Archive for: February, 2011

Polysemy has never been so lovely

Feb 21 2011 Published by under From the Melodye Files

Yesterday, a famous linguist in construction grammar sent me the following Radiolab video:

Words are Beautiful

...Which was a powerful and joyful experience.

This prompted me to send her an excerpt of a paper I wrote with Prof Plum on how words mean (and also on metaphor):

The kinds of expectations that people build up about words in listening and reading may have an important part to play in their conceptualisation of those words. Words are often thought of as being abstractions of objects and events in the world, but defining a simple relation between the thing being represented and the label that represents it is problematic (Murphy, 2002). Indeed, it has been argued that the meanings of words are better understood in relation to their patterns of use, rather than to the things in the world they appear to represent (Wittgenstein, 1953). When we talk about names, for example, we say things like ‘did you catch her name’, ‘his name is mud’, ‘they were called by name’, ‘she made a name for herself’, and so on. From this perspective, a ‘name’ is not only a word ‘by which something is called or known’, as the dictionary designates, but also a thing to be had, caught, muddied, cleared, called, and made. People ‘go by names’, they ‘throw names around’, they hope to see their ‘name in lights’, and on this view, the meaning of ‘name’ is inextricable from its patterns of use: from the words it co-occurs with and the words that modify it, and the effect that these have on the way that people think about ‘name’.

These kinds of co-occurrence patterns offer a rich and readily available source of information for anyone learning to understand the world and the way that language relates to it, and there is considerable evidence to support the idea that people are sensitive to this information. Our suggestion is that people’s understanding of the patterns of use associated with motion words actually plays an important part in shaping their understanding of them. For instance, saying that time can ‘run out’ or ‘fly by’ influences what we understand time to be in the first place, because thinking about time in this way involves processes shared with other things that ‘run out’, ‘fly by’, or ‘stand still’ (Slobin, 1996). In a sense, the mind works metaphorically, associating words with other words that are used in similar ways.

If understanding results (at least in part) from predictive processes and the expectations produced by patterns of co-occurrence, then when we use words in similar ways they ought to become more closely aligned in meaning. This would suggest that saying literally ‘the man runs by’, fictively ‘the road runs along the river’, and figuratively ‘time runs out’, should, as a result of this common pattern of usage, more closely align our notions of how space and time operate. Accordingly, we suggest that the similar ways in which people talk about motion through space and motion through time is an important part of their common underlying conceptualisation." (Ramscar, Matlock & Dye, 2010)

...The writing of which was inspired by Wittgenstein, and also by the great Ira Allen, who has some wonderful leads to literary science writing.  Thanks also to Seth, who looks just like a young Foucault (and is almost certainly just as clever).

Hope you are having a nice winter, folks.

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