Ian Guthridge.com

Language: It is all Meaningless

by Ian on May.28, 2009, under Rants

Do words have an intrinsic meaning?  Take a simple word such as tree.  Without context does this word mean anything?  To answer that we first have to create a coherent definition of meaning.  The American Heritage Dictionary defines meaning, as it relates to this subject, as “Something that one wishes to convey, especially by language.”   The key part of that statement is “that one wishes,” implying that a statement, and therefore its constituent words, cannot mean anything on their own.   

You can try to counter this by claiming that definitions constitute meaning. The issue I take with this is that a definition isn’t grounded in anything; it is just another statement consisting of words.  Each of these words has its own definition consisting of more words; each having their own definitions.  A cycle endlessly repeating, never yielding any meaning.  That is, unless it is examined by someone who then provides a necessary context for those words to live, thereby providing them with meaning, albeit only an abstraction of whatever the originator of those words meant. 

Language does not represent thought; instead it abstracts thought.  If it did represent thought, then some fundamental unit of language would have to map in a one to one relationship with thought.  This relationship would be like an ideal hash map, a list of data referenced by unique keys.  Unfortunately like a hash map, given a finite set of keys collisions become inevitable as the set of information increases in size.  So is there an infinite, or large enough, set of unique morphemes, words, sentences, etc. that could theoretically provide us with a truly unique mapping between words and thoughts.

Morphemes are the smallest component of language that carries any semantic meaning.  They are the constituent components of words, and in the case of free morphemes are words themselves.  This set is by definition smaller than the set of possible words*, so if I can prove that the set of words is too small then the set of morphemes is too small.  

Human thought is massive, and to attempt to keep up with it languages increase the number of words they contain through methods such as slang. (Granted not all slang provides a new mapping to an idea, some replace older statements, and some are more or less meaningless, but the net effect is an increase in the number of word thought mappings.)  Yet collisions are common place: most words have multiple definitions, some have colloquial definitions, and many have connotations (i.e. ass is vulgar while butt is not, though they both have the same definition**) very different from their denoted meaning.  You could argue that this is an artifact of how the modern languages developed and not a property of languages themselves.  Yes, if the constructors of a language had at their disposal all possible thoughts, ideas, and creative works that could ever be produced at their disposal then they could construct a complete, unique mapping.  Humans are not omniscient, therefore this situation is irrelevant. (If this changes let me know. :) )

Unlike the words that compose them, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc. are not tied to definitions that must be known to understand them.  In fact, once we have the context of sentences, as long as a critical number of the words are known, the meaning of the unknown words can usually be divined. So as long as you follow a few rules, you can theoretically create a near infinite number of keys to map ideas to.  Why then, if we have a such a large set of keys is there still so many misunderstandings between people, even those of similar backgrounds, environments, etc.  It is simple, the originator created the mapping between their thoughts and the statement and the receiver has to then map their thoughts to that statement to interpret it in the context of their unique world view***.  Something you consider clear may be muddy to them; something you consider false may be true and vice-versa.  So because sentences don’t have a universally available definition they are a purely subjective construct and cannot have an intrinsic meaning. 

So sentences are meaningless, so words are meaningless, so morphemes are meaningless.  How do we even communicate at all?  We share common ancestors that first invented the basic principles our language is based on, so our brain may have structures that are tuned into finding patterns and may even associate abstract imagery directly with sounds (b sounds round, sh sounds sharp, etc.).  Further we are taught the conventions of our language by our parents during our infancy, and from then on we are able to synthesize language from experience.  Language is not a wholly natural occurrence; it is an invention. 

Then if all language being meaningless results in is minor inconveniences, then why is it important?

Computers.  Say I want to teach a computer to understand language, to be able to successfully hold a simple conversation with a person.  Yet computers exist in a sensory vacuum.   Explaining what a tree is to a computer is much like explaining what a tree is to a blind paralytic.  It cannot touch or see a tree, and it has no knowledge of words like “green,” “rough,” or “leafy.”  Is language then a problem that cannot be addressed without the construction of a simple general intelligence that can relate these sensory perceptions with abstract much as a human can?  Is high level language and intelligence directly related?  Perhaps Alan Turning was right when he devised his famous test. I hope to one day see a computer pass it! 

That is all I have for now.  As any of my good friends can tell you this is a subject I ponder a lot, so please let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

*Let’s create an arbitrary language that used something such as the set of natural numbers as their words, then the morphemes would be the numbers 0-9.  Though this is an extreme example, it demonstrates the point.

**Both butt and ass have many definitions, so I am solely referring to the ones that map to each other.

*** Even if they shared all of their life’s experiences with you, and even their genetics, there are still a exorbitant number of uncontrollable variables that when taken together will cause them to diverge from you.  Hence the statement that everyone is unique. 

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