Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Meaning of Words

Anyone who has dabbled in this blog from time to time knows my understanding of words, but since not every visitor will have heard it, my online teaching has cued the basics again.

1. Words do not have fixed or timeless meanings.
New meanings come into use and old meanings fall out of use. Words have particular, specific meanings that relate to communities of language users. The town of "Intercourse," Pennsylvania was not called that originally because the settlers there sure liked to have sex.

2. Definitions are somewhat artificial.
They are abstractions that try to capture the way we use words. The meaning of a word is in how it is used in a specific context. Change the context, change the precise connotation. You can rarely if ever translate a word from one language (or even context) into another without both some loss of meaning and some potential addition of extraneous meaning.

3. If a set of absolute "meanings" exists, human language does not operate in terms of it.
There are arguably truths that would receive universal assent (2+2=4) however a particular language might express it. But there is a significant distinction between such "absolute" truths and human language. Specific human language is a moving target that will always stand in a contingent relationship to the more theoretical realm we call absolute truth.

For example, it is possible that in the future "two plus two" would become an idiom for "two plus two more than two," which would then equal "six." Not likely, but language changes in these sorts of unpredictable ways over time and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it.

4. Some quick and inevitable conclusions
  • The Bible will always have to be retranslated over time.
  • The way the Bible strikes you when you are unaware of yourself and the unique features of your own language community (e.g., Wesleyan, Baptist, American) will say as much or more about yourself than about anything the Bible actually meant originally.
  • The original meaning of the individual books of the Bible was a function of their original language communities and contexts.
  • These meanings will differ from book to book.
  • There are connotations words could have in the ancient world that we could not easily understand because they simply are not part of our language communities (e.g., what a sacrifice really meant to the ancients).
  • This is a fundamental reason why there are over 20,000 different Protestant denominations who think they get their ideas from the inerrant Bible alone.

1 comment:

Henry Imler said...

Would you say this follows from a later Wittgenstein view of language?

What implications does this have for grabbing a hold of theological (or other) truths?

I agree completely with your assessment of language, btw. Just thinking of how we can talk about the effects of such a view of language.