Language Is So Unstable, You Don’t Even Know What I’m Talking About (Do You)


Hyperbole is a commonly used word that is actually a classical rhetorical device. We recognize it is as exaggeration for effect, which is distinct from by temperament, which no doubt leads to the tall tale, then the outright lie, then corruptions of the spirit, the flesh, and  the soul, and finally the fall of civilization as we were once proud and foolish enough to dream it.

I’m sorry. I got carried away.

Philosopher Gary Gutting wrote a piece for The New York Times’s The Stone series on issues in philosophy. It was a standard examination of the common disagreements about language between traditionalists and revisionists, those who conceive of language as a static system of structures, rules, and usages, and those who view it as a dynamic construct evolving over time. In admirable moderation, Gutting offered that it is both. As in many features of the world, it depends on the time frame and the context.

A few days ago, fellow philosopher Peter Ludlow offered as he thought that even Gutting’s description of what is dynamic counts as static for Ludlow.

Recent work in philosophy, psychology and artificial intelligence has suggested an alternative picture that rejects the idea that languages are stable abstract objects that we learn and then use.  According to the alternative “dynamic” picture, human languages are one-off things that we build “on the fly” on a conversation-by-conversation basis; we can call these one-off fleeting languages microlanguages.  Importantly, this picture rejects the idea that words are relatively stable things with fixed meanings that we come to learn. Rather, word meanings themselves are dynamic — they shift from microlanguage to microlanguage.

Now, you see, this is where I think the hyperbole comes in to play. And I’d like to convey that thought to you, but language being a “one-off thing,” at all times a “microlanguage” that does not consist of “stable abstract objects that we learn and then use,” you don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?

It is true that every use of a word, just like every event in the universe, is a one-off thing, a single instance of what is classifiable in abstraction. Every cow is an instance of cowness, even if cowness exists not as a Platonic form, but as a construct, in conception and verbal definition, from all the individual instances of actual cows we encounter in the world and continue to encounter. Just as Heraclitus observed that we cannot step into the same river twice, S.I. Hayakawa offered that “”no word ever has exactly the same meaning twice.” Still, ambling down the road, when you ask me to point you in the direction of the Mississippi, I know what river you mean, and when I ask you to hand me a pen, I end up with the instrument I need.

Says Ludlow,

Shifts of meaning do not merely occur between conversations; they also occur within conversations — in fact conversations are often designed to help this shifting take place.  That is, when we engage in conversation, much of what we say does not involve making claims about the world but involves instructing our communicative partners how to adjust word meanings for the purposes of our conversation.

For example, the linguist Chris Barker has observed that many of the utterances we make play the role of shifting the meaning of a term.  To illustrate, suppose I am thinking of applying for academic jobs and I tell my friend that I don’t care where I teach so long as the school is in a city.  My friend suggests that I apply to the University of Michigan and I reply “Ann Arbor is not a city.”  In doing this, I am not making a claim about the world so much as instructing my friend (for the purposes of our conversation) to adjust the meaning of “city” from official definitions to one in which places like Ann Arbor do not count as a cities.

None of this is all that remarkable, or new. Turning to classical rhetoric again, what Ludlow describes in the first paragraph above – “how to adjust word meanings for the purposes of our conversation” – is called distinctio. In a distinctio, the writer or speaker specifically denotes the meaning of a special term being used in the discussion as it is intended to be understood, very specifically, in that discussion. A common distinctio might begin, “For the purposes of this discussion, hyperbole should be understood to mean….”

In the second paragraph of Ludlow’s above, the clarification that for the speaker, in this context, “Ann Arbor is not a city,” is a casual, conversational form of metanoia. The process of definition, like the process of classification, like conceptualization itself, is as much a negative practice as it is a positive one. In order to denote all of the characteristics of what a thing or idea is, we also have to find ways to distinguish and mark off in distinction, the wide world of things that it is not. That is the way it works. We understand what a chair is, in part, by understanding that, and why, it is not a sofa. A metanoia is one manner of defining a term through a process of negation.

We have recognized these immediate, contextual, one-off needs for clarification and definition in language for a very long time. We have also recognized something else, and we practice it, with a relatively high level of success every day. In order to perform a distinctio, in order for the speaker in the example above to enact his metanoia clarifying, for his purposes, what constitutes a city and what does not – in order to do these things,  the other words he was using to explain himself, that both he and his interlocutor were using to conduct the exchange, had to be stable enough in meaning for the two to have a communication successful enough to perform the clarification about what a “city” should be understood to mean.

Know what I’m sayin’?


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