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If You Take my Meaning


joigus
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Back in 2010 I wrote this brief essay on language and meaning. Please bear with me, as I wrote it back when I was still learning to make my English more accurate and efficient at conveying meaning. So it's perhaps peppered with cliches, and other stylistic sins.

And, curiously enough, meaning is all it's about. My preoccupation with meaning. Is it, in the last analysis, something unreachable? Do we have to make do with an internal 'prop', so that we can keep communicating?

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Language is complicated not because of its structure, which after all is just a code, like C++, Thai or Spanish, but because of the fact that the people using it are not machines, but something infinitely more complex: social biological machines.


I think it goes more or less like this:
They assume you mean something whenever you say something and they respond accordingly. What you say is just a piece of input for the other person to think about and then say something else; that is what makes language complicated, the social animal behind the language!
Through these cycles of "listen, think and say," we all miss the "listen" part every now and then; other times we miss the "think" part too, and answer only with messages we capture from the social environment. Judiciously coordinating the thinking and the listening is no small task. Nobody misses the say. Oh boy, we all want to have a say, don't we?


The Greeks used the term paradoxa to mean something that is outside the realm of what you can understand with the intellectual tools you have at hand. Whenever language is involved, I'm always reminded of the two-generals paradox: Two generals are camped near a city they are poised to attack the next morning, with their armies and all. In order to synchronize their efforts, one of them sends a messenger so the other general will know the precise time that the attack is meant to be deployed. But mind you, it is essential that success or failure of this informative mission is confirmed by the message's recipient. You see what the problem is: an unending loop of messages and counter-messages is generated, and the whole thing is never ascertained, because: did the other one get my message?

What I'm interested in here is meaning. Does anyone among you share this preoccupation with language that, if you're serious about it, it has the potential to send you into an infinite loop of ultimately un-discernible layers of meaning? Like a monumental chess game played backwards: What was the meaning of the previous sentence?

From a practical point of view, speakers of a language have to impose some kind of cutting-off mechanism, so that the sentence doesn't become an un-decipherable sequence. So perhaps, in a sense, we make meaning as we go along.

From what I remember of philosophy, Wittgenstein was one of the great thinkers on the topic, so any pointers to what he had to say about this would be welcome. Also, any own reflections that you may have to offer.

Yours truly,

Joigus

PS: As back then, I dedicate this to Katie, the American English teacher who taught me that 'toast' and 'input' are uncountable nouns. I wonder what's become of her.

Edited by joigus
stylistic touch
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1 hour ago, joigus said:

PS: As back then, I dedicate this to Katie, the American English teacher

What I'm interested in here is meaning.

Well Katie did an excellent makeover on your English.

 

I'm tempted to be a bit facetious, "What do you mean ?"

:)

Actually I'm not sure what this thread is about, but I'd like to add that there is a big difference between 'meaning' and 'information' in that meaning usually includes things like implications and connections to many other factors and pieces of information.

 

 

Edited by studiot
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12 minutes ago, studiot said:

I'm tempted to be a bit facetious, "What do you mean ?"

:D 

13 minutes ago, studiot said:

Actually I'm not sure what this thread is about, but I'd like to add that there is a big difference between 'meaning' and 'information' in that meaning usually includes things like implications and connections to many other factors and pieces of information.

Ah. That sounds interesting. Meaning has a bunch of implications that go beyond simple (digitised, perhaps?) information.

Thanks for the contribution.

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I try to understand how the two generals paradox relates specifically to language and at all to meaning. Isn't it a general communication issue, such as e.g. synchronization of databases update?

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30 minutes ago, joigus said:

:D 

Ah. That sounds interesting. Meaning has a bunch of implications that go beyond simple (digitised, perhaps?) information.

Thanks for the contribution.

The information could be, but doesn't have to be, digital.

Take for instance the infectious disease nautical flag.

Quote

In years gone by, editions of the International Code of Signals (ICOS) did contain signals for vessels that suspected they harbored, or could be harboring, contagious diseases. In Brown's 1916 edition the L (Lima) flag (black and yellow squares) signified 'I have or had some dangerous, infectious disease on board.

The (non digital) information conveyed is clear in the quote.

"I have or had some dangerous, infectious disease on board"

However many implications (meanings) could be imputed to the flying of this flag; here are a few

Keep away

I require (medical) assistance

The flag is false and my ship is a fireship, packed with explosive.

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Words from the speaker are like a bucket of paint being thrown toward us. The receiver or listener is then a screen through which that paint passes. Each screen differs based on innate abilities and past experience, and it’s only after being screened that the listener observes the splatter pattern and colors in an attempt to decipher what the painter threw. 

Plato’s allegory of the cave. We don’t ever see the object directly, only the shadow it casts into our minds.

Edited by iNow
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2 hours ago, joigus said:

Back in 2010 I wrote this brief essay on language and meaning. Please bear with me, as I wrote it back when I was still learning to make my English more accurate and efficient at conveying meaning. So it's perhaps peppered with cliches, and other stylistic sins.

And, curiously enough, meaning is all it's about. My preoccupation with meaning. Is it, in the last analysis, something unreachable? Do we have to make do with an internal 'prop', so that we can keep communicating?

Language doesn't suffer a meaning deficit until we write it down.

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Meaning is in our head. Language is one of imperfect tools to communicate it.

"Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana." [Oettinger]

Edited by Genady
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Very interesting comments. Thank you all for your feedback.

18 minutes ago, Genady said:

Meaning is in our head. Language is one of imperfect tools to communicate it.

 

I even wonder if meaning (or perhaps information) is in our heads, even.

I have the picture of a cat in my head.

I say 'cat.'

Immediately, a picture of a cat is conjured up in your head.

Does information (or meaning, as the case may be) transcend even such deeply ingrained concepts as locality?

Was something there from the very beginning that play the role of ultimate congruences, against which we must contrast our conceptions?

In the case of a cat, to me, it's very clear that: No, cats appeared historically. They are contingent.

I mean something more primitive, like the rules of logic, abstract structures. Something acting, as it were, like a solid material that gives consistence to our fleeting impressions. A cat, after all, is a fleeting impression.

50 minutes ago, iNow said:

Plato’s allegory of the cave. We don’t ever see the object directly, only the shadow it casts into our minds.

I was more trying to Wittgenstein the subject, but that's a good departing point: Plato.

So what are the shadows the cast of?

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Like INow and Genady, I suspect the problem is the many levels of 'translation'.
The ideas have to be translated to language in one person's brain, according to his/her own personal cipher.
This language then  has to be translated back into ideas by the listener/reader, according to his/her  own, totally different  cipher.

And that is when only two people are involved in the exchange of ideas.
I would imagine an exponential increase in difficulty when more people are involved.

When you learned English, Joigus, did you first translate the English language to your native Spanish, before further translation to 'ideas' ? 
( both you, and your teacher did a great job, by the way )
I have been speaking English for ovr 50 years, but to this day, when I perform simple math operations ( +,-,/,* ) in my head, I do so in my native Italian.
( always thought that was a little weird )

Edited by MigL
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4 hours ago, joigus said:

Does anyone among you share this preoccupation with language that, if you're serious about it, it has the potential to send you into an infinite loop of ultimately un-discernible layers of meaning?

Not really. It could become that, if we were serious about it --- but we're not. If anything, we tend to hear less of the message than is being sent, rather than more. If there are too many words, we simply stop listening. If it's too complicated, we peel away the intellectual parts and hear only what makes us happy or angry, that reinforces what we already believe, or reinforces what we think of the sender.

The generals were not paralyzed into inaction - ever; not even if the messenger was shot en route (poor Patsy will have died in vain after all). They did attack - and if one was fifteen minutes late, that could have unintended consequences for good or ill.

Language can be, and sometimes must be very precise, as when we need to convey a formula for a drug or explosive or chocolate chip cookie, but most of the time, we don't need precision. Most of the time, we can get by with sloppy speech, because we share enough environment, culture and experience to recognize the other person's references.  

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43 minutes ago, joigus said:

 

In the case of a cat, to me, it's very clear that: No, cats appeared historically. They are contingent.

I mean something more primitive, like the rules of logic, abstract structures. Something acting, as it were, like a solid material that gives consistence to our fleeting impressions. A cat, after all, is a fleeting impression.

 

I suspect one way we come to understand meaning is when isolated sentences present as ambiguous, like "The bark was painful." Someone rubbed against a rough tree, or a dog's vocalization conveyed its distress?  To find meaning we seek a context that we share with the speaker.

When we read a story, we tend to be fascinated by ambiguity.  Like the conclusion of The Lady or the Tiger.  The short story ends at this point when a man has either chosen a door behind which waits a tiger or a beautiful woman. His lover, the princess, has indicated which door he should choose, but it’s up to the reader to decide if she wants him alive and married to another woman, or is jealous enough to prefer his death.  Meaning, for humans, is interesting when we are made uncertain as to what a word or gesture signifies in another person's mind - what was the true motivation of the princess's gesture towards one of the doors?

There does seem to be an underlying logic that appears in all human languages, which clarifies meaning and removes ambiguity from ordinary sentences.  When I say "my house is yellow," any human listener infers that I am speaking of the exterior of my house, not its interior walls.  

 

 

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In the real life conversations, in many situations, language only connects knowledge of one person to that of another, without actually passing much information. Here is an example (from Widdowson) of an extremely short conversation, which it nevertheless sufficient for both the participants and the readers to get the whole meaning:

HER: That’s the telephone.

HIM: I’m in the bath.

HER: OK.

The meaning behind this exchange is: 

She makes a request of him to perform action - He states reason why he cannot comply with request - She accepts reason.

Otherwise, these are just three unrelated statements.

 

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1 hour ago, joigus said:

Was something there from the very beginning that play the role of ultimate congruences, against which we must contrast our conceptions?

The web of neural connections in our brains. Humans are all made very similarly, just as all crows are similar and can communicate with one another. Incubation and infancy are similar for all of us: if we survive to language-acquisition, it's usually because mature caregivers talk to us and respond to us. So we learn their words for the physical aspects of our surroundings, and their method of relating to those physical realities. Our parents share an environment; interact with one another, conduct business and rituals together: they all share frames of reference, which we inherit. Later on, we may change locales, social contacts, beliefs and attitudes, but by then we have the tools and skills to adapt our communication style. The later in life a relocation takes place, the more difficult it is to pick up nuances of meaning in a new environment, the more we must rely on physical realities, rather than esoteric references.

For example, I have a pretty good which demographic would get my Patsy reference above - to most of the world, it would mean nothing. Cat, OTH, is fairly universal.  

And i have to keep editing, because every typing mistake alters the meaning i wished to convey.

Edited by Peterkin
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3 hours ago, dimreepr said:

Language doesn't suffer a meaning deficit until we write it down.

Could you, please, elaborate? I'm prepared to accept that until we commit what we think to either paper, screen, or air --speech--, we're still not in the realm of meaning. It's only when there are at least two thinking agents that the question of meaning really arises. Is that anything like what you mean? There I go again.

Thanks everybody for your contributions. I'll be reflecting on them ASAP.

2 hours ago, MigL said:

When you learned English, Joigus, did you first translate the English language to your native Spanish, before further translation to 'ideas' ? 
( both you, and your teacher did a great job, by the way )
I have been speaking English for ovr 50 years, but to this day, when I perform simple math operations ( +,-,/,* ) in my head, I do so in my native Italian.
( always thought that was a little weird )

Interesting points here. Thank you.

At first I translated, of course; but soon I realised that I'd better make it dynamic, emotionally involved, and intellectually involved, or else I would never acquire the language. Language needs to be a tool. Otherwise it's like learning lists, and logical trees, with no connection to any level of experience. And, as I've pointed out before in these forums, the brain is a very costly organ in energetic terms. Your brain is not going to commit.

I do have a tendency to thinks maths in Spanish, but at some point I started forcing myself to do it in English. Now I can do it, although not as dexterously as in my mother tongue, of course. Maths in Italian must sound really charming.

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It turns out that their are at least four domains of studying meaning in linguistics:

syntax, meaning of a sentence;

semantics, meaning of words;

pragmatics, meaning of a message;

discourse, meaning of an exchange.

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Much of language acquisition and development is un- or sub-conscious. I worked with a young doctor once who had recently come from Poland. She had learned English before she emigrated and continued to study it after she settle in Canada. She told me she felt at a disadvantage because she would always have to translate in her head before pronouncing an English sentence. One day, she answered a question so promptly that I asked, "How was that in Polish?" She had to stop, think and translate.

What we do daily, the practical things we communicate about for work, food shopping, transportation, banking, etc. become second nature very quickly. You might not even notice that you're thinking in a foreign language, and that you had accumulated a whole new non-congruent vocabulary of all the things and activities that had been unfamiliar in your previous life. That's why older immigrants mix English words with their native speech.

It's the abstractions and idioms that are difficult to formulate and to understand - partly because of the semantic aspect, but mainly because of the cultural shorthand for assumptions, references and associations that native speakers pick up without even knowing that these expressions make no objective sense to an outsider. 

 

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Talking about meaning in language (rather than language acquisition / learning), here is a message that syntactically and semantically can have at least three different meanings, but I am quite sure that we all agree on one when we see it on a street:

2022-01-25.jpg.18c07cd7242c9e0672a1b8318b46d201.jpg

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6 hours ago, Peterkin said:

Not really. It could become that, if we were serious about it --- but we're not. If anything, we tend to hear less of the message than is being sent, rather than more. If there are too many words, we simply stop listening. If it's too complicated, we peel away the intellectual parts and hear only what makes us happy or angry, that reinforces what we already believe, or reinforces what we think of the sender.

I see your point. I didn't mean being serious when using it. I know real life speech is very much the way you depicted it in your @Genady depicted it in their example, which is a perfect example of pragmatics at work. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Otherwise daily conversation would be unsufferable. When I said "being serious" I meant it philosophically/scientifically.

Edited: Sorry. It was @Genady who mentioned pragmatics, and gave the example.

Edited by joigus
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51 minutes ago, Genady said:

Talking about meaning in language (rather than language acquisition / learning), here is a message that syntactically and semantically can have at least three different meanings, but I am quite sure that we all agree on one when we see it on a street:

2022-01-25.jpg.18c07cd7242c9e0672a1b8318b46d201.jpg

Only because it's grammatically incorrect.

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2 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

Only because it's grammatically incorrect.

True. It has three different meanings because it is grammatically incorrect. However, we interpret it and pick one meaning in spite of it being grammatically incorrect. 

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2 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

By 'we', you mean those familiar with the concept and practice of assisted temporary automobile storage. 

Right, "we, the people". These people. Yes, this is my point.

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13 hours ago, joigus said:

What I'm interested in here is meaning. Does anyone among you share this preoccupation with language that, if you're serious about it, it has the potential to send you into an infinite loop of ultimately un-discernible layers of meaning? Like a monumental chess game played backwards: What was the meaning of the previous sentence?

Oh my!! Definitely.  I'm glad to find out I am not the only one.

When I drive on US highways I am constantly reminded of the question of meaning because of the road sign that says "lane ends merge left."  I cannot decide if this means that the lane I am in is ending and I am instructed to merge to the left, or if it simply means that the two lanes are merging in a leftward direction.  This bothers me!

More significantly, I once had a job of helping my boss prepare for quarterly meetings with a very volatile leader.  I would spend days struggling to 'spin' the presentation in a way that would assure that the volatile leader would receive the meaning we wished to convey.

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