Friday, April 28, 2006

A brief word on words

A delightful exchange from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass:
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master -- that's all.'

I don't know much about the technical aspects of the philosophy of language. I don't have any substantive philosophical commitments here, either. I take interest only as a writer. And I say, as a writer, that Humpty Dumpty is absolutely correct.

Words don't have objective meaning. I'm a language relativist, you might say--the meanings that words have are given to them by their user. Words are balloons that we inflate with meaning. Through conversation, we imbue the otherwise meaningless medium of "words" with our intentions. Language, meaningful discourse, is depedent on humans, not indepedent. There is no meaning in nature; there is no meaning in words in nature.

Intention--that's key. What we intend words to mean is what words mean. Words hold no sway over us. Words, themselves, are meaningless.

We are the masters.


Anonymous mkatherine29 said...

yes, but what if the words are interpreted in a different light. Does that make the listener wrong? I would argue that we also choose words to have meanings that will be seen in the light we mean them, not just in the light we want them. If I were to call you an asshole but mean it as a compliment, that wouldn't necessarily mean you were flattered.

3:28 PM  

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