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.

6 responses so far

  • VMartin says:

    Let me say some words again. An IT of Slovak origin, my grasp of English is far from being perfect (be patient with me more than neodarwinists for whom bad preposition means you don't understand Darwin), but criticising neodarwinism and some procedural approaches in linguistics are my favorite. I have studied neither of them.

    The problem of nouns like "name", "king", "time", "future", "present" might consist all but in them, not in the patterns of their use. Having good English-Slovak dictionary I found everything about "name" you have written above and even more - "in the name of law" for instance.

    Now I don't know about the origin of "name", maybe Merriam-Webster is right, maybe not. About "king" we read that it comes from old-english cyning.
    But obviously the word misses semantic motivation it has in Greek or in Latin.
    It is connected with the words "beginning" or "be the first" (see "der Fürst" in German). In Greek archó means "beginning", "be the first", "to govern", archon is commander. In Latin principere means "to begin" and "to govern". Substantive is princeps is 1. first 2. commander.

    My point is now this: according to the mentioned approach to the word king in the sentences "The king of England" (or French if Russelists prefer) and "Michael Jackson, the king of pop" should be inerpreted from their pattern of use or metaphore. In another language their real meaning can be pulled out of them directly. Maybe Michael Jackson was aware of it singing: "She claims that that I am the one". ( "She said I am the first, I am the king", hehe.)

    Or even better: Reading Heidegger I hit on these sentences in his "Grundsätze des Denkens" (Wittgensteinists or young Carnapists should skip) : " Gegen-wart ist das, was uns entgegenwartet, wartet ob und wie wir uns ihm aussetzen oder uns dagegen verschliessen. Was uns uns entgegen-wartet, kommt auf uns zu, ist die recht gedachte Zu-kunft". Obviously the sentences translated into Slovak or English lost their meaning (there is not Pre-sent or Fu-ture, both words of Latin origin btw. having no connection to other words). Now the meaning of the sentences are pulled out from the meaning of words Gegenwart and Zukunft, not the vice-versa imho. I am persuaded that no one Englishman would ever came upon such sentences (maybe Whorf).

    So there is no doubt that the context of words is important for their meaning, but their meaning influence the context no less. I would be probably a dialectician in this issue.


    And last but not least: Slovakian Slavist Simon Ondrus has written that above mentioned example of archont and princeps is the evidence for the claim that "Der König" , "The king" are words of Old-Slavonic origin. In Merrimer-Webster we read that they also comes from "kuning" or "koning", but these words miss semantic motivation. But koning/kuning were used in Old-Slavonic as well and can be paired with words having the meaning "first", "beginning" - izkoni ba slovo in the letter of st. John etc...exactly like in Latin and Greek.

    • melodye says:

      Your English reads like my French. From the late 19th century, maybe.

      What do you mean by saying "In another language their real meaning can be pulled out of them directly" ?

      W/r your comment: "there is no doubt that the context of words is important for their meaning, but their meaning influence the context no less" --I'm not sure I'd state it that way, but I think the meaning of words (their semantics) is first learned vis a vis the world. It's actually an interesting question how you balance the question of meaning between world and words.

  • razib says:

    nice 2 c u come out of hibertarian melody 🙂 spring can't come too soon for me....

  • This paper and the related research


    looks relevant to this (time to brush up on your linear algebra ...)

    • melodye says:

      Oh goodness. I was good at linear algebra (whatever that means), but not conceptually. As I recall, it was like playing extended games of Sudokus. So I was terrific at solving matrices at record speed and absolutely crap at having any idea what it all meant. Maybe time to get a clue..

  • Avery Andrews says:

    The work of this person and his lab looks quite relevant to this way of thinking of about things.


    Their paper http://arxiv.org/abs/1003.4394 is somewhat intelligible to people who aren't too crap at linear algebra