January 30th, 2011 / 3:46 pm
Craft Notes & Random

The Fallacy of Fixed Meaning

“…the  dogma that words come to us out of the past with proper meanings—fixed and immutable—is a fallacy. The only meanings a word has are those that the speakers of the language choose to give it.” The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing

This from Wikipedia’s entry on linguistic prescription:

In linguistics, prescription denotes normative practices on such aspects of language use as spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and syntax. It includes judgments on what usages are socially proper and politically correct. Its aims may be to establish a standard language, to teach what is perceived within a particular society to be “correct” forms of language, or to advise on effective communication. If usage preferences are conservative, prescription might (appear to) be resistant to language change; if the usage preferences are radical, prescription may produce neologisms.

Prescriptive approaches to language are often contrasted with descriptive linguistics, which observes and records how language is practiced. The basis of linguistic research is text (corpus) analysis and field studies; yet description includes each researcher’s observations of his and her (own) language usage. Despite apparent opposition, prescription and description (how language should be used, and how language is used) exist in a complementary dynamic tension of mutual linguistic support.

Again, from Kane in Oxford: “Words, then, are far from being tokens of fixed and permanent value. They are like living things, complex, many-sided, and responsive to pressures from their environment. They must be handled with care.”

I love the freedom of language, neologisms, mutability–moments that allow for creative energy. I also love grammar, rules, usages that make the reading experience universal. Maybe that’s why I write poems and edit. This is a political topic, to be sure, but it’s definitely a matter of craft as well.

Where, as a writer, do you think should be and is [of how language is used] meet?

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  1. NLY

      In a very real sense, the stricter notions of language arise out of the mutable nature of language: language defines itself around conveyance, and what allows for shifts in structure, neologists, and incremental differences, is the presence of meaning. The evolution of language is the (tacit or otherwise) acknowledgment of meaning, and the difference between saying “language can be anything” and “language is anything” would be that the former statement is directly concerned with what signifies.

      To think of it in another way, why a poem or work can defy the ‘laws’ of language and still be called language is that it continues to mean; the capacity for meaning makes it language; this fact, however, does not discount the notion of ‘rules’ to language: what we think of as rules are the ways we currently have which mean most efficiently, and most clearly. The reason we bother enforcing them, or paying attention to them, is that most ways of straying from them or ignoring them wind up being less efficient, nuanced, or (as a result) meaningful. The ones which are adopted as formal or informal modes of speech and expression are the ones which continue or advance this capacity for efficiency and nuance. As a result, the evolution of language often manifests as a kind of balancing act between the more efficient (“lol”) and the more nuanced (the ways in which colons/semi-colons developed to allow you to alternately hone or further meanings, while sometimes functionally destroying a sentence as it is otherwise understood), with an excess of either distorting the functions of language.

      I desperately need to piss and as a result this is condensed and hasty.

  2. bobby alter

      as a token ling guy I can’t help but clarify a couple things– first it should be noted that 0% of working linguists today work under a prescriptivist framework. Rather prescriptivism has been opened up by linguistics and anthropology since the end of structuralist days as an area open to political analysis. And yes, as you note it is a political issue to a crucial extent. When someone prescribes the use of “whom” to you where you just like anyone else would use “who,” that individual is embodying any number of hegemonic positions in relation to your own linguistic competence. The use of politics in language use (I’m partial to Bordieu’s term: the “symbolic economy” RE: cultural capital) may seem to be merely at the level of grammatical conventions but is certainly the same force which prohibits individuals who possess non-hegemonic forms of speaking from certain jobs, standardized tests, etc. In terms of craft, though, it might be more useful to consider the notion of speech act, that is, the conditions for which any utterance is successful when communicated. I would say that as writers this should be the prized mechanism for creativity and experimentation: the ability to manipulate what speech act theorists and language philosophers (minus Witt.) have called “felicity” in creative speech. These socially-constituted “rules” when used in creative speech or writing are more akin to locally defined types of genre than to specific rules in which power structures are manifest.

      And of course throughout the history of European languages some of the most important driving forces in language change have come from writers.

  3. nick demske

      a political topic for sure…just posting this is a sort of activism, and one I’m pleased to see. I feel many language myths–but this one in particular–are having really subtly destructive effects on our culture. Whenever any grammarian tries to correct a usage I employ, I always respond “Language is descriptive, not prescriptive.” Perhaps an overstatement of the argument to some, but usually an effective one for me. It’s a message that I feel young people especially really need to hear and, in my experience, feel empowered by. For a while, my little cousin had as her myspace or facebook quote or something “Language is descriptive, not prescriptive.” Now that’s some evolution right there.

      Thanks for the post.