Sunday, April 19, 2009

On what words mean

How do you pronounce "almond"? (I don't mean how should it be pronounced? I mean how do you pronounce it?)

I pronounce it "all-mernd". But apparently M doesn't.

We were talking about pastries -- fondly reminiscing about living in places where you could get good pastries, and we were saying how odd it was that Europeans love that whole almond thing.

But when I said "almond", M goes, you don't say "all-mernd", you say "ael-mernd" (by which I mean that he uses the sound in "hat" or "cat", whereas I'm using the one in "ball"). Of course, you can pronounce it either way (and in several other ways -- I've often heard "aaah-mernd"), and mine is, I think, commoner.

But he was adamant that I was wrong, but could I be?

I am a descriptivist. That means I believe language means what it means, not what it should mean. By that, I mean that, in general, a word means what it does because that's how we use it, not because a dictionary, or a pedant, or an English teacher, or an academy says that's how it should be used.

(There's a but coming, I'm sure you have realised. If you've read this blog on the subject of English usage, you are definitely thinking, hang on, Zen... at this point.)

But this does not mean that language is a free-for-all. Words do not just mean whatever you want them to (unless you are Humpty Dumpty, of course). Their meanings are negotiated. At the most basic level, they are negotiated between each speaker and their listener (or writer and reader; like most I use the word "speaker" simply to mean "message sender", whatever the medium of transmission). Without getting all technical (mostly because I don't really have any great knowledge of semiotics), it's like this: the speaker intends a meaning when they encode their message; the listener attempts in decoding the message to discover the intended meaning. One can argue, and it has been successfully argued, that the encoding supplies, I don't know, plus meaning (and of course, I mean to say also that the context -- the frame that the discourse takes place in -- adds and refines meaning). But this simple model of the communicative act is close enough: the speaker wants you to understand something; and you try to aid them in their communication by trying to understand it. Understanding is greatly facilitated by a shared code.

If I say "x" and mean "y" by it, and you hear "x" and understand "y" by it, the communicative act is destined to be successful (I will note that I haven't forgotten that you might say "x", mean "y" and because we are both white men of a certain age, with certain ideas about the word, I will also understand "t", "u", "v", "w").

I don't intend to try to prove it, but I'm going to contend that a shared code is sufficiently valuable to communication as to be central. A word cannot mean whatever you want it to mean. That's not to say that you cannot find a novel usage. However, your new usage must either be supported by context or by the listener -- indeed, enough listeners to become part of a shared code in its turn.

Having said that, let's say that "almond" could only be pronounced "ael-mernd". Well, he knew what I meant, didn't he? So clearly you do not have to have entirely congruent codes. You can be "close enough". I assume that it would be possible to measure "close enoughness", so that we could explain why Inspector Clouseau, who mispronounces English a great deal, is intelligible across whole sentences, whole conversations, but others might mispronounce a single word so badly that it's unintelligible and we have to have them write it down. I remember as a child, having seen "awry", and clearly understanding from its context what it meant, I would pronounce it "or-ee" (thinking it similar to "awkward" or "awful"). That's quite reasonable, and I'm amused that just now when I asked Mrs Zen to pronounce it, she rendered it the same way. However, when I introduced it into conversation, more than one person was puzzled and couldn't figure out what I was trying to say. ("Awry" is, if you don't know, pronounced "a-rye". If I had known the word "wry", I would not likely have gone so wrong.)

Clearly, different people can have different understandings of what they assume to be a shared code. By that I mean that you and I might believe we are both drawing from the same well of vocabulary (we both speak English), yet our understandings of what it is differ. (And indeed, neither of us speaks a monolithic "English" because even if, and it's disputable, such a thing exists -- one could more readily argue that for French, which is more tightly controlled, as I will discuss shortly, but even then you would be wrong, as I will also discuss -- we actually speak our own version, our "idiolect" -- which is a fancy word for "how you personally speak" -- and no two idiolects exactly correspond -- even if you and I have mostly the same understanding of English and mostly the same vocabulary, there will always be a word or two that I know and you don't, or you use slightly differently from how I do.) But we do believe that there is a commonality in our language. We are, after all, both speaking English.

So how do we arbitrate what is, and what is not, good English? Well, there are two perspectives, and from one, we simply do not at all, and from the other, we very much do. One perspective is that there is no such thing as an English. There are as many Englishes as there are English speakers. You say "ael-mernd", he says "aaaah-mernd" and I say "all-mernd"; she says "a-rye", I say "aw-ree". These idiolects collide and we hope that our communication will succeed. Indeed, this view of what languages are makes sense in many ways. Languages tend to be spectra of dialects. (This is much less clear to speakers of English than it is to speakers of, say, German.) There may or may not be a written standard; there may even be a spoken standard; but even so, what people speak are generally their own smaller codes. You could argue that a child when it acquires language is not attempting to buy into a common code, but trying to create its own code that others will understand (I know that when you look from where you are, it seems obvious that children are trying to learn a common code, because you have acquired that code and feel that you are able to communicate because you speak English and so does everyone else; however, it's equally possible to see it as a process of acquiring any means to be understood, and those means just happen to be shared).

This perspective is, it seems to me, valid. The model of language acquisition it implies works for me, because it seems more likely that a child is not attempting to acquire a complete code with which to communicate with others who share that code, but attempting to acquire symbols with which to manipulate others first of all, and then more broadly symbols that it can use to express itself. The sharedness of the code is an outcome of the desire to be understood in any way possible, rather than of an attempt to gain a broader set of tools. That's not to say that children do not imitate other communicators' toolsets. They clearly do and are set up to do so. They don't just randomly make noises and hope some work. However, we know that children learn to copy patterns of intonation and emotional tone long before they learn any particular word, and it seems fairly clear that a child learns to say "dada" before it learns "biccy" because it has a greater manipulative effect.

At first glance, a language of multiple idiolects seems like it would be chaos. But I don't think it would. The child acquiring language is after all trying to find encodings that work. It is not just randomly spewing meaning. And we are sharply aware that if we want to be understood, we can't just give out gibberish. Our correspondents must agree that our words mean what we think they do to some extent. So we construct an idiolect that is useful for communication; that is, we may construct an individual code, but it's one that we fully intend to be congruent with the code understood by those we communicate with. This is, ultimately, what a language is: the code shared by people who want to be understood by others who share the code (it seems circular but it's what it is: your language is just how you talk to people whom you care that they understand you).

The other perspective is, I hope it's obvious, just another way of saying this. An idiolect cannot be wrong because it is simply your code that you use to communicate. However, its elements may not be shared by others, and then it is "wrong" in a real sense. This is how usage works. If you say "or-ee" and people don't know that you mean "a-rye", your communication fails. So language is arbitrated, here, by the simple fact that others do not share your code, or, if you will, do not share your understanding of a code you take to be shared with them.

However, we do not fight a war of idiolects, in which meanings spar, and the most popular succeeds. Not quite. Some people's idiolect is weighted more heavily than others. Whose depends on which language, sublanguage or dialect, we are discussing. When you are three years old, what your dad says a word means is very important. He is, after all, one of your main communicative partners, so you are anxious to align your code with his. When you are six, your schoolteacher's code is heavily weighted. In days gone by more so than now, your "betters" would influence you (to the extent that we talk about the "King's English", which is taken to be more correct than other varieties: we truly once believed that the king -- or queen, of course -- spoke a "better" English than a peasant, and his input into what English essentially is was very strongly influential; I don't know the truth of it, but I have read that Castillian Spanish is lisped because the king had a lisp and the court emulated him to flatter him -- it doesn't sound likely, but we all know that the famous will be emulated, their catchphrases echoed in schoolyards and living rooms). That last parenthesis introduces an important point: the language of discourses we consume is an important influence. What people say on TV, write in newspapers, sing in songs, this seems to us to be really English. That it is broadcast implies that it is expected to be understood widely. We recognise that it is shared to a greater extent than other idiolectal material. (This is of course the same process as the creation of a "King's English": we recognised that the king expected to be widely understood and would consequently be using a code that should be widely shared.) These are all things that are to a greater or lesser extent controlled, regulated. Journalists are given guidelines on what's acceptable, newscasters must speak standard English (even in the States, this is true, I'm told: newscasters have, or try to have, midwest accents).

So language is, at least somewhat, arbitrated by a weighted majority. Their arbitrations are sometimes collated in dictionaries (although these should not be taken to be definitive, or particularly restrictive, because they lag language some and can be incorrect because they have not noted changes or because they run ahead of changes that are not all that widespread, among other reasons to disregard them). Dictionaries do not, as some believe, set out rules for English; they do not make judgements. There is no panel that is deciding how you should speak (but, here's the thing about French, such a panel does exist for some languages; however, they are, with only one exception, unsuccessful, because people do not follow rules, they make them themselves by doing what works -- the exception is Icelandic, I believe, which is easier to arbitrate because it is a restricted, conservative code with relatively few speakers, and the pressure to destroy innovations is fierce). They try to gather the judgements that speakers make, whatever influences those speakers are under, rather than inform speakers of what they should be doing.

So there is no committee that decides what words mean. Where there is, as with the Academie Francaise, people disregard it! French people do not speak Academie French or anything like it. They refuse to give up verlan, "bad" French, borrowed English, textspeak, even if the Academie insists it's not French. That's because French is not an artefact you can control. It is just what Frenchies speak. And, to answer a question someone asked me after reading a recent post, yes, meanings evolve. Here is one reason. Not the only one, but it's a way that meanings change. When I say "all-mernd" and you say "oh no, you can only say 'ael-mernd'", if I credit you for more competence in English, or better knowledge, I may adjust my pronunciation. This does not have to be explicit. I might hear you say "his hat is awry" and suddenly I come to believe (I first wrote "realise" but of course it's only in retrospect that I realised anything; at the time, I just noted a difference and credited the speaker for knowing better) that I have been mispronouncing the word. So I start saying "ael-mernd". And you hear me say it, and adjust your pronunciation too. (If you're my child, this process happens readily, and shifts in pronunciation can seem to be generational because of it.) There comes a time when so many of us say "ael-mernd" that "all-mernd" is considered incorrect. (Remember, its incorrectness is a measure of its intelligibility, more than of consonance with a central code.) This is natural. We copy others as best we can so that they will understand us. They also copy us for the same reason. When we differ, we will allow each other to arbitrate where we feel the other has prestige, or is more likely to be more widely understood (or accepted, in a broad sense). This won't always be the same person: we have differing authorities in different spheres. For instance, I have authority in Zenella's life in many ways, but none in the question of which music is best, the foolishness of boys or things like that, so I could not expect that she would acquire meanings in those areas from me.

There is more to say about it, but I've dulled even myself out. So another time for that.


At 11:11 pm, Blogger Paula Light said...

1. I say "all" as you do, but without the "r" sound in the second syllable.

2. "App"ricot or "ape"ricot? I go with app and am still annoyed at a preschool teacher for correcting one of my daughters to ape. It sounds barbaric.

At 11:49 pm, Blogger nobody said...

I say that an almond is an "all-mund". Damn propriety, I can't abide the things anyway and would much prefer a cash-you.

I find your thoughts on language, especially the bit about children picking up tools with which to manipulate first, and exchange views later on, to be much in line with my own views. Probably means we're both grossly incorrect, eh?

Have you ever considered the possibility that sounds are not the only language to be learned? What I'm thinking of here is the language of events.

I'm reasonably sure that such a language actually exists, though what the hell could be talking to us is somewhat mysterious and to date I have only been able to conclude that it is some inner awareness making itself known.

Carry on then, and please pass the cash-yous.

[btw, when you posted about Susan Boyle, I was unaware of what that was all about. This morning, reading about The Little Frump Who Could, it's embarassing to admit that I became a bit choked up.]

At 8:20 am, Blogger Dr Zen said...

Paula, the "r" sound is entirely absent. I am simply representing the schwa. I say "ape-ricot", as does everyone else in the UK so far as I know. "App-ricot" is an Americanism.

boots, my views on language acquisition are coherent with my views on the self, but hardly coherent with yours. While I agree that distinguishing spoken language entirely from other means of communication is a mistake, I do not believe there is a "language of events" or even that that concept makes sense.

At 1:55 pm, Blogger Arleen said...

I say all-mond and ape-ricot. And I used to think awree when I read the word until I learned better, too.

At 1:56 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

We're almost twins! Well, you know, except for your not being a tall, handsome, dark stranger.

At 8:06 pm, Blogger nobody said...

Zen wrote,


You're frightening me. <g>

"...I do not believe there is a "language of events" or even that that concept makes sense."

Before babies learn to speak, the autistic ones might have that same opinion of sound.

At 8:53 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

It's certainly a human trait to impose patterns on the universe, boots.

At 2:21 am, Blogger Looney said...

Lordy, I didn't know there was an alternative pronunciation for ALL-mernd.

I also didn't know you used "er" to represent the schwa :-)

Learn something new every day.


At 2:24 am, Blogger nobody said...

Zen said,

"It's certainly a human trait to impose patterns on the universe..."

Yes, it certainly is. Another human trait is to stick where it's warm and cozy, whining when one is forced out into the cold.

Hone yer rat-killing skills Zen, you know, "just in case"? Or start hoarding all that gold piling up outside your door, as suits. There are other possible options. Whining is one, no need for you to hone that skillset. Or you could get on your knees and pray to Jeebus that Obama makes it all better.

Me, I'm going to eat some breakfast. It ain't rats.

At 12:12 pm, Blogger Father Luke said...

. . . a word means what it does
because that's how we use it, not
because a dictionary, or a pedant,
or an English teacher, or an academy
says that's how it should be used.
Fuck google in the mouth.

Ape er cott - BTW.

- -
Father Luke
Gone terribly, horribly, aw reee

At 11:59 pm, Blogger Grapes 2.0 said...

I like reading this kind of post from you. I think the reason you may be having trouble with the idea of a language of events, which I share, is that in boots' terms that language is essentially unintelligible to all but him, which of course means it's not a language at all.
An interesting point about the Académie Française: they've been working on a dictionary since forever, and it's still not ready. You may think it never will be. For something which is more Swiftian than Johnsonian in conception, that's quite fitting.

At 12:37 am, Blogger nobody said...

Grapes, I like reading this kind of comment from you. It makes me think you're not really about to suicide due to a failed marriage. That you're still the same reliably cunty fuck you've ever been. It's reassuring.

At 1:08 am, Blogger Grapes 2.0 said...

That sort of comment certainly demonstrates what a sure intellectual grasp you have of the position you wish you could defend. I don't know who's "about to suicide" over a failed marriage, but I do know who just put a bullet through the head of his failed argument.

At 1:57 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What argument, you dunce?

The only argument is the on you're busy having with yourself.

At 6:47 am, Blogger Looney said...

Um, is it just me, or does this 'noboby' seem different from the nobody whose blog I yoosta read?


At 9:26 am, Blogger Dr Zen said...

No, it's the same fucking idiot who wrote the blog. He does an aggro troll thing too.

At 12:28 pm, Blogger Arleen said...

Looney said,

"...does this 'noboby' seem different from the nobody whose blog I yoosta read?"

Then Zen said,

"No, it's the same..."

I think Looney means she who now goes by the name of Teacake, in which case, no it's not the same nobody. It's he who used to be called boots.

At 2:42 pm, Blogger Looney said...

Ahhhhhhhhhh, there we go :-) Thanks UV...

So now boots is nobody. The mind boggles :-)

romptub (sounds fun)

At 6:24 pm, Blogger nobody said...

Some fucking idiot Zen wrote,

"He does an aggro troll thing too."

Sometimes he CBA to log in as "nobody".

At 12:19 am, Blogger Looney said...

Sometimes he CBA to log in as "nobody".Well, it does seem a tad redundant, logging in as 'nobody' in lieu of the 'anonymous' tag...


At 5:45 am, Blogger Arleen said...

Looney said:

"Thanks UV..."

Thanks UV?!?


At 11:51 am, Blogger Looney said...

!!!! Lordy, I'm sorry! I don't even know why I thought that was her answering my Q... :-(

LOL, whatta dork am I, yah!


At 12:06 pm, Blogger Father Luke said...

This thread is becoming better than Twitter!

@Looney: Question. Is there a
significance to the words at the end
of your comments?

The last one had: criatena

I've seen yertswer, and others.

I mean in keeping with the poast
topic of: On what words mean

I was just curious.

- -
Father Luke

At 2:15 pm, Blogger Looney said...

They're the nonsense words I have to type in to leave a comment :-) I decided that they were too wordlike to keep to myself, so I share...

i.e.: undici

Sounds Latin or Italian, eh?

At 2:16 pm, Blogger Looney said...

Ooh, the current one actually is a word :-)


I think berets are cute on ladies, kinda freaky and right-wing-nutter on dudes :-)

At 2:17 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

Sartre wore a beret. He was far from right wing. But I know what you mean. It's that whole emigre thing.

At 3:13 pm, Blogger Father Luke said...

Ahg zee stahns

And thanks.

- -
Father Luke


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