The Meaning Of Words
Words are mysterious. How do they carry meaning? Does meaning live inside a word, like the spirit in a body, or ride upon the word like a jockey on a horse? In speech or on the page, how do words convey their ghostly meanings from my mind to yours?
How do words change their meaning in different contexts? How do they, like a chameleon, take colour from their surroundings and yet remain the same chameleon?
Words are magical as well as mysterious. You can conjure poems and stories seemingly out of thin air just with words and you can take your pick which ones you use and use as many as you like, completely without charge.
Just as we build a house brick by brick, we build a story word by word. But does a story exist before the words that tell it or does it come into being only clothed in its words–story and words as inseparable as our minds from our brains?
How can words be subtle and crude, nuanced and bold, gentle and rough? They combine and evolve making a myriad of meanings. How can they give precise instructions, express emotion, capture the beauty of a sunset? Our most precious possession, they have a universe of uses.
Have you sometimes wondered, as a writer, how the words you choose and set on the icy page carry meaning to your reader? The great modern philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, gave two very different accounts of how words are meaningful. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), he set out, in clear and logical detail, what one might call the common sense explanation, the picture theory of meaning. A word’s meaning is the object for which it stands. The word paper stands for this object in my hand, from which I am reading. The sentence, ‘the paper is in my hand’ is meaningful by picturing a possible fact in the world, the position (in) of the object (paper) and another object (hand).
Some years later Wittgenstein bumped into a colleague and asked about a mutual acquaintance. The man brushed his own chin. That gesture, in that part of that country at that time, meant that their mutual acquaintance was a ‘cuckold’. That is to say, the man’s wife was, unknown to her husband, being unfaithful to him. Oh, Oh! thought Wittgenstein, My theory of language must be wrong. How can a simple gesture picture such a complex set of facts in the world?
Wittgenstein then developed his very different theory of meaning, worked out and conveyed in his Philosophical Investigations (1953). The meaning of a word (or gesture) lies in its use – its role in an established human practice, what Wittgenstein called a ‘language-game’.
The Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations are as different in style as they are in ideas about language. The Tractatus is orderly and logical and spare with the beauty of a skeleton. The Philosophical Investigations is vivid, eclectic, full of metaphor and images with the deliberate repetitions of often approaching the same place from a variety of directions. Both books have been enormously influential.
Surely anyone interested in reading and writing must have wondered about how words are meaningful; have felt this to be mysterious. Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning, words standing for objects in the world, seems like common sense. However, deeper thinking finds the shortcomings in this. For example, we find meaning in words that do not stand for objects or for the relative position of objects. His second theory, that the meaning of words lies in their use in human practices is, for me, more convincing. It may take away some of the mystery attached to meaning but adds immensely to our understanding of human language.
Mal Leicester is Emeritus Professor of adult education, University of Nottingham. She has published many academic books and papers, several collections of children’s stories and a handful of poems. She is interested in the philosophy of language and Wittgenstein’s work influenced her PhD. At present Mal is working on Jane’s Journey, a memoir of her daughter’s remarkable life and death and she lives with her husband, Roger Twelvetrees, and their dogs in Hough on the Hill, Lincolnshire. A member of the Hub Writers’ Group, Sleaford Lincs, she enjoys their monthly challenge of writing tasks often outside her comfort zone.