Monday, September 6, 2010

Where Does Meaning Come From?

People often ask me how I got into Linguistics.  I was well on my way to a doctorate in English Lit with a subspecialty in the history of the language, when I shifted gears and started over in Linguistics.   That  is about as far as you can get from ordinary studies of literature as you can get and still be involved with words.

What bugged me was that professors stood up in my lit classes and pronounced that a passage "meant" something, often something quite farfetched from what the words and syntax in the passage added up to. When I asked, "How do you know it means that and not someting else?" besides a dirty look I got an anwer that just paraphrased what the prof had said before.  And that was when I got an  answer at all.

Earlier, while teaching high school English, my students often insisted that a poem could mean whatever they thought it meant.  My only response in my pre-Linguistics days was, "Then why did s/he bother to be so exact in her/his choice of words, metaphors, and grammar?"  Such experiences--and also experiences in teaching writing-- made me wonder if there were a more precise way to analyze language. In turn, that made me wonder how we know what someone means when they talk in day-to-day interactions.

I read explanations that said that a group of people "agreed" upon the meanings of words.  However, I never was involved in  getting together with people and deciding what words meant, and I never heard of any language-wide conferences on what words should mean in ordinary situations.  Yes, within a scholarly discipline, such agreements are undertaken, but that is farfetched from daily interaction.  
Moreover, just from studying Shakespeare or even Dickens, I knew that words change meaning. Words also disappear over time and new words are created.  When they are created, their creators don't go putting ads in the paper announcing, "I have just made up a new word and it means...."  For that matter, if you can say the new word means something, then that means you know how to express that meaning without using the newly made up word--but you learn the new word anyway.

Another thing I noticed in my lit readings was that, often, a word started out meaning one thing, but, over time, began to mean something quite different.  For instance, disinterested originally meant 'impartial,' and uninterested meant 'not interested.'  Disinterested was related to interest in the sense of having a special interest in something for monetary gain.'  Uninterested was related to interest in the sense of liking a particular subject matter.  However, both the dis- and un- prefixes mean 'not,' so each meant 'not interested,' with the actual difference being the ambiguity of the word interest.  Then, the more broadly used meaning of the word, liking a subject matter or activity, took precedence in many people's minds, so that, eventually, disinterested lost the meaning of 'impartial' for most people most of the time.  I believe that in law, disinterested party still means 'impartial, having no vested interest in,' but other than that, I hear even highly educated people say, "I'm disinterested in sports," rather than "I'm uninterested in sports."  The point of this is that if we use words by common consent, they wouldn't be able to change meanings this way, as we'd only be using words with the meanings that were originally ascribed to them.

In fact, no language is used by committee.  There is no voting on what words mean.  All languages, from those used in the most simple hunter-gatherer societies to those spoken in the most complex urban ones, are flexible in meaning.  New words can always be made up in any language by a variety of means, a variety shared by all human groups.  More commonly, words already in any given language can be used  in new contexts so that they take on new meanings.  Also, some words cease being used in some contexts, becoming restricted to a narrower range; thus, losing some meanings.

 Babies figure out on their own what words mean from matching words to apparent meanings when others speak.  Nobody goes around defining words for 2 or 3 year olders.  They do their own defining.  For instance, it is impossible to explain to a toddler the difference between yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  When my son Danny was two, every morning when I  came into his room, he would ask, "Is it tomorrow yet? "  It is never tomorrow because tomorrow becomes today. Yet we all do figure out eventually what tomorrow means.

Similarly, babies have a hard time figuring out who is I and who is you.  I read once that autistic children don't know where they end and their mothers begin. The proof of this startling notion is that the autististic child confuses those two pronouns.  Well, so do  all toddlers.  The problem is that I am always you to the other person. Therefore,  toddlers will say you for I and I for you, sometimes long after they've figured out he, she and they.  It has nothing to do with the speaker's not knowing where he or she  ends and  where the other person begins.   Autistic or not, the child understands that his or her hand belongs to him- or herself and that the  mother's hand belongs to a different body.  Autistic children frequently have a hard time learning language, so they make errors like confusing I and you long after other children have figured this out. 

How children figure out how to speak is a richly studied subject.  We know they don't learn by imitating.  They say things they  never heard.  For instance, English speaking toddlers start out using the irregular verbs, like drink-drank, go-went, run-ran, sing-sang, break-broke  and sleep-slept correctly.  Then, suddenly, between the ages of 18 months to around 2, they start saying the past tense as "drinked, goed, runned," and "sleeped."

 At one time, about half the verbs in English had a past tense form which involved a vowel change.  These are known as strong verbs, as opposed to weak verbs which form the past tense by adding an ed ending as in walk-walked and play-played.  Gradually, most of the strong verbs leveled out and became weak verbs, taking  the -ed ending.  For instance, help originally had the past tense holp.  Originally, helped  was a toddler error like saying "drinked."  Now it is Standard English.  The original holp survived into the 20th century only in remote  Appalachian dialects in North  America.    Whether it still survives there or whether it survives in any British or Australian dialects, I don't know.  

The errors a child makes arise because the child doesn't learn just by mimicking. They will used irregular forms correctly until they notice that there seems to be a rule which applies in many instances, so, instead of learning each irregular form by mimicking, they apply the rule to all instances, in this instance, of verbs.

Think what this means.  An  18 month to 2 year old child has figured  out that certain words are verbs.  They've also figured out that, in English, verbs take the past tense ending -ed  so they put that ending on verbs which they've never heard said with the -ed  ending.  What really makes this remarkable is that all, perhaps even most languages do not use past tense forms.  Or, if they do, they use prefixes, not suffixes.  There is no real need for  tense endings in any language.  You can signal time very accurately by saying "a day ago, 2 years ago, 5 hours from not..." and the like. The tense ending is actually redundant.  However, babies exposed to English or any Indo-European language like English, Hindi, Russian, French, Armenian, or Gaelic, figure out that their language has a past tense marker.  Then, as in English, instead of learning to form all past tenses the way adults do, they apply the ending to every verb.  They can still be understood, and, instead of concentrating on the  niceties of bring-brought, take-took, or know-knew, they can concentrate on other matters and stave off the sorting out of the irregulars once they've mastered more of the language.  However, over time, children don't learn all of the irregulars, so many of them become regular.   Whether the baby errors become part of the language depends on  whose baby or child doesn't get corrected enough.  If it's an upper class child, the error becomes standard. If it isn't, it becomes a  marker of a nonstandard dialect.  Saying "knowed" for knew is an example.   But before you sneer at an  adult who says "I knowed it," remember that you say "helped," and a few decades ago, the untutored Appalachian said  the histoically correct "holp." 

My genius grandson, actually one of my genius grandsons, Jonny,  asked  me when he was about 3, "Did you broughted me anything?"  Way to go, Jonny. Of course, he would never say that today.

People  also build their vocabularies by noticing contrasts and then applying them to new instances.  My son Danny solemnly informed us at the dinner table that in his Kindergarten class, "Today we learned about producers of goods.  I guess tomorrow we'll learn about producers of bads."  As  it happens, there are many examples of words which could have opposites, not  having them.  For instance, when I was young, we could be overwhelmed , but not its opposite.  However, today, I hear--and say-- underwhelmed all the time.  Try to think of other such sets: words which should belong in sets, but don't. For another instance, we can be comfortable or uncomfortable.We can have discomfort, but we can't be ""discomfortable or have "uncomfort."  Maybe some day we will, however.

To be continued.