This may more naturally fall into two posts rather than one, primarily for reasons of length, secondarily for reasons of semantic bathos. Moving from a general point to one so specific has an attached feeling of overkilling the point. Still, if one is driving a point home, what matter that it continues through and out the back?

It’s back to use of language again. In this case to do with the consensus of meaning within language. As usual I am going to ignore any thoughts about language that treat words, sentences, propositions, or just meanings, as special entities, or mysterious bearers of truth conditions (whatever ‘truth’ is supposed to mean in this context). They deserve to be ignored. And, as usual, I am going to assume the broad category of understanding of language and meaning as deriving from its practice of use within a community of language users.

I have spoken previously about the nature of metaphor in language, and the ultimately blurred spectrum between that and language which is not (or, better, no longer) considered metaphorical. That there is no difference in type or kind, simply that metaphors extend our meanings beyond those we are so familiar with we no longer have in mind their origin.

In a similar way there is no difference between a word that means something and one that doesn’t. Or, more commonly, one that means one thing to one language user, and nothing, or something else, to another. There is no such thing as a ‘correct’ use of a word (and one can only see ‘correct’ here as broadly meaning fulfilling the function intended for it) outside of another blurred spectrum, here consisting of both time and the tacit consensus of a community of language users.

Sounds that once meant nothing come into meaning. Older meanings blend into new ones, either extending from existing parts of the older ones, or jumping away entirely. The same meaning can undergo this within one community, or shift after one community splits. Users within the same community can, with experience (and legitimacy), understand the same meaning in ninety-nine of one-hundred cases yet diverge on the other one.

In this way we understand that language changes, that it has to change, how it is that different languages can share huge and apparently necessary areas of grammar and vocabulary, but equally how they can contain unique areas, or lacunae. It shows how a reference for a language, a dictionary, is not a final appeal, or arbiter in itself, but merely the stepping off point for a practised user of language. It also shows how local failures of meaning between two language users rarely represent a robust sense of error.

Most importantly, it shows how between language users there can be room both to marvel at how effectively and universally we manage to share meanings within such a protean, unfixed, and arbitrary system, and also to take the extensive geography of those shared meanings as the ground from which we can test the edges, extend metaphor and poetry, mine the possibilities for refinements in meaning and intention. And, ultimately, to realise that in the end language is a tool that we endlessly shape as we are shaped and shaping others via its use. It is subtle, and deserves a variety of recognition it is rarely given.

Perhaps two posts are better than one, despite my efforts to convince otherwise. Specific uses of words and perceived problems to follow, perhaps.


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