J.L.Lemke On-line Office


The Gateway Glossary: Notes


Cautions concerning Word Meanings

Every dictionary or glossary embodies a theory of meaning. All are based on a salient property of natural languages: we can use them to talk about language and talk as phenomena. This is often called the meta-linguistic or meta-semiotic property of language; more properly we should speak of it as a meta-communicative property, because it is only in the context of situated action that meta-talk successfully happens. The self-referential system is not the abstract system of language as such, but the material system of people using language in real settings and situations. As a purely formal abstraction, the linguistic system falls prey to endless logical contradictions and paradoxes when we try to formalize its supposed self-referential properties (cf. Russell & Whitehead, Principia Mathematica; the undecidability theorems of Kurt Goedel; see further discussion in the Postscript chapter of my Textual Politics.)

In isolation words do not have definitive meanings; they can at best be said to have a range of potential meanings. These are the meanings we expect them to have in particular contexts. In a new context a word can mean anything, but we must learn how it is used in that context. For obvious historical reasons there tends to be a continuity of some kind in the use-meaning of words across standard contexts. In each register of a language, and to some degree across related registers, there are specific thematic formations  or semantic webs of interrelated meanings, which are realized typically by some standard sets of words and phrases in a given language (thematic formations are typical of communities of speakers and may be realized in different languages for multilingual communities). For a discussion and examples, see my Talking Science (chaps 2, 4) and Textual Politics (chaps 3, 4).

We may look at how words mean across a range of scales in an ecosocial system. At the scale of a brief utterance among a few people, a word can mean something relatively unpredictable; it can also condense many meanings, some of them attitudinal, but while its use-meaning in the moment is constituted in part by the uniqueness of that momentary situation, and by the unique short-term history that produced the moment, it also tends to be constrained by longer term factors: the shared history of participants, their individual experiences and educations in one or more language-using communities, their memories of other uses of the word on other occasions, their habits (idiosyncratic and cultural or subcultural) of deciding when two occasions are similar in relevant ways. We can abstract across larger communities of users and their texts (all occasions of talk or writing) to describe various intertextual patterns in the use of words across situation-types. One such description is in terms of register: some words are more likely to be used in some contexts; they realize or express meanings that are typical of those contexts. Another is in terms of thematic formations: the typical meanings and wordings are not just assignable probabilities in a paradigmatic way (this vs. that choice), but also fall into syntagmatic patterns (this agent typically enacts these processes under those circumstances with certain other participants in typical semantic roles, etc.). At still larger interactional or text scales there are genre-specific factors as well. At larger ecosocial scales there are phenomena of heteroglossia and usage change.

One simple view is that a word can stand for a range of meanings; which meaning it stands for now depends on contexts of prior and subsequent words/meanings, and expectations that are a function of setting and culture. The more we know, the better we can predict or narrow the range of meaning-potential for a word-in-context. Only however in the actual moment of production or interpretation (and taking into account enough time and action prior and subsequent) can we pin down the meaning the word has actually contributed to.

So this glossary is partly an informal effort to establish the typical kinds of meanings words have in their usual, or specialized contexts, and partly a more ambitious effort to provide some of the contextual information needed to refine one's expectations and make decisions about meaning-in-use. Words do not have precise meanings in and of themselves. Meanings are assigned to them, or more properly are made with them, by interpreters who bring relevant contextual (including intertextual) information to the task and who use interpretive procedures which work for communicative purposes in some community.