Sunday, January 3, 2010

Meaning Is A Bit Mysterious...

I love iconoclasts, and writer Edmund Blair Bolles is playing the linguistic iconoclast at his intriguing blog Babel's Dawn (a blog about the origins of speech) by posing 10 Hypotheses About Language and Thought. Here are the ten, but you'll have to click through to Bolles' page to read his complete thoughts. Money Quote:

For most people meaning is a bit mysterious. It seems to be some kind of content that is passed from speaker to listener, but all sorts of paradoxes appear when you investigate that idea closely. Meaning becomes as mysterious as mind. On this blog, the meaning of words comes from their ability to pilot the attention of both the speaker and listener... It occurs to me that I’m in a different position. I don’t have a mysterious definition of meaning, so I ought to just lay out a series of hypotheses about how this non-mysterious power arose, and suggest what might be sought in order to disprove the hypothesis. So here is my list of what I’d like to see tested.

  1. All apes perceive well enough to understand language at the single-word level.
  2. Apes can direct one another’s attention.
  3. The critical difference between apes and humans at the single-word level is that humans are motivated to share attention in a triangle of speaker, listener, and topic.
  4. We have evolved special mechanisms that give us more control over our powers of attention.
  5. The power to attend to absent things (remembered or imaginary things) is not exclusive to humans but is probably much more common to them and we probably have special brain mechanisms that facilitate it.
  6. The ability to speak in metaphors came after speech was established because metaphors require an ability to pay attention to two things at once—the perceivable world the metaphors point to, and the invisible world the metaphor is about.
  7. Informal abstractions are metaphors whose meaning has been lost.
  8. Speech contracts came late and gain strength through ritual.
  9. Mysterious symbols are special and came even later.
  10. Logical or mathematical symbols came even later, yet rest on very old powers.
Now go read his blog and think deeply about his questions...

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