their influential paper "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme" (1979). In this paper Gould and Lewontin employed the analogy of spandrels in Renaissance architecture: curved areas of masonry between arches supporting a dome that arise as a consequence of decisions about the shape of the arches and the base of the dome, rather than being designed for the artistic purposes for which they were often employed.

Exaptation, cooption, and preadaptation are related terms referring to shifts in the function of a trait during evolution. For example, a trait can evolve because it served one particular function, but subsequently it may come to serve another. Exaptations are common in both anatomy and behavior. Bird feathers are a classic example: initially these evolved for temperature regulation, but later were adapted for flight. Interest in exaptation relates to both the process and product of evolution: the process that creates complex traits and the product that may be imperfectly designed