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Meaning Is Not ‘In the Head’

Meaning is a perennial problem in the philosophy of mind but seems to pose no problem for language users and linguists alike. The latter locate it as residing ‘in the head’ of speakers, and language seems to facilitate this view. However, on closer inspection, and when we compare how different languages use words to mean the same thing (synonymy), we become convinced that meaning is all around us, and words in different languages have different ways of carving out a specific meaning from the semantic universe that surrounds us in the world, differing from the physical environment only by mode of embodiment.

Y-H-B was reminded of these considerations when hearing the English word tie on the radio used to designate a match or contest where there is no winner and an equal score and translating it mentally into its Russian equivalent ничья (nich’ya). The Oxford English Dictionary Online gives as the primary meaning ‘that with which anything is tied; a cord, band, or the like, used for fastening something; a knot, noose, or ligature; a natural formation of this kind, a ligament’. The notion of being inextricably bound to each other is then implemented figuratively to give the meaning ‘equality between two or more competitors or the sides in a match or contest; a match in which this occurs, a drawn match; a dead heat’.

The Russian word ничья by contrast utilizes a different concept, literally that of ‘belonging to no one’, i. e., ‘[victory] belongs to no one’. Both the English and the Russian words denote exactly the same thing but do so in different modes of figuration. The semantic web in which the words are embedded is the same, but the construal in the two languages gives linguistic expression to that embeddedness in two entirely different ways that end up meaning the same thing nonetheless.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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